In classrooms, bars, and coffee shops and around the proverbial water cooler, sexual harassment has been on everyone’s lips in recent months, and one of the key points up for debate is as basic as it gets: What is sexual harassment?
As women, we know when something feels off — the hand that lingers too long, a compliment accompanied by a longing gaze, an off-color joke that suddenly makes you feel incredibly small. But do any of these moments constitute harassment?
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” This seems comfortably broad and all-encompassing until you read on and learn that the law “doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious…”
It’s finding that line between “simple teasing” and “verbal harassment of a sexual nature” that can become a bit of a minefield.
Is complimenting a woman’s appearance taboo now? In an article for NPR, New York employment attorney James Vagnini makes it very simple: “If you wouldn’t say it to a man, don’t say it to a woman.”
A lot of the conversation has pointed toward a recognition of hierarchy. Many businesses ban interpersonal relationships between supervisors and their subordinates because, in these cases, consent may not be enough. If she feels like she has to say yes to that dinner date because if she doesn’t, she’ll be passed over for a promotion, is that really a “Yes”?
In a recent article in The New York Times, several prominent feminists agreed that the idea of completely eliminating sex in the workplace was unrealistic. They also spoke about how navigating the odd offhand comment has become part of the working woman’s skill set. Newscaster Soledad O’Brien described it as “being fun, being a get-along kind of person, laughing at a joke, understanding when someone sends a silly flirty message that you’re not automatically offended.”
As women and men look for ways to change workplace behavior, an article in The Guardian points out that you’re always going to come across the inevitable Woody Allen response: “Every man who winks at a woman is going to be scared of the lawyers.” But, as author Zoe Williams points out, context is paramount: “A wink from a greengrocer is different from a wink from somebody who could fire you, or has contrived some way to catch you on your own, or has any other mutually understood circumstantial dominance over you.”
The fact that individuals — and men, in particular — are working to understand what defines sexual harassment is a good thing. Even better is the fact that institutions are beginning to recognize that the behavior of some of their leaders is intolerable. The sort of top-down calling out happening across entertainment, media, and — to a limited extent — politics is redefining what sort of behavior is punishable, and in doing so is redefining sexual harassment itself.
Do you think these definitions make sense? Tell us your thoughts @BritandCo.
(Photos via Getty)