Controversial reports featuring influential and famous figures accused of sexual harassment have become an almost routine part of the news. Only a few weeks ago, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” This single tweet sparked a flood of posts with the hashtag #MeToo and led to millions of users on Facebook posting about it. The short yet powerful words “me too” show us how sexual harassment may be more common than people believe. Despite the prevalence of sexual assaults now being discussed, the previous lack of conversation around it may be attributed to the stigma associated with the topic. According to The University of Michigan’s 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Misconduct, only 3.6% of students reported their experience of sexual misconduct to an official University resource or law enforcement.
A possible factor for this alarming figure may be the ambiguity surrounding sexual harassment. Before beginning any discussion, it is important to agree on the definition of the topic at hand. What may befuddle most people is the difference between the terms “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault”. These words are often used interchangeably but carry two quite distinct meanings. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” — and the definition continues to specify three conditions — “when submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or when such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment”.
In comparison, sexual assault — as defined by the US Department of Justice — refers to “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient”. The key part of the definition is consent, which involves an overt act that freely gives an agreement to the sexual conduct. An individual’s expression of refusal or even a lack of consent is considered to be dissent. Now, what is the difference between the two terms? The key distinction stems from the fact that sexual harassment is linked to one’s work performance. This explains why it is covered under the Equal Opportunity Laws in the United States. However, sexual assault has no connections to one’s work performance — it is a criminal act of sexual nature against the victim. The point of the distinction should not be on emphasizing one over the other; rather, recognizing the relationship between the two will allow us to better understand the problem.
In our society, sexual harassment is an issue that is occluded by numerous misconceptions. One misconception is that sexual harassment is committed by strangers. However, in reality, 70% of cases are committed by friends and acquaintances according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). This factor makes reporting for law enforcement extremely difficult for the victim as they also have to carry the fears of whether the incident will take a toll on their social life.
Another prevailing idea is that sexual harassment always involves opposite genders. In 1998, Joseph Oncale filed a suit against his male co-workers for sexual assault and threats of rape. However, the district court held that same-sex harassment was not covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court, which clarified the definition of sexual harassment to include cases involving same-sex cases as well. Only a few days ago, news outlets were flooded with accusations that Kevin Spacey — the Hollywood actor starring in House of Cards — molested Harry Dreyfuss, a boy who was 18 years old at the time. Dreyfuss commented that he tried to downplay the case for years by casually telling the story at parties for laughs, and it was years before he could alert his father on what happened.
Sexual harassment is not an issue that should be evaded and tacitly passed by. As complicated and difficult it may be to discuss some of its aspects, continuous discussions and conversations are vital to settle the various misconceptions and social stigmas associated with the topic. It is through this discourse that changes that are overdue in the working environment or in the legal aspects of cases will be fully realized.