Understanding Sexual Harassment

Misunderstanding the Issues Can Be Costly

When most people hear the term, "sexual harassment", they envision only the most egregious and serious cases: A professor demands sexual favors from a student in exchange for a good grade in a course. A supervisor leers, makes sexually suggestive comments and touches his assistant in a way that makes her uncomfortable. Or, members of a fraternity shout out sexual remarks at female passersby. Yet, sexual harassment encompasses much more than these easily recognizable situations. In fact, many words and behaviors that are seemingly harmless and unintentional might also be considered sexual harassment.

As Ombudsperson, I know that understanding what sexual harassment is and how it can be prevented can benefit every member of our community. Misunderstanding the problem can be costly in terms of trust, reputation, productivity, teamwork, morale, and money. I created this guide to provide information about sexual harassment and to answer some of the questions I hear most frequently.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment consists of unwelcome sexual or gender-related behaviors that interfere with a person's academic or job performance or create an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment in offices, classrooms, or any other campus or off-campus location. Sexual harassment may involve a single incident or repeated offensive remarks or actions. It may include ambiguous and unintended words or behavior as well as openly hostile ones. Sexual harassment can happen to both women and men and it may involve interactions between males and females as well as interactions of persons of the same sex.

The most important things to remember are that the behaviors:

  1. are unwelcome;
  2. are gender-related or sexual in nature; and
  3. occur in relationships in which there is a power-imbalance.

Does Mount Holyoke Have a Sexual Harassment Policy?

Yes, and Mount Holyoke College endeavors to promote an environment that is free of sexual harassment. All members of the community must be aware that sexual harassment is a form of illegal discrimination, violates both federal and state laws, and will not be tolerated.

Fostering Understanding

On a diverse campus such as Mount Holyoke, people vary greatly when it comes to age, gender, culture, ethnicity, social class, religious and spiritual beliefs, upbringing, personality and life experience. It is not surprising, then, that people will have very different standards for appropriate behavior and different comfort levels with certain types of language, humor, physical contact, and social relationships. What is perfectly acceptable to one person may be unacceptable to another. What one person may consider to be complimentary, friendly, or funny, another may view as offensive, demeaning, or inappropriate. Interactions that may be considered appropriate in social situations may be perceived as inappropriate in classrooms or workplaces.

As Ombudsperson, I recognize that there are some occasions in which a member of this community may knowingly and intentionally harass someone else. In many circumstances, however, a person may not be aware that he or she has offended another party. In these situations, conversations with the Ombudsperson may help to clarify the feelings and perceptions of each person involved and to resolve the issue. My goal is to open avenues of communication, foster understanding, and find mutually satisfying outcomes.

How Can I Help?

The Ombudsperson takes seriously all reports of sexual harassment and is available to any member of the community who believes herself or himself to be the target of sexual harassment. The Ombudsperson listens to all involved parties without passing judgment and will handle the situation in an impartial and private manner. The Ombudsperson provides a safe atmosphere for resolving difficult issues, such as sexual harassment, and offers a range of conflict resolution and mediation services.

Information for this guide was adapted with permission from: Educator's Guide to Controlling Sexual Harassment. (Thompson Publishing Group, 1999).