We’re hearing a lot about sexual harassment these days with the demise of media people like Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, but instead of getting caught up in the drama of it all, let’s focus on what the law says and on developing better relationships.
The fundamental problem we’re facing here is the sad fact that too many men still think they can abuse women. They get into positions of power and think they’re free to treat women as sex toys. Thankfully, we live in a society that embraces equality before the law and upholds a woman’s right to her own body, her work, and her dignity. We just need to know how to properly discern the difference between sexual harassment and normal sexual behavior.
Too often women overreact to how men behave in the workplace. This only muddies the waters. They run to extremes and interpret nearly anything a man says as abusive. A man tells a woman, “You have beautiful legs,” and she automatically complains to HR about sexual harassment. The man is left stunned. He just thought her legs looked great and assumed she’d appreciate the compliment. That’s perfectly harmless, and given that most women like to be admired, we don’t want men to stop giving compliments.
Feminists too often fuel this problem because they fail to understand that men are men, women are women, and sexual tension between them is natural. No denial or denigration of basic human nature is going to change that. Women who adore masculinity will applaud it, as will men who love femininity. The dance between the two is beautiful and exciting, not something to fear.
We Should All Know the Law
Given the ongoing propensity for some men to treat women as sex objects and the rush to slam people with unfair sexual harassment charges, what’s needed is a proper understanding of the law. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, no evidence supports 54 percent of such allegations, and they’re dropped. The important thing for women to do in any situation is to think through what is really happening, not just fly off half-cocked thinking they’re being abused when they’re really not—or vice versa, thinking what’s happening to them is normal when it’s actually wrong. They need to know the law, as do men. Here’s what the law actually says:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:
The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome.
A note to men on this last point: Just because a woman is flirty doesn’t mean your advances are welcome. It will help men gain clarity if women stop flirting, but, let’s face it, men can assume a woman is flirting when she’s not, and sometimes men misread social cues. Bottom line is, if a woman considers an advance unwelcome, it is.
Let’s break this down a little further: Sexual harassment can be verbal, such as spreading rumors about people having sex. This is interesting because women can be accused of sexually harassing other women, so be careful when you gossip. Verbal harassment also includes making sexual remarks, telling sexual jokes, making comments about people’s bodies, and unwelcome flirting. Then harassment can be physical (touching, flashing, or showing any kind of sexual arousal in the presence of another person), or visual (e.g., putting up naked pictures).
There are two types of sexual harassment: 1) Quid pro quo—offering preferential treatment in return for a sexual favor. 2) A hostile work environment—when sexual harassment as defined above makes people feel unsafe or prevents them from opportunities. This harassment doesn’t need to involve actual threats or promises.
The Law Is Complicated, So Take It in Whole
Clearly sexual harassment is quite complicated, but it’s not entirely subjective. We need to measure our perceptions against the law in its entirety.
If a man makes an off-handed sexual joke in my hearing and I’m offended, does this immediately mean it’s sexual harassment? Did it affect my work? Did it create a hostile or even offensive work environment? If it’s just an off-the-cuff remark, it would be difficult to make the case that my job was affected or my whole environment was hostile. In these cases, I should just tell the guy to stop it and leave it at that.
On the flip side, if a woman is uncomfortable with your jokes or attentions, back off. Men don’t have the right to violate a woman in any way, not for any reason, and if they do, they could be facing a much-deserved sexual harassment charge.
Prevention Isn’t the Whole Story At All
Given what we see here, we should ask, is there anything a woman can do to prevent being sexually harassed at work? She can minimize her risks, but I don’t think she can do a whole lot to actually prevent sexual harassment. Dressing more conservatively, for instance, won’t help a woman when a man calls her into his office and puts his hands on her shoulders in a feint at camaraderie, then slides them down to her breasts. Or when he asks her to bend over so he can get off on her curves.
Most sexual abuse, from rape to harassment, isn’t a response to how a woman looks. It’s merely that she’s a woman. Just consider how women are treated in countries where they are covered in a burka. They’re still raped, mistreated, abused, and harassed.
