What is Sexual Harassment?

But is it harassment?
Imagine an office Christmas party where a male boss grabs a female employee’s ass. She later makes an allegation against him which he tries to deny, but his actions were caught on a security camera and the man is fired.

Some readers may think that the problem stems from a patriarchic imbalance of power. Others may believe that the problem is that the company did not have sufficient sexual harassment training, or that the woman waited over a week to report the incident. Still more may blame the fact that the man began working at a time where this behavior was acceptable.

Finally, there are some people who believe that the only problem in this scenario is the camera.

Identifying* Sexual Harassment in Any Situation in 3 Easy Steps

The nation is daily reeling from new and disturbing accusations of sexual harassment or assault on the part of powerful males (no women have so far been accused of predation). I took Uma’s part for several weeks, watching the seemingly endless cycle of charges, refutations, apologies, non-apologies, firings, responses to firings, and tone-deaf backlash from people in a similar position of power who think parsing the minutiae of a sexual predator can somehow redeem him. I want this article to be something different.

First, let’s understand what we’re talking about. While there are ends of the spectrum when it comes to sexual conduct (shaking a woman’s hand: good, locking door button under the desk: bad) most of it exists in a gray area. If you are unsure if your actions could be considered misconduct, all you need to consider is:

  • The Power. Remember that case when the aggressor and victim had the same income, same rights, same position, and same influence? Yeah, me neither. Physical inequality, social inequality, financial inequality—all reasons women have been targeted and abused. And it has nothing to do with the woman’s appearance, just the powerful man’s assessment of her appearance. Hiring managers may pass up a woman because they “can’t see” a woman in that role, object to her dress code-compliant outfits, or want a more attractive person to look at everyday—all forms of sexual harassment. TL,DR: He did it because he could.
  • The Stakes. The powerful lose little even when their actions are reprehensible. A woman stands to lose her security—both her personal safety and her ability to pay her rent or work in her chosen industry. How many female voices were silenced because of harassment? Why do some women wait hours, weeks, years before reporting assault? Well, after the initial shock and nausea, she’s living her own personal hell by a) doing her job and trying to forget or b) making a case and very likely losing. TL,DR: He did it because there was nothing she could do.
  • The Response. People don’t like to be told “no,” which is fine. What isn’t fine is that there is an infinity of horrifying responses that can occur simply by hearing that “no.” Now, I don’t like ranch dressing, but I’ve never called anyone a bitch, followed them home, raped them, told them they were “too ugly to rape,” gotten them fired, or literally murdered a person when they brought me ranch dressing. And the solution isn’t as simple as just “not murdering” someone when they are harassed, their response must be respected by the aggressor and by EVERY OTHER SINGLE BREATHING HUMAN ON EARTH. Unfortunately, most victims struggle even to be believed, much less treated with anything akin to respect. TL,DR: He did it, and it doesn’t matter.

I would like to assume that anyone reading this doesn’t want to sexually harass women. They don’t want to make the women they work with uncomfortable, they don’t want their girlfriends or wives or daughters to think they are monsters—all admirable goals. So I hesitate to alienate these “good guys” with the hammer of reality: you’re going to have to work really hard to avoid it. You. Yes, even you.

Because you will be rewarded for it. Because—up until recently—you will face zero consequences even if the allegations come to light. Because women are held to a higher standard, even when they are the victims. Because the people with all of the power never willingly relinquish it. Because the powerful people who have been brought down by their own actions are still being defended. Because change is hard, and some people don’t even see a need to change, making it ten times harder.

If you still want to be on the side of right, there are no easy rules to follow that fit every interaction between men and women. Until you’re good at reading the room, just remember this: the truth is in her eyes. She may not feel like she can say anything, she can keep the shock and fury behind the smile, but we still haven’t mastered the art of keeping millions of years of repression out of our eyes. If you see it happening, tell the button-mushroomed dickhead who keeps “joking” about an affair to knock it the fuck off. If you’re being an asshole, say so, out loud, and make it easy for her to walk away. And if someone in power has yet to address the multitude of misconduct allegations against him, do everything in your power to bring him to justice.

* I originally typed “avoiding,” but… you know the story about the pornography study that had to be canceled because they couldn’t find any men who didn’t watch porn? That’s because those dudes are living in a timeshare on a cloud with women who have lived their whole lives without ever experiencing harassment.


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