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Sexual Harassment: The Unfair Politics of Victimization

Sexual Harassment: The Unfair Politics of Victimization

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By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

As I reviewed my previous blog article on sexual harassment in the workplace, I had the opportunity to think about this topic in regard to what is now occurring in our society. We are going through a season when individuals who have spent years as sexual predators are being publicly exposed and fired from their jobs.

Lack of Empathy for Victims Obstructs Reporting of Incidents

Some people have a hard time feeling empathy for the victims who come forth, due to the amount of time that passes before the victims come forward. Unfortunately, there are still instances when victims are questioned about their true motives.

Over the weekend, I was with four women in their late sixties. As they discussed the recent spate of prominent people being accused of sexual harassment or abuse, I was shocked to hear their perception of the victims. Although these women did not deny that the incidents happened, they questioned the victims’ motives in reporting the instances of abuse and sharing them with the public.

Why Can’t Our Society Change How We Treat Harassment Victims?

With modern changes in attitudes between the sexes, you would think that we have evolved as a society to broader-based thinking. But during the past year, we have received an “in your face” message that some bad habits/beliefs have not died.

Instead, they were swept under the carpet and hidden. Those habits/beliefs lay dormant, awaiting either a resurrection from the dark side or a revelation of light exposing those behaviors that we oppose.

Sexual harassment has always been a topic of debate, as individuals struggle to define what it is and agree on how these situations should be handled. As a result, some companies, fearing lawsuits, take action. They implement policies to prevent incidents and show due diligence from a company perspective in addressing proper protocol when sexual harassment incidents occur.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is defined as:

“It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or custom.”

What Does a Typical Sexual Harassment Policy Look Like?

To create sexual harassment policies, organizations have come up with strategies to address guidelines as established by the EEOC. Procedures were implemented as a response to combating harassment violations and discrimination that occurred in the past.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) provides a sample policy for companies to use. Other organizations, such as the Ohio Department of Administrative Services and the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, also offer online samples of sexual harassment policies.

When Having a Solution Doesn’t Solve the Harassment Problem

The definition and suggested procedures for addressing sexual harassment incidents appear to be clear and straightforward. But we continue to have a sexual harassment problem in our society.

Why? Perhaps it’s because not everyone agrees on how to define harassment and what constitutes a violation. After participating in multiple conversations on the topic, I have observed people struggling with “boundaries” and “gray areas.”

For example, there is a debate on identifying sexual harassment when the victim and the accused have had a previous connection or relationship.

Also, some organizations give high-performing employees a pass despite their violations of company harassment policies. This practice creates a sense of organizational injustice and distrust of the company system in place for employees.

The Politics of Victimization

As I prepared this blog article, the concept of “politics of victimization” popped into my head. When I googled the term, I found an excerpt from a book by victimology writer Robert Elias with the same title. In summary, the text:

  • Provides an overview of the study of victims and victimization.
  • Presents an argument for portraying victimization in a broader perspective by linking a correlation among social, political and economic relations, especially in the American political economy.
  • Provides a new definition for victimology, which establishes a relationship between victimology and human rights. It embraces victims of both crime and repression.
  • Proposes that since much crime arises in response to various forms of oppression, a society unconcerned with human rights violations and its victims can likewise provide little help for crime victims.

When we as a society belittle or negate a harassment victim who has been violated, we create an environment that violates the person a second time. We fail to provide enough support and help to assist the victim in processing and healing from the demeaning event.

Even with “nice” policies in place to prevent lawsuits, we still do a disservice to our businesses by allowing a culture that questions the validity of complaints to exist. Also, it doesn’t help when respected individuals in authority and positions of power assist in the cover-up of sexual predators’ behavior.

To change, we will need more people to stand up and unite to fight the complacency and acceptance of culprits’ deviant behavior and to avoid victim shaming. Put yourself in the situation of the victim before passing judgment. What would you do if an incident of sexual harassment or abuse happened to you or a loved one?

Start a management degree at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.

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