I find myself talking to people about workplace sexual harassment a lot. We live in a society that sees itself ideally as merit-based – you get what you earn. My argument about sexual harassment is, if you’re being treated or viewed as a sexual object in your place of work, you’re not being given a fair opportunity to prove your merit as an employee. So to me, eliminating sexual harassment at work is one of the biggest ways that we could create a truly egalitarian society.
And it should be easy — we have laws in place, and a government agency – the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – to investigate claims of sexual harassment at work. Most employers have policies about sexual harassment that are clear-cut. Most often it’s defined as either making remarks about gender or sex that create a hostile or uncomfortable workplace atmosphere, or taking actions in a supervisory role that discriminate based on sex or sexual performance. Easy! Right?
Yet in these conversations, I find people defending sexual harassment as it’s defined by law. That is BONKERS. Here are the four most common defenses I’ve heard of sexual harassment at work, and the reasons they are wrong.
EXCUSE: Why can’t I tell someone I find them attractive at work? It’s a compliment!
TO COUNTER: Why do you have to tell them you find them attractive at work? That person is showing up to their place of employment to do their job, not to be incorporated into your personal life. And is it really that bad to wait a few hours to ask them out? Doing it at work places them squarely in one category of your life (it feels that way, whether or not you actually mean it that way), and it’s not the category they showed up at 8 AM to participate in.
EXCUSE: I see women harassing men all the time.
TO COUNTER: Yeah, and that’s equally gross. When this is employed as a defense of sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s supposed to be a big “Gotcha!” But, in fact, there’s plenty of information out there about the fact that women harass men at work all the time, and men do report it. Being a woman doesn’t null your ability to be unprofessional and disrespectful, and it doesn’t exempt you from being responsible for your actions when you make another person uncomfortable. DUH – and it certainly doesn’t provide an excuse for anyone else!
EXCUSE: Women don’t say what they think is harassment, so we don’t know how to act.
TO COUNTER: That’s OK, your policy handbook will tell you exactly what harassment is and what not to do; if your employer doesn’t have a policy handbook, refer to the EEOC’s definition of sexual harassment. I kind of sort of get why there’s confusion about what constitutes harassment in social settings, because people have different circumstances and preferences. But at work, your preferences have already been decided for you.
EXCUSE: My workplace is just “casual.”
TO COUNTER: Mine have been too! High five! It doesn’t put a damper on how fun or supportive a workplace can be to take sex out of the atmosphere. When I worked in a bakery, we saw each other through breakups and divorces, new babies, marriages, deaths, graduations. We had speed cake-decorating contests, and the morning of my last day my supervisor set up a target on the wall so we could do cupcake target practice. There’s about a gajillion ways to get to know each other without having to breach the line of impropriety: I had coworkers who went to anime conventions, went on trips to Vegas, had newborn babies on the way and were learning about cloth diapers, had owned businesses and could pass on advice, grew up in different countries and different cultures and had stories to tell about their families, were in school and wanted to talk about something interesting they learned. If you stop treating people as if they’re sexual beings who have sexy times and sex sex sex, you might learn a lot about them and the things they have to offer as coworkers and professional friends.