The Problem With the Term “Sexual Harassment”

Did you know that sexual harassment is rarely motivated by sexual desire?

In the popular imagination, sexual harassment evokes images of men who ask women on dates and can’t take a hint, or powerful male bosses who request sexual favors. But while inappropriate sexual advances are undoubtedly part of what makes sexual harassment such an issue, the scope of unwanted remarks and behaviors go well beyond instances dealing directly with sex.

One of the reasons why sexual harassment is so hard to extinguish is in part because it can be difficult to define or detect. Besides the fact that our cultural standards have changed seemingly overnight, thought leaders have argued that sexual harassment, perhaps better phrased "sex-based harassment," goes well beyond sexual misconduct. It’s more often rooted in sexism, and its manifestations can be both sexual and non-sexual.

This is why the term “sexual harassment” can lead to an poor understanding of the full range of abusive workplace behaviors. As such, we as a society need clarity on what it actually means. What is sexual harassment? In an attempt to provide a thorough understanding, we’ll first cover the work others have done to shed light on the phenomenon, then illustrate the ways that sexual, or sex-based, harassment can manifest within your organization.

What is sexual harassment?

1) Scenario-based definitions of sexual harassment

Recently, Donald Glover and Rashida Jones made huge strides in educating the public through their anti-harassment PSA on BuzzFeed, illustrating sexual harassment through a number of storyboards and FAQ-type decision trees.

The "is it okay" workflow.

Adapted and abridged visual summary of the anti-harassment PSA for Time’s Up

2) A spectrum of sexual misconduct

Kathleen Kelley Reardon, Professor Emerita at the USC Marshall School of Business, offers a Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct to further our understanding. While offering a framework that organizations can use to lower the risk of conflict and legal action, Reardon also drills into what kinds of remarks or behaviors might fall into each category. For example, comments like “you look nice today” are generally innocuous. However, if such comments are repeated often enough or paired with sexually toned glances or gestures, the recipient may construe the speaker’s behavior as offensive.

levels of severity of misconduct

A visual adaptation of the Spectrum of Sexual Misconduct at Work by Kathleen Kelley Reardon

3) A phenomenon with an identifiable root cause

These examples and frameworks are a great starting point. But sexual harassment stems from highly subtle, interconnected, and systemic behaviors that can be both sexual and nonsexual. Without a proper understanding of how harassment works, it’s easy to miss things that don’t immediately escalate but pull the thread and set genuine sexual misconduct in motion. So, while scenarios and scales are helpful, the full scope of sexual, or sex-based, harassment looks more like this:

harassment dodecahedron animatic

Sex-based harassment is an interconnected phenomenon and can express itself in many ways

This framework, based on an open statement on sexual harassment from the Stanford Law Review, captures subtle expressions that seem harmless, but left unchecked can endanger both well-being and performance at the individual, cultural, and organizational levels.

In the face of such social and cultural complexity, the temptation is to ban all references to gender, sex, class, and other potential points of controversy. However, we’ve seen that banning all of these behaviors can sometimes cause more harm than good. For example, the five-second staring rule at Netflix has led to ridicule for restricting the eye contact needed to do normal work.  In fact, lawyers have said that such sweeping prohibitions tend to be unhelpful and can even inhibit the elimination of workplace harassment by promoting segregation, cynicism, and further inequality.

How to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace

While there is no silver bullet to stopping harassment and discrimination, we’ve seen that there are a few steps that you can take to build a concrete, holistic plan that will help strengthen your culture:

  • Communicate clearly and honestly about your standards for behavior in the organization,
  • Stop these problems at the root of the issue by screening for potentially damaging behaviors, such as harassment or sexism, during the hiring process;
  • Update your training methods to cover all forms of harassment and discrimination, including mistreatment on the basis of gender stereotypes, sexual orientation, and gender identity;
  • Clarify the full scope of sex-based harassment, emphasizing that sexist behavior is unacceptable whether or not it’s sexual in nature, or directed at someone of another or the same sex;
  • Establish a bottom line. If a behavior impairs another employee’s psychological well being, work performance, employment status or professional advancement, or if left unchecked will contribute to a discriminatory work environment, it needs to be addressed.

These are the building blocks of a harassment-free workplace. Once you understand how the phenomenon works, you can take steps towards achieving full inclusion and freedom from unwelcome, sex-based harassment in your organization.

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