From the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, responsible for enforcing Federal laws related to discrimination and harassment:
It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
Hearing all the news lately, it is tempting to say all men are pigs. However, I know many fine men and, unfortunately, I have known a few women who were completely capable of harassment.
Like sexual assault, there is a concerning balance of power issue at play.
As I understand assault, it involves attempted or actual physical harm. The harm alluded to in the above definition of harassment seems to have to do with either an uncomfortable feeling (hostile environment) and adverse impact on job security. It almost seems more benign that assault. Is it? Because sometimes psychological harm lingers longer than the physical.
Harassment becomes illegal when it is severe or frequent. This is not simple teasing (bad enough) or offhand comments (I’ve made them but I learn quickly from adverse reaction) or isolated incidents (whoops, so sorry). Things happen and you say, “Not okay.” Not to blame victims, but if you don’t confront the small things some get the idea they are okay.
What I want to know is what do we call sexual advances, requests for “favors” or inappropriate language of a sexual nature when it is not part of the workplace environment? It’s still harassing, right? But is it illegal? (I’ll note here that I took a career aptitude test when I was in college and my aptitude for anything law related was nearly zero. I supposed I could have had a legal career, but I would have had to always act in a way that was the opposite of every instinct of thought and action that I own.)
I also want to know if there are women out there who have never experienced some level of discomfort in the presence of someone else’s acting out in a sexual way? I had a dentist who had to wipe his hands each time he put them in my mouth (way before the days of latex gloves). Of course the most convenient place to wipe them was down the paper bib covering my young breasts and giving a little squeeze along the way. My sister din’t have breasts yet but he wanted to play a game with her called “touch tongues.” So gross. So completely unprofessional.
And why didn’t we ever tell our parents, you might wonder. Well, we didn’t want our dad to go to jail for killing the guy. This experience made us uncomfortable for sure but did it harm us psychologically? I just think it made us feisty feminists and pretty darn good at recognizing and avoiding predators.
Some people are pigs. Some just plain don’t know any better. But it’s time for us all to say, “Stop it!”