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The prevalence of sexual harassment in the US is so widespread that it belittles the fact that the right to be free of sexual harassment is a human right in some states.  Studies indicate that 40-70% of women and 10-20% of men have "experienced sexual harassment in the workplace."  On a personal level, none of my meat world female friends have been spared.  The scary part is how our society has institutionalized sexual harassment into our junior high and high schools where 85% of girls and 76% of boys have experienced some form of sexual harassment.  Indeed, sexual harassment has become the norm, not the exception.

Sexual harassment is also belittled by myths, including the myth that it is no big deal, just some flirting or a harmless joke.  But the one thing that belittles sexual harassment the most is the fact that our laws provide corporations "immunity" from sexual assault.

The EEOC defines sexual harassment as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, 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.

Let's compare to a general definition of sexual assault:

Specific laws vary by state, but sexual assault generally refers to any crime in which the offender subjects the victim to sexual touching that is unwanted and offensive. These crimes can range from sexual groping or assault/battery, to attempted rape.

Clearly, sexual harassment includes a variety of misconduct that would not constitute criminal sexual assault.  But, when the sexual harassment is physical, then corporate America is provided immunity from criminal laws only because the nonconsensual sexual touching is conducted in an office rather than in a restaurant. The law provides the key for immunity and society opens the door by pressuring women/men to not even file a complaint at work, much less a criminal complaint.

Apparently, the Army, makes the distinction I am raising:

Sexual harassment can involve physical contact; it also refers to verbal or other forms of gender discrimination of a sexual nature.  When physical contact becomes sexual in nature (i.e. grabbing or rubbing the butt or grabbing a breast) it crosses the line into sexual assault.

Under existing civilian law, the person harassed can file a criminal complaint against the boss or supervisor.  But, I'm talking about the perception of the gravity of sexual harassment that is diminished by the inclusion of physical sexual misconduct in the definition of sexual harassment. On the one hand, I like that the person harassed has the option of civil and/or criminal action against the creep for the same physical misconduct. On the other hand, I don't like the message it sends when the distinction between civil and criminal for some cases is where the harasser decided to sexually assault the person.

I've had what I would call two primary incidents of sexual harassment. I think I can make my point by describing the less traumatic case.  My boss started out with general verbal compliments about my physical appearance that were intermixed with praise of my work.  "Oh, you did an excellent job on that project...btw, your hair looks really nice today." Then, he became more specific about what he liked about my body parts so I quickly changed the topic. Then, came his arm around my shoulder when we were talking and sometimes his apparently very weak arm would slip off my shoulder to other parts. So, then I would try to arrange to be sitting down when we talked.  That did not always work, particularly when I would run into him in the hallway when he just had to tell me something. So, then came the frontal assaults of grabbing my breasts, all so accidentally, of course, as he needed to get real close when he talked to you. So, I started to make sure that I always carried a notepad or book that I would embrace strategically.  Well, then came grabs and rubs under my skirt or dress, like when I would be Xeroxing and he came in from behind me. So, I switched over to pants.

Throughout all of this, there were a lot of different arrangements I had to make in order to get my work done.  I had to make sure I was not working late alone or on weekends. A lot of times, I had to carry tons of books and documents home because I needed to do work. Other times, I had to travel a distance to use a public library rather than the office library. I had to make excuses why I could not join him for dinner or drinks to discuss "business," which can mean being excluded from opportunities.

After his wife died, he kept pleading for me to come over to his home because he did not know how to cook meals, etc. He also invited another woman, who thought it was an honor. At this time, a new department chair was hired, and SHE overhead the two of us discussing his invitation. The new chair said, "no, don't do it. It's not a good idea."   So, we did not. Later, she told me that I did not have to say anything...she could see the pain in my eyes when just his name was mentioned.  

The problem is when the harasser has a position of power, and mine was the top boss who also had a national reputation, your options are limited because you know about the underground grapevine where they discuss women/men on their blacklist.  And if you file a complaint, he gets a reprimand. Big effing deal.

I just believe that women and men have a human right to work without needing to develop war plans for how to avoid being physically assaulted or have their professional careers harmed by the negative perceptions attached to filing a sexual harassment complaint.   If physical sexual harassment were automatically a sexual assault, then the discretion is removed from the process such that the woman/man is not blamed for the prosecutor's decision.

Feminisms is a series of weekly feminist diaries. My fellow feminists and I decided to start our own for several purposes: we wanted a place to chat with each other, we felt it was important to both share our own stories and learn from others’, and we hoped to introduce to the community a better understanding of what feminism is about.

    Needless to say, we expect disagreements to arise. We have all had different experiences in life, so while we share the same labels, we don’t necessarily share the same definitions. Hopefully, we can all be patient and civil with each other, and remember that, ultimately, we’re all on the same side.

Originally posted to Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse on Wed Sep 10, 2008 at 06:47 PM PDT.

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