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Discrimination

The Problem With the Term “Sexual Harassment”

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The Problem With the Term “Sexual Harassment”

In the popular imagination, sexual harassment evokes images of men who ask women on dates and can’t take a hint, or powerful male bosses who request sexual favors from less powerful women. But the scope of unwanted remarks and behaviors go well beyond instances dealing directly with sex.

The term “sexual harassment” can lead to an poor understanding of the full range of abusive workplace behaviors. What is sexual harassment? Sexual harassment stems from highly subtle, interconnected, and systemic behaviors that can be both sexual and nonsexual. Without a proper understanding of how harassment works, it’s easy to miss things that don’t immediately escalate but pull the thread and set genuine sexual misconduct in motion.

In the face of such social and cultural complexity, the temptation is to ban all references to gender, sex, class, and other potential points of controversy. However, we’ve seen that banning all of these behaviors can sometimes cause more harm than good. In fact, discrimination lawyers have said that such sweeping prohibitions tend to be unhelpful and can even inhibit the elimination of workplace harassment…

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