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Sexual Harassment: Not So Black & White

Author:   |  Published: February 9, 2015  |  3 Comments

In the 21st century, it’s widely known that any obvious and unwanted sexual advances can reap serious repercussions, whether in the workplace or in the public arena. The various shades of harassment, reactions and consequences to sexually aggressive behaviour have been all the talk in the media and public forums of late. So what defines sexual harassment in practical terms? Are the lines being crossed crystal clear or murky?


Most consider sexual harassment as an action that makes the individual at the receiving end uncomfortable and uneasy. Several decades ago, women would expect to receive a compliment on a new haircut or outfit at the workplace, and would even consider it rude if it went unnoticed. However, most women today not only would not expect it, but some would even feel uncomfortable and misinterpret such comments from men. And while behaviour such as slapping a woman’s bottom is a long lost phenomenon, similarly uncomfortable conduct such as glancing at busts during conversations and unwanted brushing or touching continue in the workplace.


This definitely leaves many men today feeling like they’re walking on eggshells. Admittedly, most men don’t consider themselves too self-aware when it comes to basic touching, sexual innuendos or jokes that may or may not lead to someone (especially those who are easily offended) feeling distressed or worse, harassed.



I recall several years ago when my male manager casually commented on my noticeable weight loss during conversation. When I mentioned my new exercise routine and thanked him for what I interpreted as a compliment, he quickly revealed that he was glad his comment didn’t offend me in anyway.


Context is everything: I had known him for several years and trusted that he was a gentleman who was appropriate at all times and showed respect to his colleagues, both men and women. I had also met his wife several times and he would fondly refer to her when sharing personal stories. Had it been another man I hadn’t known well or didn’t regard in a positive way, I don’t think I would have been comfortable continuing the conversation. Of course, context is everything!


Certainly, cultural context can play a huge part in interpretations as well, especially in reserved cultures like ours. In settings outside of work such as casual gatherings and parties, some would consider greeting with a quick hug as polite and casual while others might consider it unnecessary, especially if the hugs linger longer than preferred.



In some further reserved cultures, it is considered impolite to shake hands or sit next to the opposite sex (this was an eye-opening experience when I participated in an Ethiopian function). To make matters even more complicated, two people of the same age and cultural background may draw the line of comfort and appropriateness at different points without any reasoning to an outsider.


So for those of us who mean no harm yet want to make sure we don’t come across as offensive, isn’t it better to be more vigilant about how our behaviour will leave another feeling or reacting? And on the other side of the coin, if we want to make sure our comfort zones aren’t invaded, shouldn’t we make sure that our comfort levels are made aware instead of operating on a slippery slope and then crying about mishap later on?



Certainly, this yardstick will vary from person to person and from culture to culture. However, this is the only way to ensure a safe and comfortable interaction between women and men without harassment issues and scandals popping up around every corner. This is easier said than done I’m sure!


- Featured image courtesy of Solvanam