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Are You Concerned About Sexual Harassment?

Have you experienced sexual harassment? Are you wondering whether what you experience is sexual harassment? Have you been accused of sexual harassment? Are you trying to investigate a case of sexual harassment? Are you concerned about friends or colleagues who are victims of sexual harassment?

This Site is For You!

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination where intimidating, hostile, abusive, or offensive conduct is directed at an employee in a work place or work related setting.  The conduct can take the form of sexual conduct, but sexual harassment is not limited to such conduct.  Any abusive or offensive conduct that is directed at a woman because she is a woman (and vice versa) violates the federal and state standards.  So, for example, if a man directs violent conduct (i.e. throwing things like keys, pencils, phones) at women at least in part because they are women, such conduct is illegal.

One type of sexual harassment, Quid Pro Quo Harassment, occurs when sexual favors are requested in exchange for job opportunities.  “I will give you raise if you sleep with me.”  Another type of sexual harassment, Hostile Work Environment Harassment, occurs when the work place is altered by abusive or offensive conduct.  This occurs where another employee continually asks something like, “Hey good looking, want to look at my pornography collection in my locker.”  No one need work in such a polluted environment.

While it can be useful to learn about the legal definition of sexual harassment, it is also critical to realize that the law does not always match the experience of people. A situation that is legal and seems harmless to others can lead for some to a major life crisis, while others may be exposed to sexual harassment in the legal sense without feeling much affected.

Our goal for this website is to enhance understanding of the personal experience. From various people involved with sexual harassment we know that even when the scenarios of what happened are quite different, the experiences, and the problems and issues that need to be dealt with, can be remarkably similar.

A further goal is to contribute to informing the public about sexual harassment, and to promote the healing of those who have been hurt.

We Want to Hear From You!

We hope that this site will also be seen as an invitation. A truly accurate and informative picture of the experience of sexual harassment can only emerge if many people with different view points and experiences contribute their unique expertise. We thus very much appreciate your comments on the material presented here as well as any original contributions.

Goals

End the sexual harassment

Once a person has realized that her personal space has been violated, ending this violation becomes her first priority. Some confront the harasser; others turn to the harasser’s manager or follow the ways suggested by the sexual harassment policy. Yet others simply quit their job to escape the situation. While creating a distance between the victim and the perpetrator is certainly an important step, it usually does not automatically resolve the issue for the victim.

Stay in Job

Victims usually want to keep their current job or an equivalent position, and to continue in their chosen career path.

Come to terms with the experience

Each victim comes to term with the experience in her own unique way, but the process often involves the following observations.

  1. I need to stand up for myself.
    If I do not protect and assert my personal space, nobody will do it for me. Even if the perpetrator’s actions are illegal, it is possible that nobody will stop him unless I take steps to defend my rights.
  2. I need to find my priorities.
    Even if a victim is very assertive she will often find out that it is unrealistic that all her wishes will be granted. This does not mean that she is overly demanding. There are often conflicts between simple demands such as working in a harassment-free environment and continuing one’s career, or wanting justice and wanting to move on with one’s life.The victim needs to decide what is of primary importance to her, and act accordingly.
  3. I need to be true to myself.
    Sometimes victims set specific priorities, decide on how they will act but then cannot follow through. For example, the decision to simply bear the harassment in order to enjoy one’s career might end in failure. Victims learn to pay attention to and be honest about their feelings, teaching them what they really want and need.

Pursue Justice

When victims realize how painful their experience was (or still is), they usually want to make sure that the perpetrator will be held accountable for inappropriate behavior so that nobody else has to go through a similar experience. While this is certainly laudable, victims should realize that they are likely to encounter a lot of resistance in their search for justice, which can add to their sense of powerlessness and increase their pain even further. They should also realize that seeing the perpetrator punished may not give them the closure they desire; they still have to come to terms with the experience of powerlessness. This is not to say that victims should not pursue this issue, but they need to consider carefully if they have sufficient strength and commitment at this point, and whether this is really important to them. Since a lot of pain can be involved in this process, friends should be careful not to push a victim in this direction. One possibility to consider is to first emphasize the personal healing, and to then pursue the issue of justice with renewed strength.

