Let’s talk about sex… ual harassment.
When speaking of sexual harassment, some of the more blatant and alarming examples of it tend to jump into mind.
- The construction worker who hollers highly inappropriate remarks at female passersby.
- The perverted teacher who demands sexual favors in exchange for better grades.
- The leering boss who makes sexual advances at female employees.
- The man who touches, grabs, gropes, or kisses a woman against her will.
But sexual harassment is not this straightforward.
For starters, although it is the higher trend, sexual harassment does not exclusively happen from man to woman. Anyone could be a victim of sexual harassment including other men, gay, queer and non-binary folks, people in positions of power, educated and uneducated individuals, poor or wealthy, of any culture and ethnic background, sexual orientation, physical constitution, and socioeconomic standing. And, likewise, anyone could be a perpetrator.
Societal norms change and shift and they have done so across the world and for centuries; some behaviors that previously would have gone unchallenged are now being pinpointed as unacceptable, and this is a good thing. As we know better, we do better.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted physical or verbal advances imposed on a person. This definition is broad, and make no mistake, the varied expressions of sexual harassment can be extremely ample and diverse.
It is important to note that sexual harassment, more often than not, is actually not about sex itself. It is not about attraction, or desire, or romanticism. Sexual harassment is most often demeaning to the recipient; it looks like bullying and is an act of intimidation. It is insulting and dehumanizing.
One key concept that many fail to comprehend before diving into a discussion of sexual harassment is this:
Sexual harassment is dependent on individual interpretation, as perceived by the recipient.
What is normal and acceptable for one can be the worst form of harassment for another because we are all unique individuals, shaped by our own life experiences, upbringing, culture, language, family, sets of values and personal beliefs. And this is what makes sexual harassment a tricky topic: we tend to forget that our thoughts, rules, and interpretations can differ so vastly from other people’s.
Because of all of the above, sexual harassment cannot be narrowly defined.
Examples of Sexual Harassment
The following are all examples of sexual harassment, as described by the Ontario Human Rights Commission .
- Demanding hugs.
- Invading personal space.
- Initiating unnecessary physical contact,including unwanted touching,
- Using derogatory language and/or comments toward women (or men, depending on the circumstances), sex-specific derogatory names.
- Leering or staring inappropriately.
- Making gender-related comments about a person’s physical characteristics or mannerisms.
- Engaging in comments or conduct relating to a person’s perceived non-conformity with a sex-role stereotype
- Displaying or circulating pornography, sexual pictures or cartoons, sexually explicit graffiti, or other sexual images (including online)
- Making sexual jokes, including circulating written sexual jokes (e.g. by email)
- Using rough and vulgar humour or language related to gender
- Bullying a person through sexual or gender-related comment or conduct
- Spreading sexual rumours (including online).
- Making suggestive or offensive remarks or innuendo about members of a specific gender.
- Engaging in gender-related verbal abuse, threats, or taunting.
- Bragging about sexual prowess.
- Demanding dates or sexual favors.
- Making propositions of physical intimacy.
- Asking questions or having discussions about sexual activities.
- Requiring an employee to dress in a sexualized or gender-specific way.
- Engaging in paternalistic behaviour based on gender which a person feels undermines their status or position of responsibility.
- Using threats to penalize or otherwise punish a person who refuses to comply with sexual advances (known as reprisal).
Furthermore, “It should be understood that some types of comments or behavior are unwelcome based on the response of the person subjected to the behavior, even when the person does not explicitly object. An example could be a person withdrawing, or walking away in disgust after a co-worker has asked sexual questions.” 
This is to say, the recipient doesn’t even have to verbalize their displeasure — other more subtle forms of objection are sufficient.
For some people, being asked to smile is cute and funny; for a lot of people, being asked to smile is uncomfortable or insulting.
For some people, being called “beautiful” from a passing car is a compliment; for other people, being called “beautiful” from a passing car is disrespectful and vulgar.
For some people, being touched without invitation could be a turn on; for most people, being touched without invitation is invasive, rude, and/or imposing.
