The allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein may be making the headlines, but workplace sexual assault isn’t just a crime rife in Hollywood. In a UK study conducted last year, over half of British women polled said they had been sexually harassed at some point in their careers, and the much-publicised #MeToo social media movement is bringing hundreds more cases to light. Whether you’ve experienced assault or harrassment at work, or simply want to know your rights, SL sat down with Safeline, a UK charity that helps victims of sexual abuse, to find out everything you need to know...
What counts as sexual harassment in the workplace?
Unlike workplace sexual harassment portrayed in films and pop culture that represent it as overtly aggressive, sexual harassment at work isn’t always easy to spot. It can be a sexual comment in a meeting or even an insinuating Facebook message. Sexual harassment is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that you find offensive or which makes you feel distressed, intimidated or humiliated. You don't have to have objected to a certain kind of behaviour in the past for it to be unwanted and constitute harassment.
Sexual harassment includes:
- Someone making sexually degrading comments or gestures.
- Your body being stared or leered at.
- Being subjected to sexual jokes or propositions.
- Emails or text messages with sexual content.
- Physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances and touching.
- Someone displaying sexually explicit pictures in your space or a shared space, such as at work.
How can sexual harassment affect your career?
Although sexual harassment happens everywhere, it's very common at work. It can cause stress and hostility in the workplace, and over time, it can lead to physical and emotional problems, such as headaches, nausea, cystitis, depression, anxiety, problems sleeping and eating and loss of self-confidence. Many women end up leaving their job rather than carrying on enduring sexual harassment.
If someone has been sexually harassed at work, what should they do?
There are several things you can do, including:
- Tell the harasser to stop. Let them know you dislike their behaviour. You could ask another work colleague to do this on your behalf. You can let them know in writing that their behaviour is unreasonable (keep a copy of the letter if you do this). If you want to confront the harasser in person, take someone with you such as a union representative (if you have one), or a senior member of staff.
- Confide in someone at work that you trust.
- Keep a note of dates and times of each incident, and details of what happened and what was said.
- Report the harassment to someone in authority. This can be important if you ever want to take legal action in future.
- If the harasser touches you, it is sexual or indecent assault and you can report them to the police if you want to.
- You can also contact a specialist agency like Safeline, a Rape Crisis service or Citizens' Advice for support around experiences of sexual harassment.
Can you debunk any myths about workplace sexual harassment?
There are many common misconceptions about types of sexually harassing behaviours:
MYTH: Only women are harassed.
TRUTH: Anyone, regardless of gender, can be the victim of harassment or a harasser.
MYTH: The person who is directly harassed is the only victim.
TRUTH: Third parties who witness harassment or are aware of it may also be victims of harassment.
MYTH: Harassment requires touching.
TRUTH: Sexual harassment does not need to have a physical component.
MYTH: It was a compliment, so it's not harassment.
TRUTH: Even if a person intends their conduct to be flattering, it may still be offensive to others.
MYTH: It can't be harassment – he was only joking.
TRUTH: Even though a person intends their conduct to be funny, it may still be offensive to others.
MYTH: If the offensive conduct happens out of work, it can’t be reported.
TRUTH: Inappropriate conduct that occurs out of work between colleagues can violate the law.
MYTH: Harassment is motivated by a desire for sex.
TRUTH: Sexual harassment is often motivated by dominance, power, and/or bullying.
MYTH: If I ignore harassment, it will go away.
TRUTH: Unfortunately, ignoring harassment usually does not make it go away. In fact, the problem may get worse.
MYTH: The behaviour must be repeated to be sexual harassment.
TRUTH: Sexual harassment could consist of repeated actions, or may arise from a single incident, if it is sufficiently egregious.
What are people’s rights if they’ve been affected?
Sexual harassment is recognised as a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 and is therefore against the law. Most organisations and companies have proper procedures for dealing with sexual harassment and complaints. If your employer treats you badly or unfavourably because you complain about sexual harassment in the workplace, that is harassment too and you might be able to bring a case under the Equality Act 2010. The act also covers past sexual harassment that has never been reported. Under law, employers are duty bound to investigate even if it is after the event.
How can Safeline help people?
Safeline offers specialist support to individuals, families and friends who have been affected by sexual harassment. We can provide immediate emotional support through our helplines to help people cope with what has happened. If they need counselling to support their recovery, we can also provide that either, face to face, online or by phone. The charity can also provide emotional and practical support to anyone who chooses to report their abuse to the police.
If you want to contact Safeline for help or advice, visit Safeline.org.uk or call their helpline on 0808 800 5008.
To make a donation now by text to Safeline, text ‘LINE20 £’ and the amount you’d like to give (£1, £2, £3, £4, £5 or £10) to 70070 e.g. ‘LINE20 £5’.