Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: What Can You Do?

25 January, 2021
Sexual harassment at work can generate feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and fear. In most cases, simply staying silent and letting time pass will only make situations of harassment more serious and frequent. That's why a hands-on approach is always best.

The term “sexual harassment” was coined in the 1970s, within the framework of the feminist movement. In the beginning, it was used to refer to masculine behaviors in the workplace. While appearing to be merely sexual, these constituted an exercise of power.

The topic became popular in the media throughout the 1980s, when a series of sexual harassment scandals emerged in American society. From here, it made its way towards the law: sexual harassment went from being considered misconduct to abuse. Eventually, it was considered a crime.

Despite this, sexual harassment is still commonplace across the world. Victims of sexual harassment are in a position of great vulnerability, and often feel like they have a lot to lose if they were to speak up. However, simply stigmatizing men’s behaviors without delving deeper into the issue doesn’t help. While men can also be victims of sexual abuse, mostly at the hands of other men, it’s also true that it could be possible for women to take advantage of a given situation by making false sexual harassment claims.

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

-Ellie Wiesel-

A woman being harassed by her boss in the workplace.

Identifying sexual harassment in the workplace

It isn’t always so easy to identify sexual harassment in the workplace, especially when there’s a close relationship between colleagues. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to tell apart camaraderie, jokes, or a just a bit of innocent flirting from sexual harassment. In general, we can talk about sexual harassment under these three premises:

  • There’s no reciprocity. A person may manifest sexual interest for another, but their feelings aren’t reciprocated and the person in question doesn’t want to be the object of such manifestations.
  • There’s a sense of transgression, either direct or symbolic. This happens when a person is used or sexually objectified by another without their consent through comments, actions, jokes, innuendo, etc.
  • The victim’s response determines the course of action. The abuser makes decisions based on whether the victim allows their abusive behavior or not. Being fired is an obvious example of this, but there are more subtle ways to exercise power. For example, ostracism, rejection, threatened stability, or the withdrawal of privileges.
  • There’s intimidation. These aren’t necessarily threats, but demonstrations of power or force, either physical or hierarchical. The victim feels threatened in one or various aspects.

Types of sexual harassment in the workplace

There are two types of sexual harassment: hostile environment and sextortion. Both are forms of inappropriate pressure over another person. Their goal is to make the victim abide to unwanted sexual behaviors. Let’s look at each individual type:

  • Hostile environment sexual harassment. Hostile, humiliating, or threatening behaviors. The abuse can be verbal, physical, or symbolic, minor or serious, but it takes place on a regular basis.
  • Sextortion. The victim is openly pressured to engage in sexual behavior in exchange for something – keeping their job, a promotion, improved working conditions, etc.

A 2014 study conducted by the management consulting firm Inmark S.A. pointed out that at least 60 percent of sexual harassment cases in the workplace take place from colleague to colleague. However, in 14.3 percent of the cases, the abuser is a client, in 2 percent of the cases, the abuser is a CEO, and in 1.3 percent of the cases, a subordinate. However, in 50 percent of the cases considered serious, abusers are hierarchical superiors.

A scared employee and her abuser.

How can you stop an abuser?

Victims of sexual harassment often try to minimize the seriousness of what’s happening to them, often as a means to justify their silence. If nothing serious is happening to them, why make a fuss?

In most cases, sexual harassment doesn’t just cease naturally. On the contrary, these types of situations tend to become chronic. The best thing to do is to confront the abuser in a calm, assertive way and put words to what’s happening. Identifying what’s going on and pointing at possible consequences may suffice to stop an abuser.

When harassment materializes into physical abuse, reporting it is the only way forward. If your company has a specific protocol for these kinds of situations, all the better. Otherwise, the best thing to do is to communicate directly to your superior and involve them in what’s going on. It’s best to do it in written form and describe the situation in detail.

Having as much proof and as many witnesses as possible will help your case. If the company ignores your claims, the next thing to do is to seek the help of the authorities. Most Western countries at present have laws that protect victims of sexual abuse. Silence isn’t an option.

Acevedo, D., Biaggii, Y., & Borges, G. (2009). Violencia de género en el trabajo: acoso sexual y hostigamiento laboral. Revista venezolana de estudios de la mujer, 14(32), 163-182.