You may be thinking, “Oh come on! Calling someone “beautiful” may come across as vulgar, but is it really harassment?” and the answer to that is, if the person on the receiving end deems it as harassment, then yes, yes it is.
“But it’s just innocent flirting!”
Not if for the other person it’s not.
“But I’ve done it before and it worked like a charm!”
Because to that specific person it was a welcomed action. Do not, however, make the mistake of assuming it will be the same for all.
Considering the individuality involved in what makes harassment harassment, it would be near impossible for us to guess if for a particular person, on a particular day, a specific action or phrase will qualify as sexual harassment. And it is because of this that our default assumption must be that other people are not seeking to be approached.
“But how will couples meet?! How will they fall in love if he doesn’t follow her, vy for her attention, insist to get her name, and show up uninvited at the end of her work shift?”
Just so we’re clear, romantic comedies are very poor examples of true romanticism and relationships. They are problematic because they tend to showcase harassment as a positive attribute, and they reinforce harmful gender stereotypes like the “wilting flower” of a woman who is saying no but must be meaning yes, or the “determined” guy who won her over because he refused to listen to her rejections.
Most romantic comedies are essentially stories in which a man being a harasser paid off. Makes no wonder we’re confused!
Only when we let go of the Hollywood-esque and misrepresented notion of romantic love — as a tug-of-war of the wills in which the man pushes past the woman’s boundaries in order to win her affections — can we start having an honest conversation about sexual harassment and how to put an end to it.
Then, we could tackle gender norms that teach women they should “play hard to get” and men to be “pursuers.” We could do away with games of “saying No when we want to say Yes,” (lest you want to be deemed as easy or a slut), and stop teaching young men that “any woman worth having will be difficult to get.”
Can you imagine a world in which we could all be honest in expressing our needs and desires without shame, while remaining completely respectful of others’ boundaries and wishes?
We can. And it is this world we strive for.
Sexual Harassment in the Fitness Industry
The fitness industry is rampant with sexual harassment.
It is an industry in which physical appearance is noted, highlighted, and commented upon. It is an industry that has been sexualized by how we view the outfits worn and amount of clothes used, the bodies of those who work in it, and so much more.
- Clients propositioning trainers.
- Trainers propositioning clients.
- Gym owners or bosses playing power dynamics with their subordinates.
- Female trainers being required to wear more revealing outfits than their male counterparts.
- Inappropriate commenting or sexualizing other trainers or clients.
- Experts and speakers whose egos are so inflated they feel entitled to objectify others.
- “Locker room talk” and all its variables…
We’ve seen it happen some time or another. And it is our collective duty to make it stop.
Ending Sexual Harassment
When harassment is not addressed, it is more likely to increase in magnitude and severity. It is everyone’s responsibility to prevent and put a stop to it.
1. Educate Yourself
Starting with the list above, become familiar with the different faces of sexual harassment. Take some time to learn about other people’s life experiences, and imagining scenarios in which the most banal (to you) of those examples could feel like harassment.
In other words, seek to understand others and their point of view. This is a powerful practice because suddenly others’ complaints don’t seem so silly or superficial.
In some cases there will be dramatic and clear reasons why, for example, a woman refuses a man’s advances; something like the fact that she just came out of an abusive relationship. For most people this would be a very clear and strong reason.
However, sometimes the legitimate reason she will refuse advances is simply because she doesn’t want them. And that’s it. And that’s enough. And that’s a perfectly valid reason to leave her be, no further explanations needed.
Once again: we are all different, want different things, like different things, and we are allowed to accept or decline attention in our own free will.
2. Call It Out
We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye when witnessing sexual harassment. “From a human rights perspective, it is not acceptable to choose to stay unaware of sexual harassment” .
We are required to speak up and act because that is the right thing to do, and also because it is our obligation.
“There is a clear human rights duty not to condone or further a discriminatory act that has already happened. To do so would extend or continue the life of the initial discriminatory act. This duty extends to people who, while not the main actors, are drawn into a discriminatory situation…” . Bystanders no more.
