Take Two #121: Sexual harassment in the workplace

By Kyra-lin Hom

Sexual harassment. What is it? What constitutes it? How big of a deal is it really? Prior to working in a large office, I thought I had a handle on this issue. I'm a smart, strong woman. I recognize when I'm being harassed, and I can certainly stand up for myself. Well, it turns out life isn't quite so pleasantly cut and dry.

When I think of sexual harassment, I think of the TV show MadMen. I think of sex in the office, obvious weight and appearance discrimination, and blatant behavior that is oddly both paternal and sexually aggressive. I think of catcalls, sexually suggestive talk, unwanted proximity and frequent touching. That sound about right to you?

A couple weeks ago, I purchased a new, deep berry-red lipstick – I've never been one to fear color. The shade was a bit gothic, but as long as I kept my eye makeup minimal the combination remained in the realm of work appropriate. Little did I know that dark lipstick is a more effective attention getter than hair, eye make up and clothes combined. Male coworkers began to actually ask where my lipstick was whenever I chose not to wear that shade, quite literally checking by my desk and interrupting my work just to see if I was wearing it. My response to these inquiries became less and less enthusiastic until it finally evolved into a full-on, cold fish glare and stare.

Don't get me wrong, I like compliments, who doesn't? But the mere fact that these guys had asked me to wear the lipstick again made me feel as if wearing it would be doing them a favor, casting myself as the request-taking office eye candy. Not to mention that I'm the lowest low on the totem pole and had only just gotten them to (mostly) stop raiding the items on my desk. I didn't want to give any ground.

Self-conscious and tired of the attention, I stopped wearing the lipstick. That combined with my refusal to respond coquettishly to their inquiries and the lip-centered attention finally faded away. I didn't even consider that that behavior had been sexual harassment until I mentioned it to my boyfriend and he suggested it. As far as I was concerned, a small situation had arisen and I had dealt with it. But is that really what happened?

By now the US and the UN have standardized their criteria for sexual harassment. Essentially it boils down to three items: 1) unwelcome sexual advances, 2) requests for sexual favors, and 3) verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. The UN is careful to distinguish between 'unwelcome' and 'involuntary' because it is entirely possible to voluntarily engage with unwelcome behavior because of external pressures, which brings us to... Federally, there are two types of sexual harassment: 1) quid pro quo harassment (literally an exchange of favors for rewards rendered or a withholding of rewards to encourage certain behavior) and 2) hostile work environment.

Does me not feeling comfortable wearing a particular shade a lipstick really constitute a 'hostile work environment?' I'm inclined to say 'no,' but I have a history of self-blame and a decent working relationship with the phrase 'shove it' and its various incarnations. Were the men involved ranked higher in the company and I more invested in my employed status, however, and my feelings on the matter might be different. That scenario is skirting dangerously close to 'quid pro quo.'

Despite all the pages and pages of fancy legalese what harassment – sexual and otherwise – really comes down to is who holds the power. I mean any kind of power: social, legal, financial, etc. Power and perceived autonomy are directly correlated. When you hold power over someone, you hold their autonomy in your fist. And vice versa. Remember that.

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