Portland Community College Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is not a new problem. However, it is a relatively new term and concept under the law. There was no name for behavior now described as sexual harassment until the early 1970's. A small group of women at Cornell University coined the term while they tried to describe the circumstances under which an administrative assistant quit her job with an eminent physicist. She gave up her position because she could no longer deal with his constant advances.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Attaching a hard and fast rule to what particular acts constitute sexual harassment or defining it is difficult as situations can be complex to say the least. For example, differing cultural and/or social assumptions and expectations cause confusion. Men and women have differing perspectives. What a woman sees as sexual harassment, a man may not. In addition, people tend to view sexual harassment in the extreme ("Sleep with me or I will fail you"). In fact, sexual harassment is usually much more subtle. Statements such as: "You really fill out that sweater," or long hugs, back rubs, staring, touching, snide sexual remarks, jokes, etc. are more the norm.

The best way to define Sexual Harassment is to say that it is "unwanted sexual or gender-based behavior that occurs when one person has formal or informal power over another."

There are three major elements in this definition:

  1. Unwanted or unwelcome behavior.
  2. The behavior is sexual or related to the sex or gender of the harassed person.
  3. The behavior occurs in the context of a relationship where one person has more formal power than the other (faculty member over a student, supervisor over an employee) or more informal power over the other (one peer over another).

In addition to the above, in its 1984 guidelines, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) outlined a definition the courts rely on:  

"Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

  1. submission to such conduct is made with explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of a person's employment or academic advancement; or
  2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for decisions affecting an individual's employment or academic advancement; or
  3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with person's work or academic performance or creating an intimidating, hostile offensive work, learning or social environment."

The first two are labeled "Quid Pro Quo" (this for that) and the third one is labeled as "Hostile Environment."  

Something else to consider is that the courts and the EEOC have established several standards to identify sexual harassment. They look at whether behavior is "sufficiently severe or pervasive" to establish a "hostile environment."  But, remember that once may be enough if the behavior is so offensive (forced fondling, attempted rape) that it would incur charges. Another standard considered is whether a "reasonable woman" or "person" would be offended by the behavior. The courts continue to debate whether the standard should be a "reasonable women" or a "reasonable person," however, it is agreed that the perspective of women and men must be considered. The courts keep in mind the fact that a woman often views certain sexual behavior as intimidating, hostile, offensive, demeaning, or inappropriate and a man may view the same behavior as flattering, friendly, or funny. We, as individuals, should remember this as well.

A good rule of thumb is: if you would not do it or say it in front of your wife, children, mother or boss - do not do it or say it! When in doubt…Don't.

Sexual Harassment is not about Sex

Sexual harassment is about power not sex. Harassment occurs when there is a power imbalance.  For example, the power differential between a faculty/staff member and a student or subordinate staff is considerable. The assessments faculty/staff make regarding their students/other staff can and do affect lives. Moreover, students of all ages are vulnerable to faculty/staff influences. It is not uncommon for students or subordinate staff to fear retaliation and therefore feel pressed to endure sexual innuendos or be seduced into sexual activity.

Handling Sexual Harassment

Take the complaint seriously. Assure the person that the complaint or problem is being taken seriously and that their complaint will be attended to promptly.

Listen, sympathize, don't judge or take sides. Listen and make no commitment regarding what the result of the investigation should or will be regarding the allegations. Assure the person that Portland Community College takes sexual harassment very seriously and will not tolerate it.

Give the complainant the number of the Equity and Inclusion Office (971-722-5840 - Assistant / 971-722-5841 - Director) or offer to contact the office for them.

Respond to concerns. If the complainant is afraid, assure the person that the institution does everything to ensure confidentiality (make no promises, I am obligated by law to investigate some things). If you are asked questions you have no answers for, tell the complainant that the appropriate person will answer all their questions.

Document your conversation. Summarize what the complainant has told you and include any observations of the person's demeanor (frightened, shaking, crying, etc.). Send your summary in an envelope marked "Confidential" and send it to the Equity and Inclusion Office (Downtown Center 301). Feel free to call the Director of Equity and Inclusion at 971-722-5841.

Words to avoid when talking to a complainant
  • It's no big deal.
  • Ignore it.
  • They that to everyone
  • Lighten up. It's a joke.
  • You need to learn how to handle these things.
  • Don't dress like that.
  • That's how they do things where they come from.
  • No one else has complained.

Individuals making statements such as the ones above may subject themselves and the Institution to liability. Also, the above words may discourage people from filing a complaint as they tend to convey the message that their complaint will not be taken seriously.

Myths and Facts

Myth: People who are harassed probably did something to invite it.

Fact: People who are harassed usually do nothing to invite harassment. The victim of harassment is seldom to blame. In addition, it should not be a valid reason for someone to feel free to harass another human being. People are usually harassed because of appearance, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and cultural heritage, religion, gender, age or other characteristics that trigger someone's need to feel superior or more powerful than another.

Myth: The motivation behind sexual harassment is a desire for sex.

Fact: Power and control usually motivate the behavior behind sexual harassment.

Myth: People who are different in regards to religion, clothing, cultural identity, hairstyles, etc. should accept the fact that they may be teased by their fellow coworkers and not consider such teasing or having fun as harassment.

Fact: It is not acceptable. Harassment is in the eye of the beholder. Whether the teasing is "all in fun" or not is irrelevant. Such behavior can be embarrassing, or feel like a put-down. The behavior most often is construed to be harassing. If the perpetrator is asked to stop the behavior in words or actions (no hitting) and the behavior continues, it is definitely harassment.

Myth: Harassment should be worked out between the person accused of the behavior and the person feeling the effects of the behavior.

Fact: Power issues keep most people from confronting a harasser. This is especially true when the harasser is in an authoritative position or has evaluative responsibilities over the person complaining. Moreover, management has a responsibility to stop harassing behavior and take appropriate corrective or disciplinary action.

Myth: If I make a mistake and call someone a name and it only happens once, surely this cannot be called harassment.

Fact: Yes it can. The name-calling will be evaluated to ascertain the totality of the circumstances, the context, and the severity of the incident.