Sexual Harassment: A Grownup Version of Bullying?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the topics of sexual harassment and bullying. News media are flooded with cases of sexual harassment, and schools everywhere are on a mission to prevent bullying. It seems to me that sexual harassment and bullying are very similar. They both involve unwanted or unwelcome comments, attention, or physical contact. So, what’s the difference? Is sexual harassment in the workplace just a grownup version of bullying that goes in in the school playground? Here’s what I found out…

Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. It’s all about establishing and maintaining an imbalance of power. There are four types of bullying: emotional, verbal, physical, and cyber. Bullying can be done by a single person, or it can be done by a group. Bullying is repeated behavior; it happens regularly over a period of time and is directed at the same target(s). Bullying behaviors can include verbal harassment or threats, or physical assault or coercion. Bullies may spread rumors about a person, post insulting comments on social media, or make jokes about someone to others. It may or may not have sexual content.

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances and requests for sexual favors in return for continued employment or the promise of benefits or advancement. It also includes conduct that creates a work environment which is intimidating, hostile or abusive and interferes with an employee’s ability to work. Examples can include inappropriate jokes, make offensive remarks about gender or hanging sexually offensive posters. Harassment can involve a single incident, or it can be a series of incidents over a period of time.

In either case, however, the effect is the same. Victims feel threatened, scared, and emotionally stressed. So, what’s the difference?

Believe it or not, the difference is that bullying is legal in most U.S. states and sexual harassment is not. Harassment is about protected characteristics, and bullying is not. If people are bullied because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, age (or some other defining characteristic), then the behavior is illegal because it is harassment. If a variety of people are bullied from a variety of categories, then it is not harassment and is legal.

Make sense to you? It doesn’t, to me. Despite the legal difference, many of the behaviors are similar. And, both bullying and sexual harassment are about power. What do YOU think?

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