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Sexual Harassment—What Is It?

With the wide range of media stories about famous men losing their jobs because of sexual harassment, you may ask yourself, “What is sexual harassment, anyhow?” Stories of sexual harassment are everywhere these days, but to date they have been largely confined to men as the perpetrators and females as their victims. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

The offense may be hard to identify in its milder forms. If your supervisor says, “You look pretty today!” and the overtures do not escalate, is that borderline harassment? Probably not. But when compliments become more obvious, the incidents are usually preparatory.  Borderline compliments and innuendos are the hallmarks of the sexual harassment in progress.

Slippery Slope

The slippery slope of sexual harassment usually begins with questions such as, “I see you’re wearing a wedding ring.” ”How long have you been married?” “How do you like married life?” Violators also have a tendency to offer personal revelations about themselves that are inappropriate to a work setting.

Many women feel flattered to be offered such private information, little realizing that it’s part of a setup. The next step may be seemingly innocent touches that qualify as borderline violations. Generally, any intimate moves that embarrass or anger women fall into this category. Most men are cautious at first, testing the waters to see how safe it is to proceed.

The next step usually involves touching the woman’s skin or her garments. If permitted, the man may touch her hands, arms or face. He may, seemly by accident, brush against a woman’s breasts. He may jokingly pinch her bottom, acting as though it’s all in fun. If the move makes a woman uncomfortable, embarrassed or angry, the chances are it’s sexual harassment. Ordinarily, people are quite aware of their body language. How many women would brush against a man’s groin by accident? Or pinch his bottom as a joke?

If the man’s intentions haven’t been thwarted to this point, what may follow are concrete suggestions such as, “Would you like to go out for a drink after work?” If the man has a private office with a closed door, he may move in for greater intimacy, offering seductive comments like, “Ever since I met you, I think about you all the time.” Shouldn’t the woman be complimented? The hints about future sexual activity may still be subtle.

Initial overtures that appear innocent slowly graduate to more obvious moves. It may all start with good-humored comments about a woman’s attractive appearance. Next, a man may comment on her cleavage. If she objects, the man is likely to say, “Can’t you take a joke?”

Stopping Aggression

The only way to stop development of a slippery slope aggression is confrontation, frank and blunt. The woman who has rejected a man’s attention openly is likely to discourage further transgressions.

Women are asking for trouble if they try to sidestep the perpetrator’s overtures smilingly or subtly, even though they feel exposed and embarrassed. Boundary violations must be confronted for what they are. Humor or good-naturedness have no place in these scenarios. Women’s words and body language should convey outright rejection.

A woman’s comments should be forthright from the start. “I don’t think questions like that are appropriate here.” Unless the man has the hide of a rhinoceros, his response is likely to be feigned innocence under the pretense that anything he has said or done was in the spirit of good fun and friendship.

A man fingering the garment of a prospective victim is most likely to be discouraged by a firm, “Don’t touch me.” He will deny any malicious intent, but both parties know he’s play-acting. Entreating the man to stop by the use of feminine wiles is only likely to aggravate the problem. After all, dominance is the name of the game in sexual aggression. Acting helpless makes the man feel powerful and usually causes the problem to worsen. It’s perfectly appropriate to say,“If you touch me one more time, I’ll report you for sexual harassment.” These days, men know what that means.

Extreme Boundary Violations

Occasionally, the harassment  starts in more extreme forms. Usually, it’s not the first time for the perpetrator. The man who finds himself alone with a victim may use physical measures on the woman to dominate her—kissing her without permission, holding her, fondling her breasts or other body parts. At this point and beyond, his acts qualify as overt sexual assault.

Boundary violations have the purpose of establishing the dominance and superiority of the violator and make the victim feel submissive. They are harmful or potentially harmful to the victim’s welfare and feeling of autonomy.

Other Boundary Violations

Boundary violations can be financial—lending or giving money to a female co-worker, especially if she hasn’t requested it. Male supervisors should not engage in dual relationships with female employees in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm. A supervisor enters into a dual relationship when he acts as an advisor about one’s personal life, hires a woman to do “outside” work, or attempts to become a personal friend, teacher, or intimate partner.

Sequence of Moves

Psychologists Gabbard and Simon have pointed out a common sequence of sexual harassment. First, it involves a transition from last-name to first-name basis. The personal disclosures interrupt the business at  hand.  This is followed by some body contact—pats on the shoulder, massages, hugs. Trips outside the work setting are likely to follow: lunch dates, sometimes with alcoholic beverages, then dinner. This may be followed by attendance at the movies or other social events. The culminating event is sexual intercourse.

Conclusion

Sexual misconduct usually begins with relatively minor boundary violations, which, if not stopped, show a crescendo pattern of increasing intrusion into the victim’s space that culminates in sexual contact. A direct shift from talking to intercourse is quite rare; the “slippery slope” is the characteristic scenario.