Get on with life

Every victim wishes at some point during the ordeal that she could just forget about the whole thing and move on with her life. This issue cannot be pressed, however, and is not facilitated by encouragement of impatient friends. The experience has been too unsettling and painful and needs to be processed before the victim will be ready to move on. Sometimes victims are held back by the sense that they have a moral obligation to make sure that the case is properly handled, and that no other woman has to suffer as they did. While pursuing justice can feel very rewarding and give the victim a sense of making a positive contribution, the conscious choice to let go of the inflicted injustice and being able to move on with one’s life can be a very empowering experience as well.

Purpose

People involved in sexual harassment often find themselves confronted with behavior they cannot comprehend.  Victims are wondering why the harasser is behaving in a way that is so offensive to them and why they cannot get him to stop; alleged harassers are wondering why someone they trusted would turn against them and unfairly accuse them; colleagues are trying to understand why the victim did not defend herself better; partners are asking themselves why the investigation of the incidence apparently takes forever; and friends are wondering why the victim makes such a big deal of the episode instead of simply moving on with life.

Understanding Sexual Harassment

One goal for this website is to contribute to a better understanding of what goes on during a typical incidence of sexual harassment, and what motivates the behavior of the main “players”.  We are striving towards a balanced view that is fair to all the parties involved. We would hope that you, the reader, will feel encouraged to share some of your unique experiences with sexual harassment with us, because a truly accurate picture of what sexual harassment is like can emerge only if many different people with different views and expertise contribute to this site.

Building a Community For Healing

Sexual harassment can be a very painful experience, and often those involved feel isolated from their friends, colleagues, or community in general.  Our goal for this website is to provide a forum for all those concerned about sexual harassment. We want this website to be a place where they can voice their concerns, share their experiences, and find a community where they feel understood.

Educating the Public About Sexual Harassment

Finally, we hope this website can contribute to raising awareness. While many potential harassers are informed what behavior is acceptable and what is not, most do not understand how devastating the experience can be for the victim.  In other words, they realize harassment is illegal but they nevertheless consider it rather harmless.

This attitude, which also seems to resonate with the general public, cannot be changed by any policy or law.  It can only change if victims overcome their shame and speak out.  Victims honestly sharing their experiences may be the most effective way of preventing sexual harassment, or at least reducing its prevalence.

Reactions

Denial/Trivializing

In the beginning, victims often trivialize the behavior (“He is just trying to be funny.”) and they deny how it makes them feel (“Why should I be bothered? I will just ignore him.”). Sooner or later the victim will usually have to face the truth, which is that they do not find the behavior funny but are bothered by it, and that they do not manage to ignore the guy.

Emotional Numbness

After a shocking experience (realizing one’s powerlessness) one sometimes feels emotionally numb. Events that usually would trigger strong emotions are suddenly looked at from a purely rational perspective.

Guilt

Often the victim is advised by friends not to blame herself for what has happened. Equally often the victim is unable to put this well-meant advice into practice.

It is important to understand that the victim faces a very difficult dilemma: if she is not to blame for what has happened, how can she ensure that it will never happen again? By blaming herself she can avoid facing her own powerlessness.  As a result, victims are often not very picky when it comes to finding a long list of reasons why they are to blame. Friends can help her to determine that some items on the list are not entirely convincing: “If I didn’t take the early train to work I never would have met that guy and it would never have happened.” Other items on the list may be more open to debate: “That guy always made me uncomfortable. I should not have agreed to meet him late at night at his office for a meeting.” It is important that the victim evaluates carefully any potential contribution to the events. She can then decide to adjust her behavior in the future, allowing her to feel in control that this experience will not repeat. However, she does not need to feel guilty about her behavior in the past once she realizes that she acted like this only because she was not fully aware of how negative the consequences could be. (She may have expected moments of discomfort, but not THIS). Once she sees that her action was based on ignorance, she will probably find it easy to forgive herself.

Fear/Distrust

The victim is usually afraid that the harassment will continue, or, if she is far away from the harasser, that another person will start harassing her.  It is difficult for her to trust anyone.

Negotiating

Victims often look at their problem in a very rational way. Negotiations of the type: “If I do not complain, can I continue my career?” can help her to find a solution and to regain control over the situation. Even if they don’t seem to lead anywhere, they help by clarifying priorities.

Rage/Anger/Frustration

The experience of powerlessness often triggers rage, anger and frustration.

Sadness

When the anger and rage ease off, victims often feel deep sadness.

