What is sexual harassment?

This post was written by a RWL Guest Blogger – In the absence of lipsticklori, this blogspost was written by a girl who often wears lipstick.

Today, at work, in the office kitchen while I was rinsing out my coffee cup, a man spoke to my breasts. He literally stared at my breasts, said hello, and asked them how they were. His gaze objectified me. I wanted to take a shower. No, wait; I wanted to punch him, and then I wanted to take a shower. As a girl who often finds herself in situations where she quite enjoys men (or women) looking at her breasts, I wondered what it was about this particular situation that inspired such rage. What it was that made me feel so icky – sexually harassed, even. I stood there, blocking out his chat-chat about weekend plans, and attempted to rationalise this intangible feeling.

Wiktionary cites the following definition for sexual harassment: “unwelcome sexual advances”.While the boob-talker’s* actions were definitely unwelcome, and certainly felt sexual to me, I was at a loss to explain why they were so unwelcome. After all, if it had been that cute boy who wears the blue suits that was talking to my breasts, it would not have troubled me in the slightest. Was I even allowed to have double-standards like that? One man stares at my breasts and it’s sexual harassment, and yet another man stares at my breasts and it’s not? It led me to question (all Carrie-Bradshaw-esque)… what is sexual harassment?

Feeling a little hypocritical and conflicted, I did some research. While there are many different definitions of sexual harassment, they all agree that, if the victim feels uncomfortable, and/or the action is unwelcome, then the behaviour (or words) can be construed as harassment. I particularly like the Australian human rights commission definition: “sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour which makes a person feel offended or humiliated and that reaction could reasonably have been expected in the circumstances”. It provides a little more clarification- that ‘uncomfortable’ feeling needs to be reasonable, but I still couldn’t justify my double-standard – how could I be morally outraged at one man for staring at my breasts, and yet flutter my eyelashes at another? (Okay, so this is all hypothetical – I wish that man would stare at my breasts!)

It was the commission’s quick guide to preventing and responding to sexual harassment, where I found my answer: “Sexual harassment is not sexual interaction, flirtation, attraction or friendship which is invited, mutual, consensual or reciprocated”. If blue-suit wearer were to stare at my breasts, it would be invited, mutual, consensual and reciprocated. But for boob-talker, it was not. My research has led me to believe that my double-standard is entirely normal. There are always going to be people who we are comfortable with, and people who we are not and, if someone who we are not completely comfortable with enters our personal space or interacts with us in an overly-familiar way, it is only natural that we will start feeling apprehensive.

Whether you choose to report sexual harassment is a personal choice, and not the subject of this blog post. I don’t think there’s a simple and blanket rule about the decision to report it as there are far too many factors involved, especially if it’s in the workplace. But if you have been harassed, it’s always possible to send the offender an anonymous note so that they know that their actions are unwelcome. Chances are they’re such a social moron that they haven’t realised the fact that you run screaming every time they enter the room means that their behaviour is unwelcome.

Image via rileyroxx’s Flickr photostream.

*I’m totally allowed to use the word ‘boob‘ in this case, right, Lori?

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