A Guide: What Constitutes Sexual Harassment? Can I Still Hold The Door For A Woman Or Hug A Colleague?
We tried to draw the line between interpersonal communication and sexual harassment. For the benefit of both sides.
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Increasingly more women come forward with their experiences of sexual harassment. Proactive initiatives of various nonprofit organizations and thousands of stories in the media have highlighted the issue, causing governments, such as Slovakian, to get involved. Slovak government has suggested a change in definition of rape to “sex without consent”, as a result of studies and available data which proves this to be the most effective definition in protecting victims.
Nonetheless, the more prominent the topic of harassment or rape, which mainly concerns women becomes, the more confusion is brought about.
Is written consent necessary prior to every sexual encounter? Can we really not flirt with a stranger or crack a joke about an attractive colleague? Where do we draw the line between interpersonal communication and sexual harassment and what are the chances that someone might go to jail for slapping someone’s butt?
What is even “still” allowed?
“Sexual harassment is what harasses you, personally. There is no excel sheet.” said Jasmina Houdek, a self defense coach who often gives lectures about harassment, for Refresher. She understands that this causes great confusion when people do not want to offend or harass others with a compliment or flirtation, but simply do not know where the line is. Jasmina Houdek tends to give simple advice.
If you want to compliment someone and you are concerned about entering the territory of sexual harassment, imagine saying the sentence to your grandmother. “If you’re ok with it, it is likely not harassment.” Said Jasmina with a smile. Obviously, the issue of sexual harassment is far more complex than that. Various documents (such as this Slovak one or this one published by the UN), list multiple activities and examples.
Sexual harassment, if simplified, includes uncomfortable, sexually motivated behavior, both verbal and nonverbal, according to Diskriminacia.sk.
It may be humiliating and may also create a health or safety risk. Should an objection to such behavior (verbal or physical) create a disadvantage in one’s work environment (such as not getting hired in a job interview, not getting a promotion,…), it constitutes discrimination. More on discrimination can be found in anti-discrimination law.
“The most simple thing you can do is ask” Houdek advised. If you are unsure whether your behavior may harass another, asking is the least you can do. According to the coach “There is nothing sexier than asking for consent.”
Being a gentleman (holding the door or a chair) may be accompanied by a question and may be conveyed in a flirtatious manner, leading to a date or even sexual engagement. Without harassment, preserving an enjoyable atmosphere.
Jail for a dickpic?
Going to court for every single type of sexual harassment identified by organizations and experts is not feasible in many countries, such as Slovakia. Beata Jurik, a lawyer, identifies an issue that many cases of sexual harassment in fact include criminal conduct against other rights and liberties, such as stalking. Cases of rape and sexual violence fall under crimes against dignity, creating an inconsistency in the classification and penalization of said conduct.
Jurik currently works in the budget control commission of the European parliament. She is a member of Progressive Slovakia party, used to lead the feminist platform PSF and worked as a volunteer in multiple feminist organizations. In her opinion, Criminal law should contain a special article about sexual harassment. She endorsed the Slovakian change in definition of rape mentioned above, yet finds it insufficient because a whole variety of acts which amount to sexual harassment falls outside the scope of criminal conduct. Jurik subsequently elaborates that “Majority of these acts are considered torts against general order or criminal acts of rioting. For example, men who were caught masturbating on the train in 2021 were considered rioters rather than sexual offenders.
Even in cases where the offenders are charged, they often do not receive the highest possible sentence. For instance, a 48-year-old male masturbating in the bushes has received 100 hour of community service, as reported by SME. Often, a significant number of more serious violence is also not punishable by incarceration.
As per the analysis by Slovak Institute of Research, Work and Family, the rate of conditional sentencing in criminal act of rape was 31%, and 38% in cases of criminal act of sexual harassment in cases where the victim was a woman. Notably, 64% of offenders in cases of violence against partner on general basis of conduct (molesting a close person or a person in care), were conditionally released. In cases where the act was committed in a more serious manner, 36% of sentenced offenders avoided incarceration.
“If we considered all criminal acts committed on women, only 36% of offenders received an unconditional sentence in 2020” (Zuzana Očenášová, analyst). Hence, multiple offences labeled by experts as sexual harassment remain unpunishable by law. On top of that, many offences which are classified by law, are often punishable conditionally.
Catcalling: Includes whistling or shouting on the street, demeaning, humiliating nicknames, sexual or offensive comments concerning appearance, proposals with sexual context, demands to meet or have sex. If someone is harassing you, you can call the police. Yet, there is no specific law in Slovakia dealing with the issue.
Upskirting: Taking photos or videos of women, specifically their legs, butts and underwear, from under their skirt, without their consent. Spreading of said material may either constitute child pornography (should the subject be underaged), or criminal act of dangerous harassment. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, the offender may receive up to 6 years in prison.
Physical harassment: This includes all undesired touching (not only in intimate areas, but also on arms, shoulders, neck or hair, without consent or initiative). It often occurs in bars, on public transport or in the workplace. Touching includes patting, pinching, rubbing. Undesired massages or cornering (in a room, elevator), or kiss attempts or forced hugs or kisses are also included.
