Studies of SA universities show that sexual harassment occurs with relative frequency, and workplace surveys show that it happens even more often among working people. It’s not something people often talk about though, so there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what it is and what people should do about it if it happens to them.
How can we protect ourselves from this kind of abuse? We start by understanding it, so we can recognise it when it happens, and take steps from there.
What is sexual harassment?
If someone says or does anything to you of a sexual nature, which is unwelcome or which you find inappropriate, this is sexual harassment. It can happen to men and women, and it can come from a man or a woman, too. However, the large majority of such crimes are committed by men, against women.
Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself, or seen it happen to one of your peers or colleagues, if you have a part-time job. In some environments it can seem normal for men to tease women or make sexual remarks to them, and this in itself is not illegal. However, if these incidences happen so often that the person they are targeted at becomes uncomfortable or stressed by the situation, a case for harassment can be made.
More overt forms of sexual harassment, such as unwanted touching or asking for sexual favours should be reported immediately to the authorities. Such harassment can also take the form of workplace discrimination, for example, where a female employee is passed over for a promotion because of her gender.
Sexual harassment can also happen on the internet, on social networking sites, and through instant messaging platforms. Many women have had the frightening experience of being stalked by someone on the internet, who sends them personal messages and won’t leave them alone. Ask the police to put you onto the branch of their department that deals with this kind of harassment if this happens to you.
Remember that sexual harassment is a form of bullying, and is done specifically to make the victim, or target, feel bad about themselves and doubt themselves. Target often blame themselves because of this self-doubt, but it is never the target’s fault. If it happens to you, seek help from a counsellor, who can help you report it to the authorities at your university or the police.