Sexual Harassment: Where Is "The Line?"

Updated on January 4, 2018
Carolyn M Fields profile image

Lifelong learner, musician, author, world traveler, truth enthusiast, and all around bon vivant.

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Sex

Men and women have interactions of a sexual nature, every minute of every day. This is normal, and natural, and how our species perpetuates itself. As long as both parties are on board, it is not only acceptable, it is necessary. Sex can also be emotionally, physically, and sometimes spiritually rewarding.

Sexual behavior in social settings has always been somewhat tricky. Usually, but not always, the male is expected to “initiate” sexual contact. There are hundreds if not thousands of books written on the subject, so I won’t belabor this point, suffice it to say that there is nothing wrong with it. And there is nothing wrong if the woman initiates sexual contact. It is what comes next that is important.

First Contact

When sexual contact is initiated, and the receiver of the attention is not receptive, there are plenty of ways to indicate that. As long as the initiator gives up and moves on in a reasonable amount of time, nothing illegal or immoral has taken place. Even if the initiator tries again, and is turned down again, nothing illegal has taken place. Nothing is wrong until force, threats, or other forms of power are used to coerce the target into compliance. If the two individuals are “equal” in power, and either one is free to walk away, then there should be no issue.

This issue of “power” is what has come to light recently in news reports across the United States. Women (and men) have been forced into sexual behavior against their desire to do otherwise, by individuals in positions of power and/or status, who have the ability to exert control. Since the beginning of time, powerful men have “commanded” women of lesser status and power into sexually intimate situations. What is different recently is that these women have collectlively found their voices to speak up, and bring these episodes into public view.

Definition, Please!

I would like to point out that it is not technically “sexual harassment” in the legal sense unless it takes place in a work environment. For example, is a man whistles at a woman as she walks past (i.e., makes a cat call); this may be rude and unwelcome, but not sexual harassment in the technical sense, unless a working relationship is involved. In this example, if the man is a supervisor and the woman is his subordinate, then we have a problem. Or we don’t.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

Source: U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

By this definition, if two people with no prior relationship meet at say, a party, and the woman comes up and hugs the man, and playfully swats him on the rear as they part, this would in no way be considered sexual harassment. What makes it sexual harassment is:

  • Sexual nature
  • Unwelcome
  • Offensive
  • Takes place in the work environment

Let’s go back to our example of the male supervisor whistling at his female employee. Is this sexual harassment? Perhaps. But only if there is a pattern of this type of behavior, and/or there is an adverse employment decision stemming from this interaction. Should the supervisor be punished? Perhaps. But at a minimum he should be educated.

Have We Gone Too Far?

In terms of sexual harassment cases in 2017, a few names stand out:

  • Harvey Weinstein
  • Mario Batali
  • Matt Lauer
  • Al Franken
  • Kevin Spacey

The behavior of these men is well-documented, extensive, and pervasive.

I have no trouble seeing men like these take their rightful punishment. But please, for the love of justice, can we move these matters from the Court of Public Opinion, to the proper legal setting? Someplace where all the facts are heard, and both sides are explored.

For example, when Matt Damon makes a remark about the “spectrum” of predatory behavior, he is slammed by social media. Some say it’s because he minimized the systemic nature of sexual harassment. Personally, I think it’s because he is a white male, attempting to explain and understand a complex issue in a world that only wants to hear eight second sound bites. Also he is not the ideal spokesperson, since Matt has not yet experienced, nor probably ever will, demeaning sexual behavior. The fact there there has been a rush to punish him for his remarks disturbs me greatly.

Finding "The Line"

I frankly agree with Matt Damon when he says that not all behavior should be treated equally. There should be different consequences for the rapist and child molester, than for the male boss who cat calls a subordinate. All unacceptable behavior must be addressed. But not all behavior is equal. That’s all he was trying to say.

Now we need to determine when behavior moves from appropriate to inappropriate. That is the $64,000 question, because what is acceptable to one person may not be acceptable to another. If a male co-worker calls me “babe,” I find that demeaning, but I wouldn’t run to Human Resources and file a complaint. I would probably say something back like, “Well, cuddle cups, I’d rather you not call me that.” If it persists, I would drop the humor and state my request more firmly. Only as a last resort would I involve others.

That having been said, if another woman in the same office was called “babe,” but who had a history of sexual violence against her, she may not be able to cope in the same way. The devil is in the details. But first, we need to stop jumping to conclusions before we’ve heard all the facts.

To draw from the Supreme Court, when it comes to sexual harassment, “I know it when I see it.” That is after I have heard all the facts and background, and have talked with everyone involved. This is no small feat.

Future Predictions

I predict that things will get worse, before they get better. Men, and also women to a lesser extent, will be overly cautious in their dealings with the opposite sex. The world of dating, which was already overly complicated, just became a minefield. Men will need to ask “permission” for anything they say or do with a woman that might remotely be considered sexual in nature.

It is a sad state of affairs, with no good resolution in sight. The only positive I could add is that love will find a way. It always has, and always will. Whether that way will be better or worse, remains to be seen.

What is your general impression of the sexual harassment cases in the media?

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© 2017 Carolyn Fields

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