When I worked as a reporter covering the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, many of the harassment cases that came across my desk could not have been prevented aside from the women fleeing the office (some did!). They weren’t dressing like harlots. They weren’t flirting. They tried to stop it immediately, but by that point the harassment had occurred.
Victims can’t always prevent the crime. If they could, no women would be raped, abused, assaulted, or harassed. But they are, and it’s not because they have failed to be strong women or did something to tempt the man. A criminal—and that’s what he is—acted because he was seduced by his own ego, not by her sexuality.
Let’s be honest, the best prevention is for men to exercise self-control. Women aren’t like drug addicts, meaning that if they don’t buy the drugs, the drug dealers would disappear. Sexual harassment is more like rape. Women aren’t doing anything to make it happen, but like with rape, women can do some things to reduce risks and cut down on the number of false allegations against men.
What Women Can Do
First, be informed of what real sexual harassment is in a legal sense and what it is not. If you encounter it, report it immediately. If you choose not to because of fear, at least keep records in case you need them in the future.
Second, be circumspect about what position you put yourself in. If you don’t have to be alone with a man, don’t. That includes online. Sexual harassment can happen there too. Just ask all the women who’ve been emailed “Send me a nude pic,” or something similar. While this won’t prevent some harassment, it will at least cut down on the possibility. I say this recognizing that sometimes you have to be alone with a man to do your job. But, as much as you can, avoid it.
Third, if you do choose to play the game of quid pro quo, or are willing to open yourself up to sexual relationships in the office (and yes, flirting and how we dress is part of that), know what you’re getting into. Get ready for the rough and tumble of “Game of Thrones.” You might win, but you might end up losing everything.
Remember, even if you consent, it can still be considered sexual harassment. While sexual harassment requires advances to be “unwelcome,” the context of unequal power comes into play. A woman might consent because she feels she has no choice even if the man has not made any promises or threats. There can be an implicit threat, and her consent can be coerced and therefore “unwelcome.” This is tricky and hard to prove in court, but it’s there and should be kept in mind.
Fourth, be friendly and be kind. Don’t shut yourself off from men because you’re afraid of how they will perceive you. Sometimes men think a kind word from you is flirtatious. It’s not. But this fear of misunderstanding should not cause women to become cold and silent in the workplace.
Instead, be nice, be yourself, and if a man steps out of line, tell him or ignore it (the first time). If it escalates, take action with your supervisor or at least tell someone in case you have to take action later.
Fifth, don’t judge people according to unrealistic standards that have nothing to do with sexual harassment. Don’t accuse men of abuse when they’re just being sexual creatures—just as women are. Use fairness, common sense, and respect when evaluating what someone does or says. Show some grace and think the best of others before assuming the worst.
I make this point cautiously, of course. If your co-worker grabs you and kisses you when you didn’t want him to, that is pretty clear-cut. But if a couple of guys are laughing about something sexual, or a man compliments you about your looks, or even says something off-handedly critical that isn’t particularly demeaning but just annoying, take that into account. Talk to him as a rational human being if it really bothers you and ask him to stop. Don’t accuse him of harassment and certainly don’t file it away as ammunition for the future.
The Bottom Line Is
We need laws to keep society civil, but we also need a keen sense of personal responsibility and grace. Men, if you don’t want to be accused of sexual harassment, know the law and take responsibility for your own actions: Don’t be alone with women, don’t hit on them, don’t touch them, and even if they consent, be very careful.
Finally, we need to remember that we’re human beings, not tools. Life is precious. Life is short. Life is much more fulfilling when we have flourishing relationships built on trust. That can’t happen when men and women are hunkering down and taking shots at each other. It can’t happen when people are only out to feed their egos, become famous, and line their pockets, not caring who gets hurt. In an atmosphere of greed, pride, and selfishness, abuse and cruelty thrive.
If we really want to prevent sexual harassment, we need to see and treat people as valuable human beings made in God’s image. They’re not just a means to your end. They are the end. They are what will make us happy when we connect soul to soul, heart to heart, mind to mind.
Relationships, not positions of power, money, or fame are what matter most. If we don’t value each other, the cruelty will continue. That’s not just a female or male problem. That’s a human problem.