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How to Prevent Sexual Harassment

When it comes to the person who whispers unwanted sweet nothings into your ear, touches you in an inappropriate manner, or tosses a comment about how “sexy” you look in your new threads, many people are reluctant to admit they have been a victim of sexual harassment. The unwelcome attention that delivers even the slightest hint of sexuality is considered harassment. It doesn’t matter if it shows through as “innocent” flirting, mild annoyances, or a serious breach of manners, sexual harassment is a very real problem that affects both men and women and can take place within any setting.

How to Prevent Sexual Harassment

What is Sexual Harassment?

Pure and simple, sexual harassment is unwanted attention that comes in the form of verbalizations; written and visual communication; or physical contact and actions. Usually, sexual harassment is an act that is often associated with the workplace and educational circles, where people are in constant contact with the opposite sex. Yet, sexual harassment can take place anywhere – at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, in the mall, and even stuck in traffic.

Each sexual harassment case is different and may involve a variety of circumstances. The harasser doesn’t necessarily have to be a person the harassed knows. It could be a stranger on the street or someone who works at a local establishment. Often, sexual harassment comes from supervisors, clients, teachers, students, co-workers, and even family and friends. The victim of unwanted sexual advances can be male or female, just as the harasser can be the same. Contrary to popular belief, the harasser does not always have to be of the opposite sex.

In many cases, the harasser is actually unaware that his or her actions are offensive and falls under the category of sexual harassment – they may feel their behavior constitutes as flirting, being friendly, or just their way of being “funny.” Many harassers are completely ignorant to the fact that some of the things they say or do could be considered unlawful or illegal. Overall, in order to deem the actions or behavior of an individual as harassment, the receipt of such attention must be unwelcome [1].

The Different Types of Sexual Harassment

Some examples of sexual harassment are blatantly clear, while others lie hidden within the “innocent” intentions of others. In order to prevent becoming a victim of sexual harassment, it is important to learn some of the types of ways the act manifests itself. Some of the many kinds of sexual harassment include:

a) The Power Play: A harasser may abuse their position or rank, pressing sexual favors upon another with promises of receiving advantages or benefits in return. This usually takes the form of an employer promising a job position or rise in pay. A professor may offer a higher grade in a course or the lure of a good recommendation. The object of the game is to influence others in giving into sexual harassment by using the assurance of opportunity as a “reward.”

b) Mother-Father Figure: Sometimes, a harasser will attempt to forge a mentor-like relationship with their sexual harassment victims, while concealing their sexual intentions under the disguise of academic, professional, or personal “help.” This is a common technique seen between teachers and students.

c) The Gang-Up: It is not uncommon to see a “one-of-the-gang” mentality take place amongst groups of men or women, who collectively attempt to embarrass others with inappropriate comments, physical evaluations, or other unwanted sexual attention. Impressing others in a group often motivates individual harassers, who may also participate in joint teasing because they think it is humorous.

d) Planned Harassment: Some people intentionally build up a reputation as a “good guy,” so others will find it impossible to accept them as a threat. After executing deliberate sexual advances, they often attack individuals under private circumstances, so it becomes their word against that of the harassed.

e) The “Groper”: Certain harassers will take any opportunity to physically harass the people they come in contact with both their hands and their eyes. They may purposefully nudge too close or pinch the backside of an individual while in the elevator, as well as place unwanted kisses on cheeks or force hugs during an informal get-together. The practice can take place in public or private and occur within any setting, such as restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, public transportation, and the movie theater.

f) The Opportunist: Some sexual harassers wait until the perfect physical setting or circumstance presents itself before they conceal premeditated or deliberate unwanted sexual contact toward a specific individual. This is commonly seen in the workplace, school, and home setting and may involve private meetings, professor conferences, school field trips, babysitting, or one-on-one tutoring.

g) Verbal Harassment: The unwanted sexual comments or compliments on appearance that zero in on gender and physical attributes often place victims in an embarrassing situation. Commonly, the comments are paired with looks that make one feel uncomfortable. An example of this type of sexual harassment deals with the construction worker who cat calls or whistles at a female passerby.