Forgiveness/Generosity

Sometimes victims come to a point where they forgive the harasser.  This is often the case if the victim realizes that her problems are mostly related to her experiencing powerlessness, and not to the specific harassment she experienced (a car accident may have triggered a similar response). Finding the generosity within to forgive the harasser and to let go of the hurt can be an empowering choice.

Assertiveness/Selfdefense

After working through the experience, victims often decide to change their strategies for interactions with harassers.  Rather than ignoring the behavior, they assert themselves and confront the harasser.

Proactivity

While the experience of powerlessness is still valid, victims often realize that they are not powerless about everything.  They can affect the world around them, at least in small ways. For example, the victim might decide to speak out about her experience, to increase awareness and to be available as a support person for others who go through a similar crisis.

Employer

Goals

The general goal of the employer is to represent what s/he perceives as the interests of the institution.

Avoid Litigation

One of the primary goals is to avoid litigation, because litigation and possibly losing a court case are very expensive, and also negatively affect the reputation of the institution.

Avoid Scandal

The employer will like to keep a low profile. Any media coverage, for instance, will jeopardize the reputation of the institution.

Save Resources (Money, Time)

The employer needs to wisely allocate the resources of the institution, and will try to minimize the cost of the investigation.

Keep Successful Employees

The employer will be reluctant to give up on employees crucial to the success of the enterprise.

Be Consistent With Mission and Institutional Culture

Consistent with the mission of the institution, the employer is likely to be biased either towards the victim or the alleged harasser. If having a harassment-free, women-friendly workplace is high on the list, the employer may try to get rid of a “morally sick harasser”, and will be biased against the alleged harasser. If the quality of work is more important, the employer may hope to keep a top-notch employee that is crucial to the success of the institution. In this case, the employer will probably be biased against a “mentally unstable troublemaker”.  Any such bias towards the alleged harasser or the victim may have a much larger impact on the outcome of an investigation than the facts.

(Re-)actions

Legal Outlook

Trying to avoid a law suit, employers rarely follow their gut feelings, but they are directed in every action by the institution’s lawyers. This often eliminates straightforward and honest communication, and makes it very difficult to find satisfactory informal solutions to the conflict.

Being Diplomatic

Trying to avoid litigation or a scandal, employers will try hard to keep both parties satisfied, and make them feel like they receive all the support they need.  He or she may try to calm them down, by saying to the victim: “We are sorry this happened. We will take care of the situation and make sure this will not happen again.” and to the alleged harasser: “We trust you 100%. We are sure the issue can be solved in a way that is satisfactory for everybody.”
Delaying or slowing down an investigation may also be a good strategy, as this may wear the parties out, and makes them less likely to fight the outcome of the investigation.

Determining Resources For Investigation

One way in which an employer may bias the outcome of an investigation is by determining the resources assigned to the investigation. For example, he or she may appoint a staff member who is not sufficiently trained and does not have much clout within the institution and is thus unlikely to turn up compelling evidence.

Intimidation &Threats

Employers sometimes use their power by intimidating or threatening victims, investigators, or anyone whose actions might cause an undesired outcome.

Isolate Victim or Harasser

Employers will usually discourage that the parties involved talk to anyone about the incidence. While neither the victim nor the alleged harasser usually feel like talking about the experience with many people, their silence can also create a sense of isolation. This can lead to a lack of support later  when they want to fight what they perceive as an injust decision. In fact, the employer’s bias (towards victim or alleged harasser) can often be determined by looking at who is temporarily removed from the workplace (while the investigation lasts).

Investigator

Goals

Represent Interests of Employer

The investigator is in most cases hired/employed by the institution in which the harassment allegedly occurred. The primary interest of an investigator thus is to represent the interests of the employer.

Fair Investigation

Most investigators will hold themselves also to an internal standard, and try to conduct an investigation that is fair to all parties.

Personal Satisfaction

Most investigators will want to get satisfaction out of how they deal with the situation.  Investigators may have a personal bias and they may hope that “their party” wins. For example, a feminist investigator may somehow bias the investigation towards the victim while a member of the “old-boys-club” might inadvertently favor the alleged harasser.

Limit Work

The investigator typically has other important responsibilities in addition to the investigation, and will thus try to limit the amount of time and effort that goes into the investigation to the necessary minimum.

(RE-)actions

Slow Investigation

A slow investigation has several advantages.  It limits the workload of the investigator, and it will emotionally wear out both the victim and the alleged harasser, thus making it less likely that they will fight the outcome of the investigation. The initial “temporary” solution (e.g., leave of absence for victim or alleged harasser) often becomes the new status quo.

