Sexual harassment is unwanted and unwelcome behavior, or attention, of a sexual nature that interferes with your life and your ability to function at work, home, or school. Sexual advances, forced sexual activity, statements about sexual orientation or sexuality, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature all constitute sexual harassment. The behavior may be direct or implied. Sexual harassment can affect an individual's work or school performance, and can create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.
Sexual harassment can occur in a number of ways, such as:
- The victim as well as the harasser can be either male, or female. The harasser does not have to be of the opposite sex.
- The harasser can be anyone: the victim's supervisor, a client, a co-worker, a teacher or professor, a schoolmate, a stranger, even a family member.
- The harasser's behavior must be unwelcome.
- The victim does not have to be the person directly harassed but can be anyone who finds the behavior offensive and is affected by it.
- While adverse effects on the victim are common, this does not have to be the case for the behavior to be unlawful.
- The harasser may be completely unaware that their behavior is offensive or constitutes sexual harassment, or they may be completely unaware that their actions could be unlawful.
Uncertainty and Denial
Because sexual harassment encompasses a vast range of behavior, there is much confusion about the problem. In truth, sexual harassment actually relies on a victim's uncertainty about how to describe, and label, what is happening to them. A rape victims knows when they have been raped, but sexual harassment victims often do not understand what they are experiencing, or even why they are being hurt by it. Even if they can describe the experience to themselves, victims often differ in their willingness to accept what is happening.
Also, the people around the victim may have difficulty understanding and accepting that the harassment is occurring, and their reactions may increase the victim's confusion and isolation. Most often, when a sexual harassment victim speaks out about what they are experiencing, they are the ones who are considered the problem, not the harasser.
For these reasons, and the fear that harassment can incite, most victims never report what they have experienced. Often, they do not even talk about it to friends and family. Plus, when there is denial (including institutional denial), disbelief or placement of blame on the victim, recovery is much more difficult.
Many specific factors can underlie the uncertainty in identifying, and accepting, what a sexual harassment victim has been experiencing. You may be struggling with:
- Confusion --you don't know how to describe to yourself what has been happening
- Embarrassment -- you may feel embarrassed by the experience
- Victim-blaming -- Others may be blaming you for what has happened, and the "victim" may now have become the "accused." As in the case of sexual assault and rape, the dress, lifestyle and private life of the victim seem to become more important than the behaviour being investigated.
- Guilt -- you may feel guilt over what has happened, or be blaming yourself.
- Shame -- you feel ashamed of what has been happening; you may not want to accept the idea that you are a victim, or feel you should be able to stop the harassment
- Denial – you don’t want to believe that this is real; those around you may not want to believe this, either.
- Minimizing – you tell yourself it’s “not that big a deal,” I’m being overly sensitive” or “I’m being a prude.” You may be hearing this from others.
- Fear – you are afraid of retaliation by your harassers or harasser's colleagues, your coworkers, or people further-up in the hierarchy at work or school. You may fear being isolated or ostracized by people at work or school. You may be afraid you will get the harasser in trouble when all you want is the behavior to stop.
- Adaptation -- the abuse may have been going on for a long time, and the targets may feel that nothing can be done. Or, you have been told throughout your life that you should expect to be treated this way, and to "deal with it" silently.
- Numbing -- You want to distance yourself emotionally from the experience; you may also avoid people and places that remind you of these painful events.
- Triggers -- you may feel that talking about what happened causes too much pain and/or anxiety, or what is happening in the present could be triggering past experiences with assault or abuse.
- Invalidation -- you feel that no one will believe you if you were to report what is happening.
- Defamation -- your motives or character may be under attack, with people saying things to discredit you.
- Same-sex harassment -- if the harasser is of the same sex, you may be afraid people will question your sexual orientation
- Masculinity -- if you are male victim, you may be afraid that it is a reflection on your masculinity for you to not enjoy the sexual attention, or you may be afraid others will question your masculinity or sexual orientation.