Non-verbal harassment: This includes undesired funny, offensive, ambiguous, sexual comments, invitations, jokes and demands. Non-verbal behavior, such as sleezy gestures (gestures mimicking sexual activity), licking of lips, winking, offensive looks (such as at breasts), undesired questions concerning intimate life or other communication with sexual undertone.
Online sexual harassment: Sending text messages, photos and videos with sexual content (description of sex, offers, demands, photos of genitals), which were not asked for, or were refused when offered to, by the other party, constitute online sexual harassment. This includes online behavior as described above (undesired offers, jokes, comments, questions or pressuring and threats with the intention of procuring intimate photos or forcing another towards sexual behavior). This type of cyberbullying is also considered a criminal act of dangerous harassment by Slovak Criminal law.
Stalking: Dangerous following of a person which raises a legitimate concern for health and safety of a person or their close persons. It has been recognized by law and may result in up to one year in prison. Stalking may also occur online (on social media, stalking using location technology, following where and with whom a person is and what they are doing).
Public masturbation: Satisfying oneself sexually in public is considered rioting according to Slovak law and may amount to 3 years in prison. Said masturbation is one which is conducted in front of another who does not desire so. The punishment is higher in cases of underaged victims. More can be found in our article about a masturbator on a train who harassed an underaged girl in this manner.
Sexual harassment may often be accompanied by a sort of “barter trade”, where the party with greater power demands sexual activities as an advantage exchanged for the victim not to be fired from work, expelled from school, or hurt.
Source: document of the Women Watch project (UN)
No reaction, no consent.
Mutual factors in harassment are power and fear. Harassment is committed by people who have greater power (men on the streets, those in higher positions in workplace). The factors are usually accompanied by shame, anger or fear. The men to women ratio in the position of the offender is unequal – men form the majority.
According to studies by Agency of the European Union for fundamental rights, every third woman in Europe has experienced some form of sexual harassment. Harassment is also experienced by kids – among the youngest students in Jasmina Houdek’s self-defense classes were girls between the age of 9 and 11.
It is, however, incorrect to assume that only men are those to harass. Women do too. According to Pavol Houdek, a lawyer and self-defense coach, it usually occurs in situations where a woman is in the position of power. “Of course, it happens. A group of older female colleagues may crack jokes about a younger male intern, or a woman may slap a man’s butt in a bar. He may feel awkward or ashamed, but he will likely not be scared.” According to Houdek, following such incident, men would not constantly turn around on their way home, checking whether said woman is following them and may hurt them. “the fear factor is missing, which creates a key difference.”
Not everyone is able to effectively defend themselves and therefore, if you want to know whether you are harassing someone, you can follow one simple rile. “If a person is not responding or is dodging answers, is freaked out, then it is time to stop immediately.” Says Houdek. This not only concerns compliments, but also intimate acts, touching, kisses, or sex.
Stress reaction which causes us not to be able to respond, defend ourselves, move, or even say no, is very common in violent cases, according to experts. This has caused many countries, including Slovakia, to change the definition of rape as to not include signs of resistance. Not every victim is resisting, not because they are consenting and want the activity to continue, but because they are unable to do so.
Therefore, is best to ask. Here are a few examples: Do you like what I am doing? May I continue? Do you want me to touch you this way? Even a smile or a clear nod may constitute an agreement. The concern of a ruined atmosphere should not be inferior to the concern that we are hurting someone.
What to do if someone is harassing you
According to the lawyer Beata Jurikova, our advice should mainly concern offenders. Nonetheless, she offers a few tips for victims as well. “Firstly, resistance is key – whether it is a colleague or a superior. We need to express that we do not like the person’s behavior and that we disagree with it and we do not wish for it to reoccur.” Says Jurikova.
According to her, it is necessary to be very specific. That you do not wish for your boss to put their hand on your shoulder when giving you feedback. That you do not like compliments emphasizing which parts of your body are covered or revealed. That you wish for your superior to stop touching you unnecessarily or being ambiguous when communicating. The same tips may be useful in situations outside the workplace, such as in cases of catcalling on the street or touching in a bar.
The lawyer says it is appropriate to gather proof of harassment, such as taking screenshots of inappropriate offers, or saving undesired nude photos. She advises to talk to your colleagues about what is happening to you in the workplace.
“Others around you may start to notice behavior which they previously considered consensual and acceptable. It may cause them to react to said behavior or otherwise help deescalate tension or violence.” Simply put, your colleagues will not only become your witnesses, but the braver ones may also help you minimalize conflict.
According to the lawyer, you have multiple options how to deal with harassment. You are to choose based on the aim you want to achieve. Either you simply want the harassment to stop, or you also want damages for the harms suffered, or you wish to pursue a legal route and go to court. “The first step in the workplace or at school is to confide in someone you trust and tell them what is happening to you. You may also contact labor unions, human resources, or any superior who has the capacity to interfere.” These steps tackle harassment right where it occurs. In Slovakia, you may also turn to Slovak national centre for human rights, which provides free legal advice. They can offer legal representation in court and help you understand your options. “It is possible to report any harassment.” Says Jurik. According to her words, even a person who has not been physically assaulted may defend themselves and report the incident. “There are various forms of harassment, but neither of them belongs in our society.” According to the lawyer, it is important to emphasize that nobody is obliged to report harassment, it is simply an option. Nobody may be forced into it or be criticized for not doing so.
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