h) The “Listener”: Some harassers intentionally seek out an individual who is going through delicate issues or dealing with a personal tragedy in order to mask their sexual intentions by “lending an ear” and becoming a confidante. The harasser may purposefully approach or target men or women who are experiencing a stressful situation in life, such as a chronic illness, marital problems, divorce, or the death of a loved one. Often, the harassment ceases once the victim no longer feels outside pressures or their personal circumstances take a turn for the better.

i) Pestering: Some sexual harassers persistently target an individual and not even know their behavior is “crossing the line.” Often, these are the type of people who “won’t take ‘no’ for an answer” and continuously ask a man or a woman out for a date or place themselves in circumstances that warrant repeated rejection.

j) Stalking: Sexual harassment may also come in the form of stalking, where repeated unwanted contact has caused one to fear the harasser, who may write explicit letters, make harassing phone calls, or deliver unwarranted physical advances [2]. This type of sexual harassment is one of the most intimidating forms of invasion of privacy, which sometimes has the potential to escalate from a non-threatening situation into dangerous circumstances.

The Negative Effects of Sexual Harassment

The negative effects of sexual harassment is seen beyond the harassed and the harasser, as the act often involves family, friends, co-workers, the workplace, and sometimes entire communities within any setting. Various emotional, mental, physical, and financial burdens arise that affects all parties both directly and indirectly involved, and may include the following consequences:

a) Fear:

Sexual harassment causes a target to panic or develop apprehension, which includes fear for ones’ life, privacy, and reputation. Those who accuse another of sexual harassment often fear retaliation, intense personal scrutiny, being called a ‘liar,’ becoming an outsider, and the guilt that comes with bringing the uncomfortable circumstances to light [3]. This fear is often accompanied by a lack of trust in the legal system and unawareness to available resources.

b) Workplace Effects:

Sexual harassment is a growing problem in the workplace that causes great stress, decreases work productivity, and produces lingering financial difficulties for both employee and employer. Sexual harassment has the power to divide an entire work office, as well as ruin the careers of both the harassed and the harasser. Thousands of sexual harassment cases are brought to the attention of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) each year in the United States. This no way reflects the actual amount of sexual harassment acts committed on a yearly basis.

c) Educational Effects:

Sexual harassment in education is often looked upon as a problem that occurs in the university and college setting, but actually takes place at a higher rate on the elementary, middle, and high school level. In 2002, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) conducted a study that took a glance at 8th through 11th grade-aged students and exposed the fact that 83% of the girls and 78% of the boys experienced some form of sexual harassment [4].

d) Financial Effects:

If a harassed party feels compelled to leave their job position because of the hostile environment they feel within the workplace, they will suffer a loss in wages that greatly affects their financial well being. If a harassed individual decides to file sexual harassment charges, court costs and monetary resolution will also affect companies, businesses, and employers.

In 2006, the EEOC received 12,025 charges of sexual harassment (15.4% filed by males); and in 2006, 11,936 sexual harassment charges were resolved, recovering $48.8 million in monetary compensation for charging and other affected parties [5].

e) Retaliation and Backlash [6]:

Often, sexual harassment victims are commonly dealt with in the same manner as rape victims, where the injured party tends to reap a great amount of retaliation and backlash. Outsiders may view them as “troublemakers,” or as a man or woman looking for attention. Their private life is often picked apart, including their physical appearance, choice in clothing, and character. Co-workers, teachers, bosses, peers, and even family and friends may become hostile or display doubt.

In some circles, an accuser may receive lower grades from disapproving professors; are given poor job performance evaluations; have their work sabotaged; are denied rightful employment or educational opportunities; lose hours on the job; become suspended or fired from work; or feel pressure to resign or move out of a community. The retaliation may unfortunately breed additional acts of sexual harassment.

f) Direct Victim Effects:

The negative effects of sexual harassment stretch across the professional, social, academic, financial, emotional, and personal aspects in a victim’s life. A decrease in job or school performance often takes place, usually accompanied by missed days of work or classes. If they lose their job or fall down in their company rank, they may financially feel the burden. Some students are unable to continue attending school and may leave the institution altogether, which often causes a loss in tuition.