Superficial Investigation

If the investigator or employer is biased towards the alleged harasser, a superficial investigation is unlikely to uncover undesirable evidence.

Acceptable Investigation

Investigations often become suddenly more serious if one of the parties hires a lawyer, because then the employer and the investigator have a strong interest in avoiding obvious flaws in the investigation.

Thorough Investigation

The main reason for conducting a very thorough investigation is a personal commitment of the employer and/or investigator.  However, even highly motivated investigators cannot be effective if the employer does not truly support their efforts.  Also, the investigation is made difficult if the investigator is not sufficiently trained for the job, or is not perceived as sufficiently powerful within the organization.

Friends/Colleagues

Experience

Friends and colleagues may go through an experience which is similar in some aspects to the experience of the victim or the alleged harasser (depending on who they identify with).

Powerlessness

Friends and colleagues can also experience powerlessness.  First, they might empathize with the victim (or alleged harasser) and thus feel their powerlessness in the situation for themselves. In addition, they often are acutely aware of their own powerlessness in helping their friend/colleague.

Goals

Support Friend/Colleague

They want to help the friend or colleague who is having troubles.

Process Own Reactions to Powerlessness

Friends and colleagues also need to deal with their own experience of powerlessness.

Reactions

Disbelief

At first, many friends and colleagues have a hard time believing the allegations: “He seems like such a nice person.”  While denial is a typical first reaction for victims as well, they usually will find themselves forced to move on and accept and deal with the experience.

Trivializing

Friends and colleagues may comment: “Why do you need to make such a big deal of this? Just ignore the guy!” This again mirrors a typical reaction of victims. But while a victim of harassment has an experience that she will eventually be unable to ignore, only very openminded and sensitive friends/colleagues will be able to see that “making a big deal of it” is not a voluntary choice but is an authentic reaction to her experience.

Fear

Friends and colleagues often fear retaliation if they openly support a victim or alleged harasser. Sometimes they discourage a victim who wants a confrontation because they are afraid the harasser will become violent and will lash out against them as well.

Moralistic

Some friends and colleagues urge the victim to come forward, and point out that they have a moral obligation to do so, or else the harasser might hurt other victims as well.

Blame

Some friends and colleagues find that the harassment was the victims own fault.  Perhaps if the victim had dressed in a more conservative way, the harassment would never have happened.

Distance

Many do not want to be involved with people that go through a crisis.  They find them exhausting to be with or are simply bored in their presence.

Dominant

Some friends or colleagues seem to know exactly what needs to be done to improve the situation. This allows them to feel in charge of the situation, and not to accept their own powerlessness.  While victims are often grateful for someone who tells them what to do,  it can further increase their sense of powerlessness, since the friend essentially signals that they are unable to control the situation themselves.

Supportive

Some friends and colleagues are able to listen to the experience of victims without telling them what they should do/should have done.  These friends and colleagues are an important resource for the victim to clarify her own experience and find out what she wants to do about it.

Alleged Harasser

A person can become an alleged harasser for various reasons:  First, he may have become the victim of false allegations.  Second, the allegations—while correct—seemed harmless to the alleged harasser; he perceived his behavior as playful and fun-filled, and did not mean any harm. Third, the alleged harasser may have been fully aware of the negative impact of his behavior, i.e., he harassed the victim with the intent to hurt her, or to benefit from the harassment in some way. It is difficult to consider all these situations at once.  The following discussion focusses on those who were surprised by the allegations, i.e., they did not act with malicious intent.

Experience

Rejection

Alleged harassers often feel deceived and rejected.  They were interested in the person who made the allegations, and thought that they were on good terms with each other. The accusations are a very clear sign that the harasser as a person has been rejected.

Humiliation

Being accused of sexual harassment is deeply humiliating. Allegations of this nature suggest that one is incompetent in social interactions, if not downright inappropriate. Once an allegation is made, rumors spread quickly and a private matter is soon the subject of public discussion.

Powerlessness

Whether the allegations are justified, exaggerated or entirely fictional, the person who has been accused of sexual harassment is in danger of losing job, ruining his career, his reputation, family relationships and friends.  And often there is very little they can do to regain control. In an experience quite analogous to those of victims of sexual harassment, experienceing powerlessness can lead to a life-changing crisis.