Calling out sexual harassment may include confronting your male friends when they speak about women a certain way. It could mean you file a co-complaint in support of a victim when you witnessed them being harassed. It could also mean directly interfering in a harassment situation in the moment it is occurring.
Calling out sexual harassment may also mean you are the victim and are choosing to speak up, file a complaint, press charges, or take any other action needed. We recognize at times this may not be safe to do, and in those instances we recommend and hope you get support not only from loved ones, but also perhaps from a professional like a counselor. You don’t have to deal with this alone.
3. Take a Stand
No matter where you live or who you are, you can do plenty to help put an end to sexual harassment. We have given you some ideas above, but the most important factor will depend on you and your decision to take action.
If you are in a position of power, for example as a gym owner or company CEO, you must make ending sexual harassment your priority. In companies and organizations change has to come from the top, and not only with little handouts or mini workshops, but with clear examples of zero tolerance for sexual harassment, including putting time and thoughtful effort into prevention, and taking immediate action when a situation occurs. What is your organization’s action plan in case harassment occurs? If you don’t have one you are exposing yourself, your organization, and the potential victims to a lot of difficulty.
Even if you are not in a position of power, you have a circle of influence; we all do. Your circle of influence is comprised by your immediate family and friends, your acquaintances, co-workers, neighbors, extended family, service providers, clients, and other connections.
Take a stand within your circle of influence by having open conversations about sexual harassment and making your stance known.
Aim to become a person who others can come to for help in case they have been harassed. You can accomplish this not so much by announcing yourself as an ally or support, but by matching your actions to your value system:
- Refrain from putting into question victims of sexual abuse or harassment you see on the media.
- Remain open and welcoming of victims’ narratives.
- Openly challenge those who automatically disregard a victim’s story.
Actions, actions, actions.
Believe the Victim
There tends to be a knee-jerk reaction in hesitance to trust a victim’s word “just in case” she’s lying, even though statistically the incidences of false reporting of sexual harassment are very low .
When having to choose between believing a woman’s word versus believing the word of a man who holds a higher position or rank, has more power, influence, wealth, popularity, or social and professional recognition or connections, guess who is most likely to be given the benefit of the doubt? The accused man, of course. This is why oftentimes women refuse to report incidences of sexual harassment: they know nothing will be done about it.
Sexual harassment is very difficult to prove because without witnesses or electronic proof such as emails, pictures, or video, it is nothing but a game of “he said, she said.” And, as stated above, the victim — most often a woman — is likely to be ignored.
What can you do to remedy this situation? Believe the victim.
Don’t just state your support, act on it. Follow through with concrete actions to:
- Bring the harassment to light making sure others are made aware of the situation.
- Publicly reject the harasser’s actions.
- Ensure the harasser faces clear consequences and repercussions.
One important thing to remember is this: sexual harassment can be very damaging to the victim. It can affect a person mentally, emotionally, and financially. For the victim, having to deal with harassment can unleash a number of symptoms or effects, such as:
- Creating or increasing stress, anxiousness, anxiety or depression.
- Disrupting sleep patterns and ability to rest and recover.
- Impacting appetite, digestion, and overall wellness.
- Creating or exacerbating shoulder and/or back pain.
- Fostering feelings of isolation, anger, sadness, self-doubt, having been wronged.
- Losing work due to inability to focus.
- Losing income due to time and energy spent on managing the aftereffects of harassment.
Perhaps next time we are tempted to think a harasser “does not deserve” consequences to their actions we can keep in mind that the above repercussions are tangible and real in a victim’s life.
Sexual harassment is not innocent. It is not “guys being guys.” It is not a joke, it is not something done for fun or entertainment. Sexual harassment is serious, damaging and with the potential to negatively impact the lives of victims, harassers, and those involved in perpetuating it. It is time for it to end.
- Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy on preventing sexual and gender-based harassment. http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/policy-preventing-sexual-and-gender-based-harassment-0
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center, False Reporting Overview, https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/Publications_NSVRC_Overview_False-Reporting.pdf