The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines (29 C.F.R. § 1604.11) 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 (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, (2) submission to or rejection
of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.
Although this guideline specifically addresses sexual harassment in a workplace environment, these guidelines also provide a good framework for its definition outside of a formal workplace environment.
Implicit within these guidelines is the recognition of the impact of a differential-of-power between the harasser and the victim. Power can take different forms but will always allow for control over some aspect of another person’s life. This is most commonly connected to employment, yet the differential-of-power is also present in teacher-student relationships, areas that impact one’s personal image, and a range of areas related to finance.
Differential-of-power sexual harassment occurs when a person is coerced to submit to unwelcome sexual conduct by someone with greater power or influence. The coercion can occur from both a positive direction, where an offer is made to help the victim, or from a negative direction where the victim is threatened with negative consequences. Examples of positive-direction coercion could be an offer to provide venture capital for a business or to offer a highly desired promotion. Examples of negative-direction coercion would be a threat of termination or a negative evaluation of job performance.
It is common for abusers with high power to have personal or organizational structures around them to aid with their harassing behavior. From this complicity comes additional layers in the harassment scenario; layers that must be understood if sexual harassment will be appropriately addressed. Therefore, I will attempt to peel back some of the layers of the differential-of-power sexual harassment scenario.
As I understand this situation, there are four primary layers; the victim, the abuser, the enablers, and the persecutors of the victim. Although a more comprehensive discussion of each of these layers is warranted, I am hopeful that I can at least capture their essence in the following pages.
The victim is the one to whom unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual or lewd nature are directed, with an explicit or implicit term or condition attached or that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment. The victim is the one being harassed.
The victim may or may not outwardly object to the solicitation. It is important to not interpret lack of objection as a sign of consent since victims of sexual assault will almost always struggle with how to respond. Given that this harassment always involves a level of coercion, the victims are often conflicted in determining the correct response. This conflict often involves self-blame or guilt, that in turn can lead to internalizing the event in a psychologically damaging way. What makes sexual harassment so challenging to confront is that there is no clear pattern of victim behavior and unlike physical abuse that leaves visible wounds, sexual harassment wounds are emotional or psychological and leave no visible marks.
One of the more challenging victim scenarios for society to understand is when the victim agrees to the sexual advances in a seemingly consensual manner. There are times that the victim may be flattered by the advances of a much more powerful individual and may even consent to engage sexually. However, when viewing it through the lens of differential-of-power based sexual harassment, the ability for the victim to provide consent lessens as the differential-of-power increases. Therefore, when accepting this concept of differential-of-power sexual harassment, extreme power difference basically negates a victim’s ability to provide consent. This is much the same as when minors, intoxicated persons, persons under duress, and individuals lacking appropriate mental capacity are unable to consent.
The abuser is the perpetrator of sexual harassment. A variety of motives are suggested as to why abusers engage in such behavior. Abuser motives range from a need to control others to unrestrained sexual lust. Although this discussion is not designed to explore the research in detail, it is important to understand some general motivations and tendencies of abusers.
Abusers tend to possess a degree of narcissism and/or psychopathy. These tendencies lead to dehumanizing or objectifying the victim and limit their ability to empathize with the victim. This lack of empathy is evident by an overperception of receptivity by the victim, and a lack of understanding the inappropriateness of their behavior and the level of discomfort their actions cause.
In differential-of-power harassment, the abuser uses a position of power to coerce or persuade someone over whom they have some level of power, to engage in sexual activities in which they would not engage in absent the coercion. Abusers may be more or less forceful in their coercion of the victim and their actions will vary on the explicit – implicit spectrum. Furthermore, it is common for persons of power to have developed a sense of entitlement that can exacerbate the more general abuser motivations.
The enablers are those persons around the abuser that not only allows the harassment to occur but often assist with it. This occurs in a variety of ways such as arranging meetings, screening visitors, or blocking the door behind which the harassment or assault is occurring. Enablers tend to fall into two categories: the ones who are hyper-loyal to the abuser and view their actions as noble rather than detrimental; and the ones who are like-minded with the abuser and assist in their conquests.
The hyper-loyal enabler chooses to remain ignorant or they have convinced themselves that everything occurring is consensual. Hyper-loyal enablers tend to be co-workers, support staff, friends, or family. They tend to excuse the questionable behavior of the abuser as innocent flirtations or misinterpreted friendliness.
The like-minded enablers have their own sinister motives and are fully aware of the harassment. They tend to be persons-of-influence with the abuser and are often business partners, associates, or long-time close friends. Although they may also be abusers, it is safe to assume that they are actively engaged with the abuser in the conquest of sexual prey.
A note of caution. We must differentiate the enablers from co-workers or acquaintances who may have a peripheral understanding of the abuser’s activities, but lack the complete picture or any influence to change it. An administrative assistant who sets appointments for the abuser, may out of fear for their own job choose to remain uninformed of suspicious activities. It is possible that apparent enablers are also victims.
The victim persecutors are those within the abuser’s sphere of influence that attempt to discredit a victim who reports the abuser’s harassing behavior. They shame, disparage, discredit, or in other ways attack the victim as a means of protecting the abuser. Attorneys are often hired to prosecute such victims; however, victim persecutors also take the form of close friends, business associates, spouses or partners of the abuser, or political organizations. These are the ones who do not seek truth or justice, but rather have as an objective to protect the image, freedom, or resources of the abuser.
As horrific as the sexual harassment is for the victim, the persecution backlash that comes from reporting it, can be even more horrific. Threats of lawsuits designed to bankrupt, public humiliation, blackballing, and gas lighting are just a few of the cruel consequences that victims face when persecuted by the abuser’s allies. The persecutors will almost always have a financial, reputational, or political interest in defending the abuser.
Yet, when a victim faces harassment from someone of great power, who is surrounded by enablers and victim persecutors, the hideousness is elevated. How do we adequately protect victims when so many others have an interest in their story being hushed?
Sexual harassment, in all its insidious forms, must be stopped. So, how do we make this happen? This is the question that haunts me as I watch one story after another unfold in the media. One thing of which I am sure of is that something must be done. Although the problem seems too complex and widespread for any one person to change, acting together I am convinced that change can happen.
As educators, we have the unique opportunity to coach and prepare the next generation. That is our true sphere of influence. For families and schools alike, the education of youth on this matter is imperative.
Three commitments that I believe educators and other concerned persons should make are,
- Make a conscious effort to be informed about sexual harassment and all of its nuanced forms.
- Include lessons and curriculum that shape a new understanding of appropriate sexual behavior and social interactions.
- Be willing to make a sacrifice and speak up for change, whether that sacrifice is confronting an abuser or helping a victim, be the change you want to see.