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Sexual Harassment

The protection of individual rights in the work place continues to be an area of great concern to society. The increased number of women in the workplace prompted legislation to protect workers from unwanted sexual overtures. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars sexual harassment where it alters or interferes with employment and creates a hostile or abusive work environment. The Equal Opportunity Commission Guidelines identifies two common forms of sexual harassment.

Quid Pro Quo
A Quid Pro Quo Harassment occurs where a supervisor's request for sexual favors is linked to the consent or denial of a job benefit, such as retaining a job, or receiving a raise or promotion. Retaliation when one rejects such overtures is illegal. Persistent demands after an employee has declined such overtures are also illegal conduct under this law.

Hostile Work Environment
A Hostile Work Environment involves both verbal and physical conduct that have the effect of creating a hostile or oppressive work environment. Unwelcome sexual advances, conduct or comments are illegal under this law. Specific behaviors prohibited by this law include unwanted hugging or touching; comments on one's appearance or clothing; sexual jokes, pictures, e-mails, drawings, sexual photographs or cartoons; patronizing terms and questions about one's sexual experiences. Psychologists have identified several stages of emotional injury resulting from this behavior, including confusion, self-blame, denial, fear, anxiety, depression, anger and disillusionment.

Sexual harassment is a devaluing and aggressive act that disrupts the personal relationships of the victim and leads to periods of disconnection and isolation. Anyone who is the victim of sexual harassment should seek professional consultation, and learn about their legal rights. Sexual harassment is not about sex--at the core of the problem is the abuse of power or authority, though the perpetrator might try to convince the victim and him/herself that the behavior is about sexual or romantic interest. Some harassers may even rationalize their behavior as an intent to "help" the victim. The dynamics of sexual harassment usually involves an aggressor who holds a position of power over the victim. Still, cases of peer-to-peer harassment are very common. Subordinates sexually harassing superiors have also been reported. Most sexual harassment is perpetrated by men against women. However, there are also cases of harassment by women against men, and of same sex harassment perpetrated by either sex. A small percentage of men account for the majority of harassers, and many of these individuals victimize several women over a period of time. Bullying is as serious a problem as sexual harassment, and it can be just as damaging.

In addition to targeting subordinates, perpetrators of sexual harassment may choose their victims based on such characteristics as age, perceived passivity or lack of assertiveness, poor education or naiveté, low self-esteem, and other areas of vulnerability. However, this does not mean that individuals with these characteristics cause the harassment or deserve to be harassed.

Harassers often test out new victims with minor violations of work, social, and interpersonal boundaries. For example, they might tell sexual jokes or make sexual comments about their target, display sexual/erotic materials, or ask questions about one's sex life; violate one's personal space with touching, and maintain that it is meant to be nonsexual; make requests or demands that the potential victim meet him/her outside of normal work hours or the designated workplace, or demand they meet alone.

Harassers often dismiss or show a lack of regard for the feelings of their victims, even when assertive attempts are made to put an end to the inappropriate behavior. This can be confusing for the victim, and might make her/him feel as if there is no basis for complaining about the harassment, or feel as if they do not have the right to complain.

When confronted about their inappropriate behavior, perpetrators of sexual harassment often act as if they are being victimized, or it is the victim who is at fault. This type of manipulation can make the victim feel guilty about trying to set limits or bringing a complaint against the harasser. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) describes sexual harassment as a form of gender discrimination that is in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court made employers more liable for sexual harassment of their employees. Moreover, the Society for Human Resource Management has reported that 62% of companies now offer sexual harassment prevention training programs, and 97% have a written sexual harassment policy.

Still, approximately 15,000 sexual harassment cases are brought to the EEOC each year--over 13,000 were filed in 2004. The majority of complaints come from women, however the number of complaints filed by men is rapidly increasing. In 2004, over 15% of complaints were filed by men with 11% of claims involving men filing against female supervisors. Moreover, a 2006 government study in the United Kingdom revealed that 2 out of 5 sexual harassment victims in the UK are male, with 8% percent of all sexual harassment complaints to the Equal Opportunities Commission (Britain's EEOC), coming from men. The causes of sexual harassment at work can be complex, and steeped in socialization, politics, and psychology. Work relationships can be quite intimate and intense, and those involved share common interests. Employees are dependant on each other for teamwork and support, and are dependant on their supervisor's approval for opportunities and career success. Supervisors and employers can grow accustomed to the power they have over their employees. Such closeness and intensity can blur the professional boundaries and lead people to step over the line. Politics can be a catalyst, and problems caused by poor management, workplace bullying, frustration, and job/financial insecurity, etc., can create hostile environments that leak over into working relationships. Personal problems can also be a factor, and sexual harassment can be a symptom of the effects of life traumas such as divorce, or death of a spouse or child.

No occupation is immune from sexual harassment; however, reports of harassment of women is higher in fields that have traditionally excluded them, including blue collar environments, such as mining and firefighting, and white collar environments, such as surgery and technology. Sexist or sexualized environments--full of sexual joking, sexually explicit graffiti or objects, viewing Internet pornography, etc.--usually shape the attitudes that male workers have towards their female colleagues. For example, in an environment where obscenities are common, women are 3 times more likely to be sexually harassed than in an environment where such talk is not tolerated. In environments where sexual joking is common, women are 3 to 7 times more likely to be sexually harassed. Men still retain most of the workplace supervisory positions, and they are the ones who decide whether or not a complaint of sexual harassment is justified. Because of this, if a woman complains about the man who exposed himself to her, in most cases, she is the one who will be considered the problem. We are available to evaluate your sexual harassment claims.

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