Harassment Not a Hashtag

Lets talk about sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can take many different forms in many different places.  It can happen with or without physical encounter. Sexual harassment can be done from a distance. It can be done emotionally, mentally, verbally or physically. When I talk to people about sexual harassment at the workplace, many ask me “does it really happen?”.

Yes, sexual harassment is rampant. We don’t have figures to chalk out the degree to which it exists in different industries, primarily because the numbers that do exist relate to the times when a complaint is made. But what about all those women who choose not to complain?

A recent survey found eighty-one percent of women have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives, of which thirty-eight percent experienced it in the workplace. However, less than a third report such issues at the workplace and only two to thirteen percent file a formal complaint. There are many reasons why women choose not to report sexual harassment, and there have been many articles around this. But what I would like to address, from my experience, is the question “where do we draw the line of what harassment means and who draws the line?”

Eighty-one percent of women have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lives

How does one report a crime when one is unaware of what the line between harassment and professionalism is? It’s rather easy on paper – inappropriate comments, touching, caressing, staring, requiring quid pro quo tasks, declining promotions or work on the basis of sexual favours, and the list goes on. In such cases, the woman would reasonably be able to identify harassment.

What about cases which are not so obvious? Underreporting of sexual harassment is the biggest threat to its prevention, and if women do not identify harassment, women won’t report it, harassment will continue. In a survey of 55 participants, twenty-five percent called out harassment, but when the definition was broadened, the figures doubled.

The line is drawn the moment an ounce of discomfort is impressed upon one’s mind or body.

One of the reasons for the ambiguity is that workplace culture has changed a lot in order to be more friendly and welcoming. Colleagues grab drinks after work, attend parties together, host events, go the extra mile to be friendly and inclusive – all of which is great progress. However, this can also make it very  difficult to distinguish between professionalism and personal boundaries in interactions with the people you work with and for.

In many formal workplaces too, it’s acceptable to hold a woman by her waist at a party, as a friendly gesture. But is it? One woman might be comfortable while another may not be. Who sets the rules and who makes the boundaries? Who draws the line and who defines it? It should be the person who is being made to feel uncomfortable. The line is drawn the moment an ounce of discomfort is impressed upon one’s mind or body. And once we understand that harassment is defined as understood by the victim, we will see survivors speak out. 

In my experience as a lawyer, I have also seen difficulties in understanding the complexity of sexual harassment, even in cases where it is reported. At times, there may be cases where a lawyer is required to represent the client, who is the accused. In law, one is innocent until proven guilty. Often times, the accused possesses a high-ranking position in a company, and the company hires the big lawyers, the lawyers represent the accused, and the victim is left to represent themselves at their own cost. It is often a “your word against mine” situation, and the evidence is lacking. So how do we solve this situation?

You get to set the boundaries for your body and mind.

We talk. We bring forth awareness. We let the victim know that it is not okay. We also talk about the perpetrator’s responsibility to not harass in the first place, rather than victim-shaming and victim-blaming.

You get to set the boundaries for your body and mind. We now have laws and regulations and awareness on sexual harassment which have  caught the media’s attention. It is time to make sexual harassment bigger than just a hashtag on social media. It is time to take the matter into our own hands and bring about justice for ourselves. Together, we can change the system and together we can fight for ourselves, our bodies, our minds and our lives. 

Ranjani Jagannath is currently pursuing her Masters in Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and focuses her research on psychological impact of violence and discrimination against women. Battling through her own mental health struggles, she also launched whatwakesmeup.org to help people find meaning to wake up. Music, driving and Po (her little cavapoo) make up her top three favourite things.

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