April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (#SAAPM), and this year we’re focusing on the vital role that loved ones play in supporting survivors. The “Me Too” movement, which focuses on the experiences of sexual violence survivors, has earned a large response precisely because sexual harassment and sexual assault impact people every day. By sharing their own experiences, the movement’s proponents hope to show just how common sexual harassment is. The hope is that, if people are more aware of sexual harassment and how casually it is sometimes treated, then tolerance for it will decrease and support for victims will rise.

Definition of sexual harassment: what is it?

The Me Too movement is mainly interested in two types of behavior: sexual harassment and sexual assault. Although the precise legal definitions of these terms may vary from state to state, they are generally understood to refer to specific inappropriate sexual behavior, especially at work or school. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment consists of “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature”. Legally, sexual harassment in the workplace is covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the behaviors characteristic of sexual harassment are inappropriate and bad, no matter where they are exposed.

There are no definite rules about whose actions can be classified as acts of sexual harassment. Although it is often characterized by one individual in a powerful position — such as a film producer or business executive — using their power to sexually abuse others, it’s still possible for anyone to engage in wrongful harassment, no matter their position. In addition, it’s important to note that perpetrators often know their victims. As the Me Too movement has shown us, sexual harassment is often perpetrated by a coworker of the victim. It would be a mistake, then, to assume that sexual harassment generally occurs between random strangers, although these sorts of cases of sexual harassment do certainly happen.

Preventing Sexual Harassment and Assault

Standing up against sexual violence

Sometimes preventing sexual assault is just getting up at the right time. If you notice suspicious behavior in public or among your friends, it is best to confront the person before the situation escalates into sexual violence. It could mean alerting someone if you believe their drink has been fortified with a rape drug, or could even be something as simple as calling a friend for insensitive or hurtful comments. Just because you’re not in the criminal justice field doesn’t mean you can’t take a stand against criminal sexual behavior. Ordinary people can and should talk about sexual violence whenever they encounter it.

Teach Prevention Techniques

There are a number of things everybody can do to help prevent sexual harassment. Employers should focus on adopting clear sexual harassment policies, identifying inappropriate behaviors, and giving employees the tools they need to report instances of sexual harassment in the workplace. Companies can also provide sexual harassment training to employees. This training should explain what sexual harassment is, give employees the information they need to recognize sexual violence, and help them understand what they can do to respond to sexual harassment when they see it. This responsibility especially falls on managers, who may benefit from additional training about what constitutes inappropriate conduct with a subordinate, as well as how to identify sexually abusive behavior in the employees they oversee.

Additional Resources and Support

  • National Sexual Violence Resource Centre— The NSVRC spreads awareness about sexual violence and provides resources to survivors, friends and family, and sexual violence advocates.
  • Equality Now— Equality Now advocates for the rights of women all over the world. It supports a wide variety of women’s causes, including bringing an end to sexual violence.
  • Me Too— The Me Too movement helps to show survivors of sexual abuse that they are not alone. It also helps to improve awareness about sexual violence, showing just how widespread sexual harassment and assault really are.
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