Sex, Power, Courage: Combatting Sexual Harassment & Abuse

Sex, Power, Courage: Combatting Sexual Harassment & Abuse

There’s been a lot of focus in the media in recent weeks on both sexual harassment and sexual abuse, particularly surrounding the tragedy at Penn State. Both involve the interplay of sex and power, vulnerability and intimidation. Both are issues requiring courage. Both require more discussion than any blog post can provide, but I was to share my thoughts anyway.


It goes without saying that it’s reprehensible for any human being to abuse another; much less an adult sexually abuse an innocent child. While we must enforce harsh laws to deter predators, the front line of attack on sexual abuse ultimately rests on the shoulders of parents. We have to help our children to understand three core things:

  1. That no person is ever so powerful or important that they can’t tell us if they have acted inappropriately toward them
  2. That we will always believe them, and
  3. That there is nothing that they can ever do that they should feel ashamed about or that would ever make us ashamed of them. Period.


As strongly as I feel about the evil of sexual abuse, this focus of this blog is on sexual harassment because it’s an issue so relevant to adults working in organizations today. Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act says defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.” The problem is that what may be offensive to one person, is not necessarily offensive to another. The boundary is unclear; where’s the line between innocent flirting and having some fun, and outright harassment and intimidation?

Set clear boundaries

Even though the law may be unclear about where the boundary lie, we mustn’t. Whether it’s being sexually harassed by a person at work in an authority position relative to us, or to being bullied by a colleague of the same gender, we have a pivotal role to play in how a relationship unfolds. Or doesn’t.

What matters more than how anyone acts toward us is how we respond to them – however much power they weald relative to us.  We need to be mindful about what we may implicitly be communicating around what we will and will not tolerate, clear in setting firm boundaries when the need arises and, when our warnings go unheeded, courageous in speaking up and raising the issues with those in positions of higher authority who can intervene to address it.

I’ve had numerous experiences in professional settings where people have made comments or gestures toward me that had clear sexual undertones. I assumed they were trying to assess my interest or test my fidelity.   Which is why I have never taken any of the remarks overly offensively. It’s clearly been more about them than it has about me. That said, I’ve always been pretty clear in letting them know that, a) I’m not interested (assuming I wasn’t, which has been the case for 20+ years), and b) they better not try that again.

Too often victims of sexual harassment have become such because they have not had the courage to say “Cut it out!” at the first instance of a behavior they found offensive. When we do so it sends a clear message,  automatically shifts the dynamic, and goes a long way to warding off unwanted advances before they ever occur.

Take responsibility for what you may be unwittingly communicating

Numerous times I have witnessed people create a blurry line when it comes to the behavior they are willing to accept and tolerate to suit their own agenda.   While I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with making the most of what we have – whether it be a sharp wit, great smile or long legs – when that behavior sometimes attracts advances that cause us to feel harassed, we also need to take realize it’s a two way street. I’m all for women owning their femininity, and wearing clothes that make them feel great. However, we must also take responsibility for the messages we may be sending.

Of course there are genuine victims of sexual harassment.  But I believe that each of us – male and female – must also take personal responsibility for reflecting on how our “way of being” (or dressing, walking or talking…) might be implicitly communicating messages that subtly invite the behavior we wish to avoid.

Be more powerful than your fears

I’m not an expert of sexual harassment, but I do specialize in the role fear can have on human connection.   Before we become a victim to anyone else, we become a victim to our own fear. Fear that we are not ‘good enough’, fear of rocking the boat, being of judged harshly, rejection, missing out on future career opportunities, or of being undeserving of anything better. It’s these fears that so often, too often, drive people to tolerate the intolerable and accept the unacceptable.  The fact is, no one can intimidate you without your consent. You teach people how to treat you, and only when you are willing to step into your own power – and through the fears that drive you to settle and suffer – will you be again to gain the respect – from other and for yourself – which you really want.

I appreciate that this is far from a simple issue. I’m sure you have your own perspectives on this subject, and perhaps they differ to mine. So I’m curious, what’s your experience of sexual harassment? How did you handle it… or not handle it? And with the benefit of hindsight, how do you wish you had handled it differently?

It’s my hope that by opening up a candid discussion, it will help to create a world in which fewer people feel harassed, fewer people have the desire to harass, and more people feel powerful and courageous enough to stop it in its tracks at the first instance.