The news today is filled with workplace sexual harassment lawsuits, the ones directed at Bill O’Reilly being only the most recent. Why the sudden influx of sexual harassment complaints? One reason may be that society has come to see this type of harassment as actual bullying. Women today feel empowered to speak out against “men in power” who, not so long ago, got away scot-free, with this bullying behavior. Sexual harassment was the “manly” thing to do.
The legal definition of sexual harassment is as follows:
“Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when either: The conduct is made as a term or condition of an individual's employment, education, living environment or participation in a community.” (University of Michigan)
Putting a stop to this form of bullying starts with any individual who files a complaint. All it takes is one person to start a ball rolling that will help put an end to this harassment. One person, then two people, then three or four, and before you know it, the harassers lose their power knowing that sexual harassment is against the law and there will be consequences if that law gets broken. This year seems to be the year when we may see an end to sex being used as a weapon.
I wish it had been so twenty years ago. Back then, women had very little choice but to tolerate the bullying. There wasn’t a whole lot they could do. Even the law wasn’t on their side.
Gather a diverse group of women in a room and nine out of ten of them will have a story of having been sexually harassed on the job. Many will tell you that they never told anyone or thought of filing a complaint because, after all who would believe them?
Who would believe that nice Mr. So-and-So, solid member of the community, church-going husband and father of three, would deliberately brush against you in a very intentional sexual way every time you were standing at the copy machine. Who would believe your quiet boss would make lewd comments. Or that the jolly middle-aged male teacher, who recently won Teacher of the Year, would casually whisper to a young female teacher while both were on cafeteria duty that, “If you come out with me later, I’ll give you the best f--- you’ve ever had.” Or that you were blatantly told that your very job and subsequent promotions depended on you “being nice” to the boss. Women were basically told to “play by the rules” to get ahead in a man’s world.
In years past, women were reluctant to file complaints because they were sure to face more humiliation. Most of the people who took your complaints were, themselves, men. And, of course, there were excuses.
No, she’s not. A man grabbing your breast is crazy if he thinks he can get away with it.
“She was the one who made advances to me. I rejected her and now she’s being vindictive.”
No, you made several sexually explicit advances to her, and she’s filing a legal complaint.
“Oh, come on! I was just saying that she looked good.”
No, you made a disgusting sexual comment about her body and she’s fighting back.
“I mean seriously, she’s asking for it. Look at what she’s wearing!”
A blazer and a pair of slacks is hardly sexy attire. Even if it was, you’re still way out of line.
The mindset twenty years ago was that the woman making the accusation was hysterical or “at that time of the month, you know.” In her confused state, she mistook a compliment for harassment, mistook you pressing against her as an innocent brush, mistook a statement about how her job would be lost if she didn’t give in to your sexual demands as being taken out of context.
I don’t know about anyone else but I know the difference between a compliment and a sexually harassing comment, a deliberate body rub and an accidental brush, and so do all women. We also know what a man means when he says that part about losing our jobs if we don’t play nice and something like that is never taken out of context.
Sexual harassment diminishes a woman. Her integrity, her confidence is shattered and she becomes an object of play. Her intelligence, her education, her self-esteem are nothing because she is seen by her harasser as worthless. Fighting back is the only way to put a stop to this and to put the harasser in the spotlight he so wants to avoid.
I, for one, am happy that women are stepping up to voice complaints against sexual harassment. I’m even happier that we’re being taken seriously, not only by the law but by the media. Harassment is bullying and the bullying has to be stopped.
I know sexual harassment. It’s happened to me. That young female teacher in the cafeteria? She’s the one writing this article.
Kristen Houghton’s new novel, Unrepentant: Pray for Us Sinners, book 3 in her best-selling series, A Cate Harlow Private Investigation has been voted one of the top five novels by International Mystery Writers.
Houghton is the author of nine novels, two non-fiction books, a collection of short stories appearing in anthologies, and a children’s novella.
She is the author of the Horror Writers of America award-winning Welcome to Hell and is hard at work on a new series that features a paranormal investigator with distinct, untried powers of her own.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.