Hands Off! Say NO to Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment … even the word itself sounds kind of sleazy, or maybe that’s the (rightfully earned) negative connotation that is now inextricably linked to it. Such behavior is deplorable and, much like racism, there is no room for it in society. Somehow, it remains all-pervasive.

Even in this era of COVID and a virtual lifestyle, sexual harassment continues to be prevalent despite the universal understanding that it’s NOT okay. And that it cannot be tolerated any longer. Yet it’s not showing any signs of slowing down, let alone stopping. Twitch streamers have been screaming about sexual harassment for the past few months. For years, female gamers have been reporting sexual harassment and even death threats from male players. 

Let’s take a deeper look.

By definition, “Sexual Harassment =  behavior characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation.”

That’s a pretty clear definition. Perhaps we could argue that placing an emphasis on the professional instances of the bad behavior in of itself needs correction. In my opinion, there should be equal emphasis on personal and professional AND academic instances. Unwelcome sexual advances, inappropriate touching, crude and lewd language are all sexual harassment behaviors, regardless of where they take place.

And they’re not limited to men behaving badly towards women.

That’s a 1950’s era workplace myth back in the days when it was somehow acceptable (or at least forcibly tolerated) for male bosses to smack the asses of their female underlings. Gasp! I know, perish the thought, right?

“You’ve come a long way, baby” certainly rings true here. And the emphasis is on the word, baby. Thankfully, the practice of calling co-workers babe, honey, sweetie and other derogatory and sexually inappropriate names has gone the way of the dodo bird. Well, not exactly. Those names have disappeared but slut, ho, bitch and others are part of the vernacular.

By the mid-1980’s, sexual harassment in the workplace was declared illegal and countless lawsuits have upheld the regulations protecting workers. Since then, the billions spent on corporate sexual harassment training have at least had a positive outcome in that regard. On average, midsize companies in the US spend $20,000 annually whereas larger companies spend over $50,000 each year to train their employees for 2 hours about sexual harassment. The total spent is unknown, but, using back-of-the-napkin math, calculating an estimated annual spend on sexual harassment training for the 200,000 midsize plus 20,000 large-size US companies puts that number around $5 billion. 

But it’s not working. 

Training is ineffective: more than one-third of all women surveyed cite continued sexual harassment in the workplace. Those are the numbers for cis-women, what are the numbers for trans-women? Undoubtedly, significantly higher. 

What about LGBTQ? And I haven’t even dug into the correlation between sexual harassment and ethnicity. With more women now in the workplace than men, and women increasingly becoming the breadwinners of the home, men are now seeing the tables turned. 

Harassment becomes abusive or leads to assault for one in six men and one in five women will be raped. In the school yard, around 11% of all students experience sexual harassment or rape and only 20% of female students (aged 18-24) who experience sexual assault actually report it. This report continues with more unthinkable statistics; over 50% of students grades 7-12 experience sexual harassment. More than 2/3 of all college students are sexually harassed, assaulted or raped yet 89% of US colleges (2016) reported no incidences.  

Let that sink in for a moment … 

Reports of sexual harassment filed by men are on the rise. Experts theorize that men are reluctant to come forward fearing stigma. From an early age, boys are conditioned to accept verbal sexual harassment and to accept that women should be subjected to such treatment. Men fear loss of jobs and promotion if they don’t support other men in the workplace so they don’t often come to the defense of women either. Women have been conditioned, too – in fact, perhaps better conditioned than men because women do not succumb to depression, anxiety and substance-abuse at the same level that men do when victimized by sexual harassment.  

Here’s where it gets interesting. Boys are subjected to a barrage of sexually explicit behaviors, song lyrics, imagery and so on at an increasingly early age. So are girls. Nude selfies and sexting are now commonly reported by tweeners (children under the age of 13). That’s unacceptable and shocking!

As a result, teen suicides are on the rise as nude images quickly go viral through the school where the victimized student attends. If that’s not enough, revenge porn sites and illegal discord servers are popping up everywhere like mushrooms, an unstoppable fungus. It’s a cancel culture – any celebrity accused of sexual harassment or abuse is quickly tried in the media. And, in today’s timely situation of a leaked recording, it may even be happening in the media in the case of CNN’s Chris Cuomo

The back to school year has barely begun and there are already numerous reports of sexual harassment within the student body, including a large investigation ongoing now in Denver. Even the Army, following a string of violent and sexual deaths of soldiers, is taking a deeper look at its Sexual Harassment, Assault Response and Prevention policies. 

But changes in policies and two hours of annual sexual harassment training in the workplace is NOT enough.

We need to start earlier. We need to coach students on which behaviors are acceptable. We need to instill a greater sense of empathy so that people become more willing to step up and support someone on the receiving end of sexual harassment versus contributing to it by sharing a nude or compromising photo. 

My first job almost destroyed me when I had to go to HR and the Board to report that one of the co-founders was following me around the globe booking hotels at every conference and sales meeting that I attended, urging me to share a room with him. These experiences have long-lasting effects. Since then, I have repeatedly been on the receiving end of sexual harassment not just in my youth when I was “in my prime” in the heart of Silicon Valley but to this day still. Even on Linkedin, a professional social networking site, I often receive disgusting solicitations. Last night, at a founders’ virtual networking event, the most successful Latina founder as defined by the amount she has raised for her company, cited choosing crowd-funding versus venture capital investment because it eliminated the rampant sexual harassment that followed her with every meeting. That’s NOT okay. 

To this end, I want to enrich our Soft Skills Academy with coaching that denormalizes it – it’s not okay – it’s not inevitable, and students need to stand down and demand that it stops or take legal action. We can’t continue to dismiss it as “adolescent behavior” and a “natural byproduct of raging hormones.” That’s BULL SHIT. 

Coaching should also start earlier, teaching our students about empathy and boundaries so that they are better prepared for success at school, at work and in life. 

Kudos to Maya and Gemma Tutton in the UK with their Our Streets Now movement calling for tougher legislation and campaigns that raise awareness of the prevalence of public sexual harassment. The sisters are now campaigning with Our Schools Now to move sexual harassment training from the office into the classroom and I could not agree more!

TIPS TO COUNTER SEXUAL HARASSMENT

  1. Know your rights. Even if you said “yes” once, it’s not an open invitation for continuation. 
  2. Be assertive. Take control back. Ignoring the situation and not standing up for yourself will lead to an endless cycle of harassment that may even have long-lasting effects on future relationships and employment.
  3. It’s not your fault. You cannot be blamed for what happened to you or for bringing it to the attention of the authorities. The US Department of Education has clear policies regarding sexual harassment.
  4. Retaliation is illegal. If your school is not taking you seriously or not taking action, contact an advocacy service who WILL fight for justice for you.
  5. School administrators need to take action, to make it a priority and companion training to anti-bullying efforts. 

Sexual harassment of any form is NOT okay. Don’t stand for it. If you want behavioral change, demand it. We’re here to provide coaching and guidance to help students navigate this thorny issue so that, together, we can change those awful statistics. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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