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Sexual Harassment: not so black & white

In the 21st century, it’s widely known that any obvious and unwanted sexual move can have repercussions – whether they happen in a workplace or in a public arena.  As various controversies have come up in Ontario over the last few weeks, the shades of harassment, reactions to sexual aggressive behavior, consequences to those proven to be guilty of sexual harassment and aggressiveness have been all the talk in the media and public forums lately.  So, what defines sexual harassment?  Are the lines being crossed crystal clear or quite murky?

Most consider sexual harassment as something that makes the individual in receiving end uncomfortable and uneasy to continue on with their usual behavior.  Of course, context and cultural backgrounds play a huge part in interpretations as well.  Actions such as slapping a woman’s bottom as if giving a thumbs up is a long lost phenomenon; yet, similarly uncomfortable behavior such as glancing at busts during conversations and unwanted brushing or touching (even if done on shoulders or upper backs) continue.  Someone from a few decades ago would expect to get a comment on a new hair cut or outfit even at a workplace and would consider it rude if it went unnoticed.  However, most women today not only would not expect it, but some would even feel uncomfortable and misinterpret the action if done by men.

This definitely leaves today’s men feeling like they’re walking on minefields.  Admittedly, most men also don’t consider themselves as too analytical when it comes to basic touching and mindless chatter (i.e. sexual references or jokes) that may or may not lead to anyone (especially those who are easily offended) feeling uncomfortable or worse, harassed.

I recall from several years ago when my male manager casually commented on my noticeable weight loss during a conversation and when I mentioned my new exercise routine and thanked him for which I thought was a compliment, he quickly noted that he was glad his comment didn’t offend me in anyway.  Context is everything:  I had known him for a few years by then and had come to a safe conclusion that he was a gentleman who was known to be quite appropriate at all times and show respect to his colleagues, both men and women.  I also had met his wife several times who he fondly refers to when sharing personal stories.  If it was another man that I hadn’t known well or didn’t regard in a positive way, I don’t think I would have been comfortable continuing that conversation.  Of course, context is everything!

Even in other settings like gatherings and parties – especially, among cultures such as South Asians – some consider a quick hug over greetings is polite and casual while others might consider it unnecessary, especially if the hugs linger longer than preferred.  In some cultures, it’s even considered uncomfortable or impolite to just sit next to the opposite sex.  Two people of the same age and background might draw the line of comfort & appropriateness at different points without any understandable reasoning to an outsider.

So, for those of us that mean no harm, but still want to make sure we don’t come across as offensive, isn’t it better that we be more vigilant about how our behavior will leave another feeling or reacting?  And on the other side of the coin, if we want to make sure our comfort zones aren’t invaded, shouldn’t we make sure our comfort levels are made aware of instead of going on a slippery slope and then, crying mishap at the end?  This yardstick will vary from person to person and culture to culture.  However, that is the only measurement that can dictate a safe interaction.  Easier said than done I am sure…


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