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Sexual Harassment in the Work Place, An ongoing problem

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Sexual harassment is a continuing problem in the work place. The problem is not restricted to the United States but exists throughout the world and across all cultures. What is sexual harassment?

In legal terms, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. Sexually harassing behaviors range from an offender making repeated offensive comments to showing pornography to sexual assault.

There are two types of sexual harassment at the work place. The first is one in which an employer offers a promotion or some type of similar trade in return for sexual favors. This is referred to as "quid pro-quo harassment." The second type of harassment is one in which a "hostile work environment" is created. Such an environment includes any situation in which an employer, supervisor or co-worker engages in conduct that makes a co-worker feel uncomfortable because of his or her sex. The conduct must be offensive and unwanted by the victim. (These are informal definitions gleaned from informal conversations with lawyers).

This issue was recently brought to my attention by a client who complained about how she was being treated by a few men in her work place. On one occasion she was shocked when a male support staff agreed to fulfill a request of hers if she agreed to provide him with a crude sexual favor. Technically, he was joking but in reality she was shocked not only by his comment but by the crude way in which it was phrased. While she did object to this behavior and the individual did apologize he reverted to the same types of behavior soon after.

On another occasion, she was confronted by a person higher up in the organization who, without invitation and quite unexpectedly, fondled her on his way out of her office. This time she was shocked into speechlessness. Only after he left her office did she come to her senses and realize how angry she was.

What is particularly concerning about this and other, similar, cases is that this woman is fearful of reporting these outrages to the human resources department of the company for which she works. Like many people in this era of "President Bush’s conservative administration" she fears retaliation if she reports these incidents and is convinced that she has no rights. She holds this belief despite repeated court decisions declaring that these and other examples of sexual harassment are illegal.

If fearing reporting these blatant sexual offenses is not enough, she and other women in the same situations, actually harbor deep beliefs or worries that they must be at fault for these things happening. This goes back to a very old false standard about female behavior that they must have done something to cause unwanted sexual attention. Nothing can be further from the truth. Yet, these myths persist. It is a form of "blaming the victim" or the victim blaming herself.

What further complicates the issue of sexual harassment in the work place is that women are no longer the only victims of this behavior. There have been many complaints across the nation about male to male sexual harassment. Some of these cases involve homosexual men in high positions attempting to gain sexual favors from heterosexual men in exchange for promotion or with the threat of being fired. It is important to add to this ugly picture the more usual fact that heterosexual men harass, annoy, tease and threaten homosexual men who are in their employ. There seems to be no end to the variety of ways in which people can discriminate against and persecute other people for any variety of reasons.

What many people do not realize is that sexual harassment takes a heavy toll on the physical and mental health of the victims. For example, people who are harassed suffer from intense feelings of anxiety about going to work because they come to feel threatened. This also leads to feelings of depression and hopelessness. Physical symptoms begin to appear in victims in the form of headaches, stomach distress, back and neck aches and reduced self esteem. It should be fairly obvious that the work environment becomes stressful and that is expressed in low morale and diminished productivity.

There are many theories about why some people engage in harassing behavior. Some of these theories have to do with hatred of an individual for their sexual orientation. Other theories talk about some individuals who are predatory in their orientation towards others. Then, there is also the idea that some people gain feelings of power by threatening, bullying and harassing men or women at work.

Whatever the explanations are it is important that harassment be reported and dealt with by those who are its victims. There are some studies that show that saying and doing nothing about the situation invites further harassment which, by the time it gets reported, is less likely to be believed because it was left unreported for too long.

What are your comments about this issue?

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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