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Myths and facts of sexual harassment
Publication Date : 27-08-2013
There are various definitions of sexual harassment of which the quintessence is about unwelcome sexual advances and verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
The term “unwelcome” is central in defining whether or not anything of a sexual matter can be regarded as sexual harassment.
From another point of view, sexual harassment is a manifestation of unequal power relations in which the victim possesses an inferior status than the perpetrator.
This explains why many cases of sexual harassment occur between, for example, a teacher and a student, an employer and an employee, and even a father and a daughter.
Outside these categories, socially, women are perceived as subordinates to men. This explains why more than 90 per cent of sexual harassment’s victims are women, despite there being no such explicit unequal relations between the perpetrators and the victims as previously mentioned.
I will elaborate further the myths and facts of sexual harassment within the context of male perpetrators and female victims.
The most common myth of sexual harassment is that it is a woman who provokes the harassment through the way she dresses and behaves. The fact is, no woman is willing to be sexually harassed and sexual harassment’s victims vary in physical appearance and behaviour.
There is another myth that it is impossible that the perpetrator is someone the victim knows. In other words he must be a stranger to the female victim.
The fact is the perpetrator is often someone whom the victim not only knows but is of a close acquaintance such as friends, colleagues, teachers, employers, neighbours and family members.
It is such a false assumption that sexual harassment relates to the timing and the whereabouts. It says that sexual harassment can only happen to a woman who is
outside after dark or alone in a quiet place. Various studies show that it occurs at any time and at places considered “safe” for women such as a working place, schools and home.
It is not necessarily a quiet place, according to media reports sexual harassment also happens in crowded places such as in public transportation vehicles.
The other myth of sexual harassment is “just ignore it and it will stop”. The fact is if we ignore sexual harassment it will be more rampant. For the perpetrator, such ignorance may be perceived as the victim does not mind such an act or even encouragement to repeat it.
Another myth is sexual harassment is not a serious matter, it is harmless and reports on it have been exaggerated. Studies show that sexual harassment leads to devastating physical and psychological problems for the victims such as continuous headaches, digestive problem, sleeping disorder, trauma, depression and shame. In
rape cases, it may lead to unwanted pregnancy and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). For victims who are employees or students, these problems contribute to their lower work and study performance.
In a culture that is heavily biased against women, a female victim faces a hard psychological barrier to report sexual harassment due to negative social stigma.
Many of the victims remain silent out of fear that they may be blamed or even punished for reporting the harassment.
For those who speak out, they have to prepare to face an investigation which is often not gender sensitive and leads to second victimisation. It is no surprise that in the investigation process, a female victim may repeatedly blame herself due to pressure and depression.
Therefore it is important for those handling sexual harassment cases to be gender sensitive, by among other things, not asking the victim questions which explicitly or implicitly blame her.
It is also necessary to avoid a lengthy debate on how a female victim “contributes” to the harassment, neither making it a joke.
Investigations should be focused on the perpetrator’s acts. This is not simple either and may become more complicated if the perpetrator is someone in power or who possesses guardianship to the victim.
While data on sexual harassment cases is difficult to obtain, it is rampant in society. Nearly every day the media report sexual harassment cases. Despite this, only a small number of the reported cases are brought to justice due to lack of “evidence” and “witness”.
A conventional notion of “evidence” and “witness” are never sufficient to be applied to sexual harassment cases. Except for rape when medical evidence can be provided, other types of sexual harassment provide “no evidence”.
As does the problem of witness, as some cases occur in public places they happen in private settings, which is known by the perpetrator and the victim only.
It could be that the only evidence and witness are no more than the victim’s testimony which, under conventional notion, is deemed weak.
The whole process may lead to a situation where the perpetrator is untouched while the victim quits her job, stops studying, changes career or study plan, remains silent and bears the burden on her own.
What should we do? Whenever we find sexual harassment cases, speak up and support the victims. By doing so, we actually protect our daughters, wives and sisters from sexual harassment and we also contribute to eliminate it in society.
For the victims, you must also speak up and seek help. It is not a shame to do so and do not blame yourself. Shame and blame should be for the perpetrators, not the victims.
The writer is a lecturer at Parahyangan Catholic University’s School of Social and Political Sciences in Bandung.