Preventing and addressing sexual harassment in the workplace is important to the overall goal of eradicating sexual assault.
May is sexual assault awareness month. Some also refer to it as sexual assault prevention month. We need both prevention and awareness to address an issue so large as sexual assault. I want to take the time in this blog post to help you understand the ways in which something like sexual harassment in the workplace builds a culture and community that by extension, supports and fosters acts of sexual assault.
Sexual assault and sexual harassment are not interchangeable terms. As the Canadian Women’s Foundation explains, “While sexual assault refers to unwanted sexual activity, including touching and attacks, sexual harassment can encompass discriminatory comments, behaviour, as well as touching. Sexual harassment may take the form of jokes, threats, comments about sex, or discriminatory remarks about someone’s gender.” Sexual assault can and does occur in the workplace. In fact, while 52% of women reported having experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, 28% (including half of those from the previous statistic) reported experiencing more serious forms of sexual assault.
And what is sexual assault? As the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund explains, sexual assault is any “as unwanted sexual grabbing, kissing, and fondling as well as rape.” Sexual touching is only legal when both parties have communicated their consent. When talking about consent, a lot of educators use the FRIES acronym to outline the key components of consent. Consent is:
Freely given – made without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol
Reversible – meaning it can be withdrawn at any time
Informed – you must have all the relevant information in order to consent
Enthusiastic – do the things you want to do, not the stuff you feel forced to do
Specific – saying yes to one thing does not mean saying yes to all things. Saying yes to kissing does not mean saying yes to sex.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault are inextricably linked. We can’t talk about sexual harassment in the workplace without talking about sexual assault and sexual violence. We need to account for the ways in which these various forms of gender-based violence support and uphold one another, as well as systems of power and oppression.
When I say something like that, I think it helps to look at a visual – like the one featured here.
Forming the base of this pyramid are the things people often laugh off or normalize – ‘jokes’, so-called ‘locker room talk’, the often repeated ‘boys will be boys’. Moving up the pyramid we have acts of degradation, like stalking and street harassment. From there, the pyramid moves to the removal of people’s autonomy, and finally, forms of explicit violence. The bottom of the pyramid, things we often chalk up as no big deal, fosters a social context that allows for more explicitly violent acts at the top of the pyramid to continue.
So what does Sexual Assault Prevention/Awareness Month have to do with the SHIW project? Sexual harassment in the workplace does not occur within a vacuum. It’s an indication of broader issues pervasive in our society – beliefs about gender identity and expression, the devaluing of women and gender non-conforming people, violence against the trans community, and the persistence of a gender hierarchy. Intervening in seemingly harmless everyday situations, whether they occur at work or with friends and family, contribute to the gradual erosion of the pyramid. We have a responsibility to tackle the issue wherever it occurs and Community Legal Assistance Sarnia wants to help you do that.
Contact us today to schedule a free education session for your workplace or organization. If you or someone you know has experienced or is experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, call today for free legal advice at 519-332-8055.