There has been some muddying of waters in the last month or so over what sexual harassment is. The most prominent of people getting it wrong was D.J. Grothe, who said on The Ardent Atheist:
“So if someone is accosted or assaulted, and to be legal about it, sexual harassment cannot happen in a public event. Right? Sexual harassment can only happen in a workplace, by definition.”
Wrong. Very wrong. So let’s straighten it out, for the record.
Sexual Harassment Defined
There is one king of sexual harassment that everyone understands. This kind is called quid pro quo (“this for that”) harassment. This is the classic “Have sex with me if you want to keep your job/get a passing grade” extortion form of harassment. Blatant, simple, easy to figure out why it’s wrong.
That isn’t the only form of sexual harassment, however. There is also the sort of sexual harassment that creates a hostile environment. This is the sort of harassment that is much more like any other kind of harassment, which should make it easier to recognize rather than less. After all, we can recognized that someone is being harassed based on the color of their skin without requiring demands that they suffer extortion.
This is where the most basic of definitions of harassment comes in: Harassment is persistent, wearing attacks that interfere with the rest of your activities.
So racial harassment is harassment received because of or focused on one’s racial identity. Disability harassment is harassment received because of or focused on one’s disabilities. And sexual harassment is harassment received because of or focused on one’s gender or sexual identity.
Sexual harassment is slightly more confusing because it can also mean harassment using sexual behavior. Practically, however, the overlap between the two definitions is nearly complete.
The Equal Rights Advocates have a good description of what that means in practical terms:
Many different kinds of conduct—verbal, visual or physical—that is of a sexual nature may be sexual harassment, if the behavior is unwelcome and if it is severe or pervasive. Here are some more examples:
Verbal or written: Comments about clothing, personal behavior, or a person’s body; sexual or sex-based jokes; requesting sexual favors or repeatedly asking a person out; sexual innuendoes; telling rumors about a person’s personal or sexual life; threatening a person
Physical: Assault; impeding or blocking movement; inappropriate touching of a person or a person’s clothing; kissing, hugging, patting, stroking
Nonverbal: Looking up and down a person’s body; derogatory gestures or facial expressions of a sexual nature; following a person
Visual: Posters, drawings, pictures, screensavers or emails of a sexual nature
** Non-sexual conduct may also be sexual harassment if you are harassed because you are female, rather than male, or because you are male, rather than female.
As with quid pro quo harassment, very little of the behavior listed above is bad in and of itself. Sex is not a bad thing just because someone insists on using extortion to get it. Insults and physical aggression can sometimes happen between friends as a normal interaction. Sexual jokes aren’t wrong because someone insists on telling them where they’re neither needed nor wanted. The problem is that the behavior is unwanted and interferes with someone’s normal conduct.
Nonsexual Sexual Harassment
One thing we haven’t talked about much is the last sentence of that quote. Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be sexual in nature. If it is pervasive, as it has been in many of these discussions, the simple assertion that women cannot be believed when talking about their own experience is sexual harassment because it specifically targets women.
Those people who have singled out the women in this discussion for their negative attentions are also contributing to a sexually harassing environment. They are creating a hostile environment for women in these movements and these discussions. (Men have been sexually harassed as part of these discussions too, but that’s mostly involved direct commentary on their sexuality or gender identity.) The same goes for those places where women are discussed as being less rational than men.
The Hostile Environment
Understanding the concept of “hostile environment” is central to understanding harassment in its various permutations. Quid pro quo harassment falls under the “severe” categorization, as does rape (yes, rape is harassment) and other forms of assault. Many of these forms of harassment are covered criminal law on their own. However, these are not the only forms of behavior that interfere with a person’s activities.
Smaller acts add up to a larger effect if they are ongoing or inescapable. Being asked out on a date once in a place or a manner that you consider to be unacceptable is a small annoyance. Being unable to hang out at a event with your friends without being interrupted by someone who thinks they’re entitled to stand as close to you as they want is quite something else.
People aren’t oysters. If something is continually irritating us, we move. If harassing behavior is pervasive in a organization, participation in that organization is denied to or severely limited for anyone who doesn’t excrete the equivalent of mother of pearl.
As people are not oysters, it also doesn’t matter whether the irritant someone encounters today is the same as the irritant they encountered yesterday. This is why a single act from a single person is not necessarily “no big deal”. It can still constitute harassment if it occurs where other similar acts are happening. One small act by one person can’t create a hostile environment, but it can certainly contribute to one.
Equal Civil Rights
It is not true that the workplace is the only place where sexual harassment is illegal. It was simply the first place (in the U.S.) where sexual harassment was formally recognized as an impediment to equal participation because it was among the first places where the value of equal participation in general was formally recognized. It has the most history, and it’s the environment most of us come into contact with.
Sexual harassment is also illegal in housing because we have formally recognized equal opportunity in housing as a civil rights issue. It is illegal in the administration of government programs. Last summer, I wrote about sexual harassment being recognized under Title IX by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights as an illegal barrier to equal participation in education. California recognizes a variety of professional relationships in which sexual harassment is illegal.
Sexual harassment is illegal in situations where a state or the federal government has chosen to recognize a right to equal access regardless of gender or sexual identity. It is a civil rights issue and it’s treated as such under the law. The limitations on the illegality of sexual harassment map very closely to the limits of our understanding of civil rights.
Along with plenty of other things in our modern lives, attending a conference isn’t generally considered a civil right, unless not being able to attend interferes with someone’s profession or another protected right. So harassment that doesn’t rise to the level of assault or another criminal charge isn’t illegal.
That doesn’t, however, mean it isn’t harassment, as I’ve already discussed. Low-level behavior can still create that hostile environment. It can still created inequalities in access.
This is why organizations that want to provide equal access across gender and sexual identities–or across racial identities or disability or socioeconomic status or any of a number of other classes that face significant discrimination–will want to adopt an anti-harassment policy. It’s also why they will want to make sure that their policies reach beyond criminal law.
And that is what and where sexual harassment is. All clear now?