For decades I have wanted to tackle this subject in some form because I’ve witnessed and listened to women with some really terrible sexual harassment in the workplace stories. Of course, sexual harassment is not limited to women; I’m sure there’s at least one guy out there who has had some experience similiar to what Micheal Douglas’ character portrayed in the movie, Disclosure. But let’s face it.. nature’s battle of the sexes cannot be mandated out of one third of our lives by some law. Wherever humans mingle, that breeds sexual tension in some form… and not just between men and women; same sex as well. Now… this is also important… sexual tension does not necessarily mean sex tension. The inherent natural differences between men and women in habits, living, thought processes, etc. can have nothing to do with sex but can still qualify for a definition of sexual tension. But in the workplace it’s generally assumed that the more benign definition of sexual tension is that common everyday interaction between males and females of all ages that defines the way we communicate and relate in general as a species. We acquire this skill as we age through life and adapt and learn accordingly, and it’s how we build relationships of all kinds. An example? Well, who tends to stop to ask for directions if lost while driving? We all know that guys prefer to work it out themselves… and ladies prefer to cut to the chase and pull over and ask someone (it’s not the scope of this post to explore why that occurs; you can read that elsewhere). That could be a side of sexual tension in that there’s a gender difference, hence a source of occassional sexual tension. It’s the sex tension side of sexual tension that can get us in trouble in the workplace.
So.. who cares? To understand what sexual harassment is you have explore the sexuality of humans as a species; seduction, courtship, etc. is all geared toward attacting a mate for sexual reproduction. You can create all the laws in the world about where and when it’s permissible to engage in overt sexual seduction and with whom but there’s very little practical expectation that it will work in all cases, all of the time. What is really happening when we make these laws is that we are attempting to stifle or at best, postpone, our sex urges.. how nature has programmed us… under threat of loosing our job or going to jail or paying a fine.
I am NOT in the least suggesting these laws are not necessary nor am I trying to defend inappropriate sexual advances in the workplace. What I am trying to illustrate here is that we want our workplace relationships to be more.. sterile, void of all (sexual) things human, an equal playing field. The reason? Because we work to earn a living and to survive in our society and we should not have any outside influence affect that process for fear that we will not be treated equally. In essence, my job in making widgets should not be predicated on the sexual advancements toward me of another person who might have the power to influence my livelyhood one way or the other. Is it realistic to expect our workplace to be totally free from the inability of other humans to control their instincts simply by passing a law? Of course not. So.. if we acknowledge that piece of information then we have to presume that while laws may provide an overall consequence to be avoided, acting as a deterence for most folks to control their instincts, then we also have to presume some people will not comply regardless of any laws. So that brings us to Plan B.
While we were in school we were in basically socially controlled environments with people around us mostly our age. High school and college life are all centered around learning and the educational process and all those extra-curricular social activities. Sexual tension is everywhere and accepted because dating and courtship are all part of the social scene. Generally speaking, sexual harassment in the workplace is all about having power over someone and in school environments there’s less of that hinderence (abuse by faculty and staff is an important threat but not as common by comparison). But in the school arena even the art of seduction is an acquired skill based on our own individual mores, morality, and desires. When we graduate and move into the adult working world there’s a whole new and different dynamic at play. All of a sudden people we relate to on a daily basis are all different ages with many vastly different outlooks on life and personal priorities. Also.. we enter the world of endless human variety and diversity of all kinds. What social contacts and communication we might have used to get along in school with others our age and with our same immediate goals are no longer valid. So we enter the working adult world being pretty naive with regard to certain preconceived idealistic ideas about life.
We are excited to start our new jobs and we have every expectation to be treated equally and have equal opportunity to achieve. After all, there are laws. Well, perhaps the first reality check is understanding that simply having a law on the books does not assure a perfect world… or workplace. So defending ourselves against those humans who ignore the law… is what we do in Plan B. Plan B should contain those cognitive skills you acquired during high school and college society regarding how one relates to each other. As a person you already can understand the responses and reactions you receive from people toward you can be the result of of certain signals they receive from you. If you are friendly then you will likely generate friendly responses from others. If people tend to ask your opinion on things then perhaps you convey an attitude of self-confidence and awareness. If people always seem a bit defensive around you then perhaps they are picking up an opinionated or accusitory demeanor from you. This is all basic social interaction 101 stuff we all learn as we pass through life. But.. so many of us many times ignore those social signs either because we are focused in other areas or are pre-occupied with self (for those readers into the psych world, I might be suggesting here Freud’s id, ego, and super ego concept… it’s elsewhere on the net).
Ok.. enough of the mumbo-jumbo stuff and let’s get more to the point here. Sexual harassment, in its purest definition, is the sexual attraction of one human to another to the point that the ‘predator’ person uses their power over the other in a specific environment.. the workplace, in this case… to coerse sexual contact (we also know that the legal application of sexual harassment can cover many less overt communication situations, like sexual jokes, overheard inappropriate sexual talk by others, etc., but for our application here we will presume the more pure definition as that causes the most harm).
Your Plan B should be the self-understanding of your personal traits that may sexually attract another person. This would seem to be the the basis for attracting sexual harassment; someone is enamoured enough with your appearence or personality or both to such a degree that they are willing to risk the legal consequences. As we’ve stated earlier, the workplace is NOT a static enviroment; a social vacuum devoid of human sexual instincts and social roles. If you went through your school years attracting other people romantically with little or no problem then common sense might suggest you may do that out in the “real” world as well. And some of these folks you might attract will not be people you want to attract… and some of these people my not just leave if you ignore them. So how do you control that?
Sometimes it’s just the idea that you are aware of your own persona. It’s asking yourself questions; “I am young compared to most in the adult working world… does that place me in some vulnerability to sexual harassment?” If I sense someone might be interested in me (that I don’t want interested in me) what do I do?” “I attracted girls (or guys) fairly easy in school hence it’s likely this might continue to some measure in the workplace… with people I really don’t wish to entertain any relationship. I should not be surprised if I am approached by someone with the power to coerce me.” In school if someone hit on you they were usually your age and you could dismiss them easily enough because you were a peer group. In the real world you could end up having older people hit on you.. even those who are married. If you tend to respect older people as authority figures (like teachers, instructors, etc.) then you could easily fall into the real world presuming all older folks are “on your side” and continue to want to mentor you.
Number one rule in identifying sexual harassment… use your instincts. If a boss is getting a bit chummy or favoring you over the others in some way or thinking up situations for you to be alone together… then give it some pause and verify within yourself that all is proper. Don’t assume in all cases that the laws will deter such actions.
We live in a society that worships good looks. Simply look at how fashions and cosmetics are sold in this country using glorious models.. male and female… to sell the products. Even in the entertainment world beautiful looks are favored as a path to success. So to presume that all this is just turned off in the workplace is absurd. It’s a matter of fact that many of us with more average looks will likely not experience workplace sexual harassment as much as those with exceptional looks. Accept this as a fact of life and work to understand how you might fit in which category… so that you can formulate your own defense mechanisms and not fall victim to insincerity and non-trust.
Once you have determined that you might be in a position of being sexually harassed then you can warn the harrasser off or.. use those laws to your advantage before things get too carried away. Either way it’s an uncomfortable situation to be in… and it could very well end up you going to court or having to quit your job. Sometimes life isn’t fair… as there are no guarantees in life. But in the end you should still be able to hold your head high, having retained your dignity as a human being.