Sexual Harassment: Why is it so difficult to understand?


DenisseWritten by Denisse Gabriela Dávila Zúñiga, who was a visiting scholar at the IICM, during the fall 2017 semester. Denisse was visiting from Universidad de Sonora, Mexico, and researched “sexual harassment in school” at the IICM under Prof. Ellen Boegel, CPS, St. John’s University. Her research is supported by a grant from Mexican Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT). 

Sexual harassment has been manifested in public and private spaces over time, but currently it has been highlighted by feminist movements and different campaigns in the social media as #MeToo, among others. However, what does it really mean and how can it be overcome?

Trying to explain this issue was not an easy work, but its understanding can be the key to stop gender violence. Therefore, an interdisciplinary approach was needed. Gender perspective was a useful tool, which considered the socio-cultural differences between women and men. A sociological view helped to understand the dynamic of symbolic violence implicit in the phenomenon, and the legal perspective made it possible to conceive the protection against sexual harassment in terms of equity and respect for human rights. Undeniably, it is mandatory to observe the rights of the alleged victim and aggressor without positioning one’s rights over other’s rights.

Symbolic violence can be illustrated in some actions, words or phrases that tend to belittle or label people based on race, sex, gender or their specific social and cultural characteristics. When those actions are done they can reflect a particular background from the person who does it or say it. In addition, they can reproduce and justify an unfair system where people may not be seen as equals. This kind of violence usually happens in a subconscious way, and it is commonly seen as normal or natural. Thus, sexual harassment can be considered as an instrument of symbolic violence, and their consequences can be perceived in the negative reactions or feelings that people have when they experience it. They can feel stressed, depressed, anxious or demean.

Following Pierre Bourdieu (2000), the effects of symbolic violence can only take place if there is one person that conceives her or himself as a victim or as a product of the system, incapable to change a situation or to perceive it in a not harmful way for him or herself. It also needs another person that conceives him or herself as a dominant person, with the right to decide or impose his or her will on the other. Also, it is necessary that both of them understand the social and cultural structure where they live, the common meaning of some acts, expressions or rules.

It must be said that sexual harassment has subjective and objective elements, both of them need to be understood in order to prevent it and to regulate it in an effective way. The first one is related with the social and cultural meaning assigned to the phenomenon, their dynamic and their consequences. The second one is focused on their conducts and their elements.

Knowing this, it is important to identify some problems in their regulation and in their prevention programs. First of all, it might not be assumed that sexual harassment will end just by punishing the perpetrators. It is also necessary that the victims or potential victims have the sufficient tools to be protected against it, so they could avoid the adverse effects. Nevertheless, for cases in which the potential victim cannot control the situation, the criminal law must be more effective by developing a legislation that can be applicable in real life scenarios. It implies the use of objective not subjective standards that clearly define the protected rights, the specific context and circumstances where they are applicable.

The authority is urged to act on the basis of the principle of strict legality, which allows the protection of human rights since it implies that the actions of the authorities find their foundation in the law and no arbitrariness is permitted. Therefore, legislators are obliged to use precise language when drafting laws. By doing so, citizens will be able not only to know what rights are recognized by the government, but also what conducts are prohibited. Careful legislative language in criminal law prevents arbitrariness and prejudices in the trial. Thus, it is necessary to have clear delineation of rights.

Sexual harassment prevention programs must be focused on empowering people, women and men by teaching them how to deconstruct the meaning of symbolic violence. Moreover, they should warn them when it is not safe to intervene by themselves in a sexual harassment situation. Additionally, everyone should recognize when to take action in their own hands to stop it, assuming themselves not as victims but as people capable enough to improve their reality. Consequently, it is essential to understand the social and cultural context where we live in, their components, their meaning and effects, without giving it the power to shape us or determine our decisions. Nevertheless, people must be informed on how to get or preserve elements to prove that the phenomenon happened. Furthermore, society is advised to follow steps of progress in gender matters, and to construct a culture of peace and non-violence where every person is necessary to achieve it.

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