Sexual Harassment In Educational Institutions And Work Place

What are the contours of sexual harassment in educational institutions and work place?

How should we guard against discourses of moral turpitude and focus exclusively on harassment without penalising consensual interactions between adult men and women, sexual or otherwise?

How can we deal with it?

The unfortunate reality is that centres of higher learning are as prone to sexual harassment and the domination of a patriarchal, conservative, misogynist mindset as the rest of society is. It would be good to remind ourselves that this is not a hallmark of poorer countries or specific cultural or religious contexts. It is omnipresent.

Confronting the real problem

The word ‘draconian’ gets attached very easily to any measure or law that seeks to protect women as it raises fears that women might misuse it to settle personal scores.

In the case of sexual harassment, too, the fear of false complaints dominates the public discourse, instead of the real problem, which is the underlying pervasive, ubiquitous sexual harassment that transcends class, race (or caste, ethnicity) and educational categories.

This reaction is not unrelated to the basic premise of sexual harassment or rape: it happens because women ‘ask for it’ or start something consensual only to change their minds either during or after the act.

Sexual harassment on campus

While it is important to recognise that there are asymmetries of power that tilt the balance in favour of professors, which some might construe as a licence to harass students, the fact is that sexual harassment is not a preserve of male professors: the accused include teachers, administrative staff and fellow students.

The first challenge in dealing with these cases is an inadequate understanding of what constitutes harassment.

The more direct or egregious cases (such as the ones doing the rounds currently) are relatively easier to identify; however, most often, despite the evidence being as clear as daylight, it is disputed: “But what was she wearing?”; “Why did she get in the lift with him?”; “Was she drunk?”

So imagine how much harder it is to define harassment when there is a whole ocean of men who are oblivious to the fact that their behaviour – in their view innocuous – might be causing distress to their colleagues or juniors.

I recall one case of a student who complained that her professor sent her regular text messages – in pre-WhatsApp, Facebook or Twitter days – at 10.30pm to 11pm at night and while he never propositioned her or touched her, she said she felt uncomfortable around him. She found his repeated texts objectionable and out of line. If she replied, he sent her more messages. If she didn’t, he would ask her the next day why she hadn’t replied.

The professor’s first reaction was one of dismay. What’s wrong in a few harmless texts, he asked? It took several meetings to convince him that his intentions were not the point – if a woman finds the attention unwelcome for whatever reason, it is harassment.

Then there was the case of a male student who would sit in the library every day opposite a female student (who eventually complained) and stare at her incessantly. When confronted, his reply was: “I am not doing anything to her so why is just looking at her a problem?”

This is another example of a simple but incredibly difficult to fathom idea that what might seem like a harmless mild gesture to this man could be very annoying and offensive to the woman. Again, if she feels harassed, it constitutes harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal or written.

Sexual harassment is not consensual interaction, flirtation or friendship. Sexual harassment is not behaviour that is mutually agreed upon.

Sexual harassment is covered in the workplace when it happens:

  • At work-related events or where people are carrying out work-related functions
  • Between people sharing the same workplace
  • A single incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment – it doesn’t have to be repeated.

Men experience sexual harassment but it disproportionately affects women, especially in the workplace. (The Australian Human Rights Commission reported that 1 in 5 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace at some time.

Responding to harassment

All incidents of sexual harassment – no matter how large or small or who is involved – require employers or managers to respond quickly and appropriately. Just because someone does not object to inappropriate behaviour in the workplace at the time, it does not mean that they are consenting to the behaviour.

Sensitisation: Are women asking for it?

As waves of freedom and change envelop universities, there is a counter-current of reaction and conservatism. Lowering of inhibitions in the interactions between men and women and changes in dress and habits are often seen as ‘proof’ that women want it both ways.

When they get what they want, they call it empowerment or liberation. When they don’t, they raise the bogey of sexual harassment, so it is said. In other words, the suggestion is that women who make choices about their (sexual) lives cannot be victims of sexual harassment since they must have done something to provoke it.

A big challenge on campuses would be to initiate sensitisation measures that might challenge these ‘ways of seeing’. Sexual harassment is never justified – certainly not on the basis of what a woman is wearing or her location – for instance, if she is out on the street at night or in someone else’s house. A woman’s intoxication can never be a reason to harass, abuse or rape her.

Who Can Experience Sexual Harassment?
There is a common misconception that only women can be sexually harassed by men. To the contrary, sexual harassment is gender-neutral and women can just as easily sexually harass men. In practice, however, it is most common for women to file sexual harassment complaints against men.

As for whether a gender can sexually harass someone of the same gender, it has been established that one gender can sexually harass the same gender if it is in a heterosexual way. This can occur, for example, by men sharing sexually explicit jokes which make another male coworker uncomfortable. It is still an open question, however, whether a person can successfully sue for homosexual harassment.

Some Easy Ways You Can Help Prevent Sexual Harassment

1. Don’t make comments about their body if they don’t specifically ask you to.

2. Don’t bug them to go out on a date with you, especially if they’ve already said “no” at least once.

3. Don’t send unsolicited pictures of your genitals.

4. Don’t touch someone’s body without asking (or if they’ve already said no).

5. Don’t make excuses for your friends’ douchey behavior.

6. Stop using your position of power to get someone to go out or hook up with you.

7. If you’ve sent them several texts, letters, emails, or smoke signals, and they’ve gone unanswered, stop.

8. Don’t make sexist jokes.

9. Don’t leer, catcall, or whistle, period.

10. If they’re drunk, do not assume this is “your chance.”

11. Don’t assume your partner will always want to have sex with you.

12. If you aren’t a personal friend, do not ask them about their sex lives.

13. Do not share their nudes.

14. Stop judging people by their sexuality.

15. Don’t tell someone to smile, to put on makeup, or to get rid of their resting bitch face…

16. Use your privilege to stand up for them.

17. If they tell you they were assaulted, don’t assume they’re exaggerating or that it was their fault.

Listen to them, believe them, and do everything you can to make them feel understood and safe with you.


Agency Report

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