What Is Sexual Harassment?

As more and more women have entered the workplace over the last few decades, a new term has entered our vocabulary: sexual harassment. The term was first used in the mid-1970s, but most people didn’t become aware of it until the ’80s. By the end of the ’90s, thanks to several very high profile cases—involving a U.S. senator, a Supreme Court justice, the U.S. Navy, and even the president of the United States—nearly everyone was aware of the term. But how to define it has often been the subject of fierce arguments.

Over time, general agreement has been reached on what sexual harassment is and what it isn’t. Sexual harassment is any unwelcome, unwanted sexual behavior—such as crude gestures, uninvited touching or grabbing, leering, suggestive remarks, dirty jokes, the display of pornographic pictures, or asking for sexual favors—that makes you feel uncomfortable, helpless, or afraid and that interferes with your work on the job or in school. It is not a mutually desirable flirtation or a friendly and welcome kiss or hug.

Sexual harassment can be a problem in offices, schools, stores, restaurants, and other public places. It can even occur online, when you are emailing, instant messaging, or going to chat rooms, message boards, or social networking sites. Wherever people interact, harassment can occur. Men can harass women, women can harass men, and people can harass others of the same gender. A person you trust who is in a position of authority, such as a teacher or coach, may use that trust and power to try to take advantage of you. But a teacher-student or coach-athlete relationship should always be professional and never sexual. That is the law. Or perhaps your boss may threaten you with getting fired or losing a chance at a better shift or raise if you don’t go out with him or her or give sexual favors. This, too, is an illegal abuse of power.

It is also possible to be harassed by someone you don’t know very well or by a stranger. Comments made on the street that make you feel like a sexual object (“Hey, nice legs!” “Will you marry me?” “Hi, gorgeous!”) are also harassment. If someone invades your personal space—touching you in a crowded subway car, elevator, or bus, for example—that is harassment, too. An obscene phone call can be extremely disturbing and is another form of harassing behavior. All harassment shows a lack of respect for the other person. The harasser is trying to exert power over his or her victim.

It Can Happen to Anyone

Recent studies show that sexual harassment is not just an issue for prominent public officials in the country’s highest offices. It is a daily, very real problem for millions of North American workers and students. It is estimated that up to 78 percent of all female college students and 60 percent of women in the working world have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

Men are not safe from unwanted sexual attention either, nor is it impossible for a woman to be the harasser. While the great majority of victims are women harassed by men, women can be victimized by women, too, and men can be sexually harassed by either men or women. Anywhere from 12 to 30 percent of men have been sexually harassed in the workplace (estimates vary widely because men are even less likely to report harassment than women), while three out of four high school boys report having been sexually harassed by classmates.

An increasing trend, especially among teens, is cyberbullying and electronic sexual harassment. Malicious gossip, lies, sexual put-downs, sexual come-ons, cyber stalking, and violent and sexual threats are now often delivered via email, instant messaging, text messaging, cell phones, or posted in chat rooms, on message boards, or in social networking sites. The anonymity of digital communications can make people feel more free than they ordinarily would to either reveal intimate things about themselves or say provocative, hurtful, or aggressive things to or about someone else. It’s a good idea not to treat the Internet as some special realm where anything goes. You should not say anything online that you wouldn’t say to someone face-to-face, nor should you engage someone in online conversation who is harassing you or someone else.

Have you ever felt that your boss or teacher is paying too much attention to you? Maybe he stares too much or asks a lot of questions about your boyfriend. Maybe she pays you compliments that make you uncomfortable or touches you frequently for no good reason. Maybe he or she lets you know that you’ll have to be a bit more “friendly” if you want to get a raise or a good grade in class. Or maybe you’ve been grabbed or pinched in the hallways at school, on a crowded bus, or on a busy street.

All of these situations are examples of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment happens to all kinds of people in all kinds of places. It happens at work, in school, on the street, and in social settings. One of the worst things about sexual harassment is the way it can make you feel: scared, confused, embarrassed, angry, and powerless. Anytime people make you feel threatened sexually, they are harassing you. When people try to force you to accept this treatment so that you can keep your job or get a passing grade in a class, they are also breaking the law.

Sexual harassment is wrong; it is illegal. It is never your fault when someone harasses you. You did not invite it or ask for it in any way. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to stop sexual harassment and places to go for help and support.