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Let’s not blame the victim, but…: Defining Sexual Harassment

By Virgie Thibault

I’m aware that the topic of sexual harassment carries a significant amount of emotion with it, so I will be handling this subject as delicately as I can without drawing back on the logical points that are not being made in the current discussion that our world is having.  Also, as a victim of sexual harassment and sexual assault, I too had a visceral and emotional response to the subject.  To gain some perspective, I turned to the men in my life and tried to really peel this issue apart.  It required me to reveal some secrets I haven’t revealed to anyone else, consistently remind myself to keep my voice calm, and listen to every word they said.  I admit that it was a difficult conversation to have, and in truth, it took four separate sessions with them to finally reach these moments of consensus.  I learned a lot about the way men view relations with women, and they learned a lot from me and were called upon to be honest with themselves about other aspects of those relations.  So, without further ado, let’s discuss what we can do as women to take our power back.

Sexual assault and harassment are wrong.  We get that, but what can we do to prevent and decrease incidents of assault and harassment?  What can we do to help our sisters under duress?  What do we want from our men, our legal system, our country, and our world?  I always like to begin any debate with definitions.  Sexual harassment, as defined by Oxford English dictionary means, “Behaviour characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation.”  Sexual assault is defined as, “The action or an act of forcing an unconsenting person to engage in sexual activity; a rape.”

Clearly, we see that there are at least two tiers of sexual encroachment built into our language and sexual assault is much more serious with violent rape at the furthest reach of the scale.  The lower tier belongs to sexual harassment cases with the least serious type involving asking for permission to do or say sexually inappropriate or unwanted things.  That seems to suggest that sexual encroachment happens on a continuum with rape at one end and inappropriate advances at the other.

Let’s be real, not every type of sexual harassment deserves firing, jail time, or media shame, especially years later.  Of course, there is only one person who should get to decide when and how and what is a sufficient charge for them to speak up on.  However, once a woman does speak up, she must be cognizant of the fact that she too will be drug through the mud until the case is proven, and that is an unfortunate but necessary part of the process.  Unfortunately, there is no way to prove most harassment cases definitively with evidence, and the accused should be considered innocent until proven guilty.  Thus, the process will require that the accuser have strength and stick to their guns.

Despite that daunting prospect, if you have been assaulted or harassed it is important that you do report it.  The perpetrator of that crime is a toxic male in our society and we must be brave to act before that toxic individual has a chance to do it again.

In cases of harassment, however, the situation can be much more complicated.  First, actions of harassment are sometimes botched or miscalculated attempts to move toward consensual sex or a relationship.  Men must frequently risk rejection just to get a single date.  Despite the many recent strides toward equality that the United States has taken, many women have never even tried to ask a man out.  That puts men in a position where they want to approach you, but they may not know how, and whether we like it or not, many of them make poor decisions about how to bridge the divide.  I am not referring to obvious oversteps, and again, only the victim can say what the correct move is, but I hope that we can better decide how to correct men’s behaviors and be more aware of the things we may do that can reinforce those negative behaviors.

There are many more interesting points on which I gained more logical viewpoints through conversations with the men in my life, such as: how to report in a more believable way, ways that women behave that can send confusing signals to men, and how to better mentor both young boys and girls to decrease the incidents of harassment in our future.  In the next article in the Sexual Harassment series, we will discuss more ways that we can change our behavior to improve our futures without sacrificing progress or women’s rights or men’s safety or justice.

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