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Sexual harassment as sexual abuse

As a charity working around issues of sexual offending for 25 years now, the scandals which have broken around sexual harassment and sexual abuse in Hollywood and in Westminster have been troubling but, sadly, not surprising. There have been various reactions to the revelations – ranging on one side from the minimisation of victim’s experiences as ‘not that serious’ (for example, here), to conspiracy theories of a witch-hunt designed to allow a matriarchal takeover (for example, here) to more positive calls for action and the empowerment of victims (as with Oprah Winfrey’s intervention at the Golden Globes, here). Our response has been to put together some training which takes the knowledge and experience that we’ve built up around sexual abuse and applies it to the workplace to help managers and staff think about how to make their environments safer.

Places where abuse happens

One aspect of this approach is to think about the sort of places where abuse happens. The long history of public enquiries into abuse in institutions such as care homes and residential schools highlights a number of features of organisations which makes them vulnerable to incidents occurring. Key among these features are hierarchies which maintain major inequalities of power between people, and cultures which prevent reporting of abuse - either because of fears that such reports will not be listened to or that they will bring negative consequences for the reporter.

We can see this played out in the Hollywood scandals: individuals with monetary, social and/or cultural power took advantage of those whose lack of power made them vulnerable. These victims were then unable to speak up both because they were still vulnerable to the initial power inequality which allowed the abuse in the first place and because of a culture of silence. That culture was maintained by third parties who had the power to speak out but didn’t. We should note that the public ‘organisational values’ of Hollywood were not pro-abuse and had you asked someone from within Hollywood they would probably argue that it was a humane place to work, potentially pointing to the increasing number of female directors and films with anti-abuse themes. These stated values, however, only masked a deeper culture of abuse.

Harassment as a form of abuse

It may seem odd that we’re going straight to institutional child abuse for insights about sexual harassment. Some of the objections to campaigns like #metoo mentioned above are based on the idea that a lot of what is being objected to is, in some way, non-serious and certainly isn’t as serious as out-right criminal sexual abuse. The line between the two, however, is not always so clear and it is easy to see connections between the two.

The defining features of sexual offences are that they are non-consensual and sexual in nature. These are also the defining characteristics of sexual harassment. We might add, as a general rule, that both forms of abuse tend to demean and undermine the victim, treating them instrumentally rather than as a person in their own right. In both cases, the victim experiences the abuse as abuse – they did not want it, and were hurt by it.

This is, of course, without considering that, in many cases, what we’re labelling ‘harassment’ is actual criminal sexual offending – where ‘clumsy flirting’ or ‘being handsy’ involves inappropriate sexual touching we’re in the territory of sexual assault, where ‘banter’ includes references to violence we’re moving towards criminal, rather than merely civil, harassment.

Learning from experience

Given these similarities and closenesses, we think the lessons of sexual offending are relevant and applicable to harassment and workplace abuse.

By treating harassment with the seriousness it deserves, we are able to think about the factors which enable someone to abuse, the features of organisations which make abuse more likely, and ways in which we can reduce the chances of abuse together. You can find out more on our Training page.

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