Goals

Maintain Reputation

Someone accused of sexual harassment will lose his reputation, at the very least to some degree.  He will hope to keep the matter as confidential as possible.

Keep Job

The alleged harasser will want to keep his job.

Justice

If the allegations are unfounded or unfair, the alleged harasser will want a careful investigation, at the end of which he will be exonerated.

Move On With Life

The alleged harasser, like the victim, will want to put the issue behind as quickly as possible and move on with his life.

Learn to Avoid Future Allegations

Ideally, the harasser will honestly question his behavior.  Perhaps he was somewhat insensitive, or failed to verify whether his comments or actions were welcome, and perceived in the way they were intended.  Unfortunately, those who act with clear intentions also learn how to be more effective harassers, for example, how to avoid leaving evidence.

Reactions

Trivializing/Denial

When someone is first confronted with allegations of sexual harassment he often wants to deny the seriousness of the matter.  He might be joking with colleagues giving all kinds of reasons for why the woman made the allegations:  “This woman just has personal problems that she is trying to take out on me.”

Disappointment

Even when the allegations are correct, the harasser often did not mean any serious harm, but thought of his actions as fun and playful.  He trusted that the other person felt the same way.  When harassers are confronted with allegations (often through a third party) they feel that the person who made the allegations has abused their trust.  Why did the person not come directly to them, and explain that they had a problem with the behavior.  Why did she have to talk about it to his employer and make it a matter of semi-public debate? The disappointment and hurt is worse, of course, if the allegations do not correspond to the facts and were made up by a person he had perhaps considered his friend.

Fear

Allegations of sexual harassment are serious.  They can lead to a loss of the job, social status, family relationships, friends, and even freedom.  Naturally the alleged harasser will be haunted by fear that he may loose everything that is meaningful to him.

Anger

Reacting to the loss of control, the alleged harasser is likely to get angry.  He can be angry both at the person who made the allegations and the institution who does not protect him better.  Often harassers are aware that it can worsen their situation if they express their anger openly by lashing out, since it will serve as a demonstration that they do not have good self-control. This can then make the allegations seem more plausible and hurt their case.

Was that for last night?

I was working as a temporary food server in a retirement home during my summer break from graduate school. One of the chefs asked if I would give a check to the boss. My boss and I were both working the floor, serving people dinner. I approached my boss, telling him that I had a check from the chef. I asked my boss where I should put the check. My boss, with four plates in his hands asked me to place it in his front shirt pocket. I did, and he responded, “Was that for last night?” I felt humiliated and angry. I shot him an angry look, turned around, and walked away. I really needed the work.

I talked to him about his behavior a few days later and let him know that I thought his remark was inappropriate and especially embarrassing when said in front of others. I told him that his comment made me uncomfortable because it made it seem that he and I had some relationship other than professional and that relationship involved the exchange of money. Although I didn’t say it, his comment made us look as though we were engaging in prostitution. He apologized. He said that as soon as the comment came out of his mouth, he knew he shouldn’t have said it; the look on my face confirmed his thoughts. There were no further incidents.

Getting Stuck

I started a new job and was assigned to work on a project with this senior staff member. We meet on a regular basis to discuss analytic strategies, writing responsibilities, etc. During the first two years, there were infrequent inappropriate remarks (general sexual remarks) and more frequent remarks on my appearance. I watched his behavior and listened to his language, but didn’t confront him directly about it. One day, he asked me if I would consider meeting him up at the spa for a spa treatment or lunch. I said no.

A few days later, I told my supervisor about his proposal. She was very supportive and asked me how I wanted to manage the situation. I made it clear that I was not interested in him and that I was going to try to continue to work with him. I believed that he would not pursue me in that way again once I had a frank discussion with him. My boss offered to talk to his boss on my behalf, if I thought that would help. I decided to use that as a last resort in the case that I could not stop his overtures.

I told him that his invitation and comments on my appearance made me uncomfortable. He apologized and then seemed to retaliate by refusing to finish the project, knowing that publishing the project’s findings would help my application to graduate school. Specifically, over the next nine months, he continued to try to make our time together personal rather than professional by have meetings at a café instead of in his office. In between meetings, he rarely completed the work that he had agreed to complete. He essentially refused to finish the report. I felt professionally and personally trapped until he left the company because I could not move forward with the project without his input.