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One U.S. Organisation provides an informative and comprehensive definition of sexual harassment in the workplace. They say that: "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment”. Though this definition is specific to the workplace it does give a useful indication of what it is that constitutes sexual harassment.   

Sexual conduct in and of itself does not, generally, constitute sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is the subjective experience of feeling harassed as a result of sexual conduct or advances that are both unwanted and not consented to by the recipient, irrespective of the perpetrator’s intention. In other words, unwanted sexual conduct can still be experienced as sexual harassment even if the perpetrator did not intend it to be so.  

If we were to just understand sexual harassment in terms of a perpetrator’s intentions then this would firstly negate or deny the subjective experience of the recipient, and secondly could leave the possibility that some perpetrators, who knew that what they were doing was not appropriate or welcomed, could cite these reasons as evidence that they meant no harm – e.g. ‘I was just joking’, ‘I was only flirting’.   

Although we cannot be prescriptive as to what constitutes sexual harassment, there are nevertheless some general principles that can be observed: 

  • Personal space is important and should be respected; 
  • Consent is crucial; 
  • In the workplace, sexual harassment can be accompanied by a sense of threat whether implicit or explicit that the response to the unwanted sexual conduct will result in consequences for the recipient, whether adverse or preferential, at work; 
  • Perpetrators and recipients of sexual harassment can be of any gender or sexuality. 

Incidents of sexual harassment can often be confusing experiences with a gentle escalation of behaviour up to a point at which a line is crossed for the recipient. As with other forms of abuse, it can start off as a compliment or flattery and turn, gradually, towards something more pernicious. Sexual harassment is often more confusing for victims than explicit and forthright actions like being groped or when a perpetrator, for example, just comes out with something direct that is more easily recognisable as inappropriate and unacceptable.  

Sexual harassment often involves a combination of: persuasion – ‘oh, come on, we’re all good here, aren’t we?’; manipulation –  ‘you’re coming up for an annual review, I can put a good word in for you’, ‘you look great, how can anyone resist you?’; coercion – ‘I wouldn’t want to see you leave the company’, ‘we wouldn’t want other people to find out that you’re not the person we thought you were, would we?’ and a passing of responsibility from the perpetrator to the recipient – ‘You’re just so sexy, I just can’t resist you’, ‘I bet other people want to touch you like this’. 

Perpetrators will also often control the narrative – ‘come on, I’m a nice guy, I’m just trying to show you how highly I think of you’, the meaning of the experience – ‘it’s no big deal, really, what’s your problem?’, ‘I just want you to know how much I value you as a colleague’, and the personal space. 

With an increased awareness of sexual harassment, many respond that it is difficult to draw the line between flirting and harasssment. However, sexual harassment is different from flirting in (at least) three ways:

  1. There are coercive and manipulative practices evident in sexual harassment, rather than encouragement or gentle persuasion evident in flirting. 
  2. In cases of sexual harassment (at work) there is a sense that the response to the perpetrator’s behaviour may lead to consequences in the work place, whether adverse or preferential, rather than a sense that one has a completely free choice to accept or decline any advances being made, as is the case in flirting 
  3. In sexual harassment there is a general sense of threat, lack of respect for and disregard of the recipient’s feelings. Flirting, by contrast, involves a reciprocal dynamic, devoid of intimidation, where the feelings of individuals are regarded as mutually important and respected as such. 

People’s experience of and response to unwanted sexual conduct will be influenced by their culture, religion, and upbringing as to what is/isn’t sexually permissible or appropriate behaviour. 

When it occurs in the workplace, experiencing unwanted sexual conduct can result in a loss of satisfaction/sense of purpose at work which can in turn trigger depression, anxiety and a sense of hopelessness/worthlessness.  

Sexual harassment can be traumatising and can lead to the development of PTSD though it is worth noting here that it includes a range of symptoms although there will be variations as to which combination each individual experiences and the extent to which they do so. Not all people that experience unwanted sexual conduct will go on to experience PTSD but will experience a milder form of psychological distress which may manifest as Stress, Depression or Anxiety. Previous experiences of trauma (e.g. oppression, bullying, abuse) will increase a persons’ vulnerability to the level of distress they subjectively experience following unwanted sexual conduct.  

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual harassment and are now trying to deal with the psychological consequences of this experience then you may benefit from consulting an experienced professional. Do not hesitate to contact the team now to discuss how it is that we can help you.

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