In the workplace, school setting, or around town, a victim may experience humiliation, intense examination of their personal life, and become the center of gossip. A sexual harassment victim often encounters defamation of character and a poor reputation. Due to their negative experiences, a loss of trust may develop, where the harassed no longer feels comfortable in similar environments or having contact with people holding similar positions. Intense stress frequently puts a strain on relationships, friendships, and marriages (sometimes to the point of divorce).

When harassment has done the most damage, relocation may take place, often resulting in a new job, school, community, city, and sometimes state.

g) Physical Responses:

A victim of sexual harassment may encounter an assortment of both psychological and health responses – sometimes to the point of medical intervention. The harassed may suffer depression, anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, sleepless nights, eating disorders, upset stomach, headaches, weight loss or gain, violent tendencies, low self-esteem, and in the worst cases, suicidal thoughts [7].

How to Prevent Sexual Harassment

There are many cases of sexual harassment that take place because some individuals are unaware that they are displaying unacceptable behavior. Those who continue to sexually harass an individual often perceive the situation as something they are able to “get away with” and do not count on the victim taking action.

Many harassers are also not familiar with the rules, regulations, and laws regarding unwanted sexual attention, which aim to protect the rights of victims. To date, many work environments, higher learning institutions, and even a few states are cracking down on the issue of sexual harassment by implementing mandatory policies. Other prevention measures include:

a) Avoid Unacceptable Behavior:

The best way to prevent sexual harassment is to avoid the behaviors considered inappropriate within the workplace, classroom, behind closed doors, and in public. This includes telling offensive jokes of a sexual nature; inappropriate touching (rubbing shoulders, squeezing body parts, forcing hugs); making comments on body parts; questioning or discussing sexual activities and habits; posting sexually suggestive images; sending explicit emails; making indecent gestures; using inappropriate name-calling or creating pet names; and using crude language.

b) Pass Out Informative Booklets:

Today, there are many informational booklets that help employees and employers that educate on the issues of sexual harassment. A popular and best-selling training booklet on the market is called, “How to Recognize and Prevent Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.” Pamphlets on the topic usually defines sexual harassment, gives easy-to-understand examples, illustrates scenarios, provides statistics, and suggests ways on preventing lawsuits and claims. The rights and responsibilities of both employees and employers are also explained, as well as ways on how to correct minor problems within the workplace.

c) Awareness Courses and Training:

Cautious employers incorporate sexual harassment awareness courses and training into usual workplace education. This helps employers prevent conflict within the office or company, especially the kind that ends in legal action. An Assembly Bill signed in 2004 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made this sort of training mandatory in California [9]. This type of training may occur both on- and offsite, and is no way the sole method of prevention that a workplace should rely on.

d) Post Sexual Harassment Policies:

To make sure sexual harassment policies aren’t forgotten, it is important to post policies in clear view as a daily reminder.

e) Pre-Counseling:

When sexual harassment has been viewed or suspected, it is important to counsel offenses, even when formal complaints are not filed. This helps to prevent further harassment and possibly end problems before they start.

f) Set a Good Example:

Preventing inappropriate behavior in the workplace begins with the higher-ups – executives, supervisors, and bosses are expected to set a good example and especially abide by the rules.

g) Immediate Attention to Complaints:

To prevent behavior problems in the workplace that includes sexual harassment concerns, it is important to immediately react and respond to any complaints. A complete and thorough investigation should take place in order to set an example and correct any current problems.


[1] http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/currentissues.html
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalking
[3] http://www.usmc-mccs.org/leadersguide/Harassment/SH/generalinfo.cfm
[4] http://www.aauw.org/research/girls_education/hostile.cfm
[5] http://www.eeoc.gov/types/sexual_harassment.html
[6] http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct03/harass.html
[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_harrassment
[8] http://cset.sp.utoledo.edu/engt2000/Lesson7b.pdf
[9] http://library.findlaw.com/2005/Feb/6/133651.html

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