In the present day, it can be said that our society has made incredible progress on combating the ongoing issue of sexual harassment. The name “sexual harassment” was not given to the concept until recently, although it had always occurred (Bingham 18). Therefore, the concept had no social existence in the public until it was named and made known. As of now, surveys have been conducted, books have been written and published, and victims can now call hotlines or join support groups. We can recognize the wide range of actions that constitute as sexual harassment. We are aware of reasons as to why the harasser pursued the harassed. The damage to the victim that results in psychological effects has been publicized. Despite this great step forward, sexual harassment still remains a prevalent factor.
According to Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of sexual harassment is, harassment (typically of a woman by a man) in a workplace or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances, obscene remarks, etc. While the word “unwanted” can always be found in relation to sexual harassment, the question I want to ask is if the victim is apathetic to it, is it still harassment and is he or she still being victimized? What could have influenced those possible feelings of indifference?
In order to reach this point, we must beforehand cover the basics to gain a concrete knowledge of sexual harassment. According to the Free Advice website, the types of conduct considered sexual harassment include “repeated sexual innuendo, obscene or off-color jokes, slurs, lewd remarks and language, and other offensive comments; content in letters and notes, facsimiles, email, graffiti that is of a sexual nature or sexually abusive; sexual propositions, insults, or threats; sexually-orientated demeaning names; persistent unwanted sexual or romantic overtures or attention; leering, whistling, or other sexually suggestive sounds or gestures; displaying pornographic pictures, calendars, cartoons, or other sexual material in the workplace; coerced or unwelcome touching, patting, brushing up against, pinching, kissing, stroking, massaging, squeezing, fondling, or tickling; subtle or overt pressure for sexual favors; and coerced sexual intercourse.
JMU students are no strangers to these types of behaviors. The results of a survey I conducted on a small portion of the JMU student community revealed that 84% of the respondents had been sexually harassed in one or more of the situations previously listed. Of that 84%, 95% were female. Being the target for sexual remarks and comments received the highest percentage for males and females alike, 55% and 95%. The next most frequent harassment for males was unwelcome touching which tallied up to 44%. For females, leering and whistling was the next most frequent, which was 63%. Nearly three fourths of the female respondents had been subject to unwanted touching and 40% had been pressured for sexual favors.
All of the respondents agreed that sexual harassment was unwanted offensive sexual behavior that made someone uncomfortable, yet there were different views on which conducts the respondent personally believed should be considered as sexual harassment. Almost all of the respondents said that touching and beyond (sexual favors and forced intercourse) was sexual harassment, but in other areas such as sexual demeaning names and persistent unwanted sexual attention, the numbers waned: only 43% for the former and 50% for the latter.
The correlation between what the respondent thought was sexual harassment and what situation he or she would actually feel discomfort in creates for an interesting discussion. Omitting the results for forced intercourse, there is a steady increase between these two sections. For females, 96% thought unwelcome touching was sexual harassment, but only 83% said they would feel uncomfortable by it. A similar trend can be seen in the male respondents towards unwelcome touching: 78% said it was sexual harassment, but only a little more than half said that it would cause them discomfort. The survey results reveal that many people either feel comfortable in those situations or have just accepted their occurrence and don’t take it seriously.
Another correlation, opposite to the one just noticed, is the decrease in numbers from the action that caused discomfort to whether people would actually report it (again, omitting forced intercourse). For males, the numbers are lower, but not drastically. Most females, however, would not report sexual harassment. Of the 65% of females that would feel uncomfortable if they received letters or emails with sexual content, only 35% would report it. While 91% felt discomfort if they were pressured for sexual favors, a mere 56% would report it.
One of the major problems that sexual harassment causes in its victims is the fear of reporting it. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 59% of rapes went unreported as seen on a statistical average of the past five years. Some reasons for not reporting rape included that the victim felt that the rape was a “personal matter,” fear of reprisal, a belief that the police wouldn’t take the issue seriously or would be biased, fear of testifying about the victim’s sexual life, and fear of getting in trouble for doing something that the victim wasn’t permitted to do when the assault took place, such as consummation of drugs or alcohol. In accordance with the survey I conducted, the respondents wouldn’t report sexual harassment because of embarrassment, fear of reprisal from the harasser, fear of getting a friend in trouble, and indifference. Of all those reasons, the vast majority of the respondents, 87%, said that if they wouldn’t report a sexual harassment circumstance in which they felt uneasy, it would be because of indifference. Some wrote that they would be indifferent to reporting it if they believed that the issue wasn’t serious enough or if it was going to be a hassle and just wasn’t worth the time.
When looking around at our culture, it’s evident where these views on nonchalance originate. Unfortunately in this world, women bear most of the pressures enforced by the media and advertising and allow themselves to be half naked in music videos being rubbed up against and spanked by famous music artists. Advertisements feature both sexes in skimpy undergarments. We view these kinds of images everyday, and while we may not believe they have an effect on us, they do. These images of our culture project the message that it’s acceptable to dress this way and act that way. Though this may not seem like sexual harassment as these people are making a profit from it, it gives others reasons to act accordingly and therefore enforces that kind of behavior. At a party once, I witnessed a guy spank a girl wearing skin-tight jeans. He gave the excuse that she was asking for it dressed like that. The girl looked in his direction, but then kept walking. After joining a cluster of friends, she exposed her true feelings: she had felt complimented.
When asked about sexual harassment, Matt Hudson, ’11, said, “Women should not have to settle or be okay with what anyone says or does to them. It’s very unfortunate that women are brought up thinking that ‘that’s just the way it is.’ It’s been engraved in young womens’ heads that guys are just joking or flirting. This might be the case but in some situations, women can’t differentiate between flirting and being objectified.” So now, not only is there a lack of concern when females are sexually harassed, but also a sense of flattery.
In society today, people overlook sexual harassment as a topic that doesn’t deserve their undivided attention. Only 52% of the respondents of my survey knew of any resources available to JMU students who had been sexually harassed. That statistic alone portrays the awareness of sexual harassment.
Bingham, Shereen. Conceptualizing Sexual Harassment as Discursive Practice. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers: 1994.
Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press: 2007. 15 Oct. 2007 http://www.oed.com/
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. “Statistics.” 2006. 16 Oct. 2007 http://www.rainn.org/
Free Advice. 1995-2007. 16 Oct. 2007 http://employment-law.freeadvice.com/
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