What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is repeated unwanted attention of a sexual nature or, more simply put, repeated unwanted attention that is based on sex. Therefore, as a form of discrimination based on sex, sexual harassment is not only an assault on personal dignity, but it is actionable under Title VII and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. This kind of discrimination (which can consist of words and/or actions) may or may not have sexual content, but it must subject members of a protected class (men or women) to conditions of employment or education that are significantly worse than the conditions experienced by the non-members of the protected class. For example, if a professor makes repeated remarks about the inability of women to learn math that creates a learning environment for women that is significantly worse than the learning environment for men in the same classroom. Though the remarks have no overt sexual content, they harass a group of persons on the basis of their sex. This degradation of persons and of the learning environment constitutes discrimination and is actionable under Title IX.
In the same way, if a professor engages in a romantic relationship with a student, that professor is using sex to create conditions for all other students that might be worse than for the student who is privileged by the relationship. The professor could also be taking advantage of his/her position of authority to demand sexual favors of the student, thus creating a hostile or even abusive environment for that student by means of sex. That is why these relationships constitute sexual harassment. The consent of a student to a sexual or romantic relationship with a faculty member is not sufficient to make this relationship legitimate, since the element of authority—the power differential between a student and a professor—is still present and cannot be eliminated. For this reason, romantic or sexual relationships between Calvin College faculty and students are never acceptable.
Calvin College will not tolerate sexual harassment or abuse of any kind. It is our collective responsibility to promote a safe learning environment. Sexual harassment by any member of Calvin’s faculty, staff or student body is an assault on personal dignity and a violation of federal and state law. Calvin affirms its commitment to maintaining an educational and working environment that is fair, respectful, and free from sexual harassment. No one at the college may retaliate against a person who makes a bona fide claim of sexual harassment.
Types of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment can be verbal (comments about a person's body, spreading sexual rumors, sexual remarks or accusations, dirty jokes or stories), physical (grabbing, rubbing, flashing or mooning, touching, pinching in a sexual way, sexual assault) or visual (display of naked pictures or sex-related objects, obscene gestures). Sexual harassment can happen to women and men, transgender and intersex persons, and those who are non gender-conforming. It is not limited by sexual orientation.
Some types of verbal behavior that might constitute sexual harassment are:
- Continuous idle chatter of a sexual nature and graphic sexual descriptions;
- Sexual slurs, sexual innuendoes and other comments about a person’s clothing, body and/or sexual activities;
- Offensive and persistent risqué jokes or jesting and kidding about sex or gender-specific traits;
- Suggestive or insulting sounds such as whistling, wolf calls or kissing sounds;
- Sexually provocative comments or compliments about a person’s clothing or the way their clothes fit;
- Comments of a sexual nature about weight, body shape, size or figure;
- Comments about the sensuality of a person, or his/her spouse or significant other;
- Distribution of written or graphic materials that are derogatory and are of a sexual nature;
- Repeated unsolicited propositions for dates and/or sexual relations;
- Asking about sexual fantasies, preferences or history.
Examples of gestures or non-verbal behaviors that might be considered sexual harassment are:
- Sexual looks such as leering and ogling with suggestive overtones;
- Licking lips or teeth, winking or throwing kisses;
- Holding or eating food provocatively;
- Lewd gestures, such as hand or sign language to denote sexual activity;
- Persistent and unwelcome flirting;
- Staring at an individual or looking a person up and down (elevator eyes);
- Displaying sexually suggestive pictures, calendars, posters, statues, etc.
Unwanted physical contact can range from offensive behavior to criminal acts. While some might dismiss some of these behaviors as an annoyance, others will consider them to be sexual harassment. It should be stressed that all of these behaviors are inappropriate in the workplace. Some examples of unwanted physical contact that might be considered sexual harassment are:
- Touching that is inappropriate in the workplace or classroom, such as patting, pinching, stroking or brushing up against the body;
- Giving a massage around the neck or shoulders;
- Attempted or actual kissing or fondling;
- Cornering or mauling;
- Physical assault;
- Coerced sexual relations;
- Attempted rape or rape;
- Touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person;
- Pranks such as exposing underwear or parts of the body;
It should be stressed that while some behaviors may be offensive, unprofessional and/or against college policy, they may not necessarily be considered sexual harassment. For example, general use of profanity and vulgar language may not be sexual harassment unless it is sexually oriented or overused to the point that a hostile work environment is created.
Perception vs. Intent
An individual’s perception of what is, or is not, sexual harassment, adds greatly to the complexity of the sexual harassment issue. Well intentioned gestures such as a pat on the shoulder, touching, risqué remarks, jesting comments of a sexual nature or physical contact may be interpreted as acts of sexual harassment by one recipient, while another may dismiss them as merely annoying. Likewise, some individuals may perceive leering or ogling as sexual harassment, while others may perceive the same behavior as looking or staring and may attribute no meaning to it.
Often people accused of sexual harassment may not realize that they have committed acts of harassment. Accused harassers may have intended only to be funny or even complimentary, and may believe that their conduct is not only appropriate and acceptable, but also appreciated. They are often truly shocked when they are told that someone considered their behavior to be sexual harassment.
In determining whether behavior is to be considered sexual harassment, the courts generally use the “reasonable person” standard. Using this standard, the court asks whether a reasonable victim of the same sex as the plaintiff would consider the comments or actions sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive working environment. Another way to look at the issue — and your own behavior — is to ask whether you would want your spouse/partner, child or parent to be subjected to the same type of behavior.
Federal law recognizes two types of sexual harassment:
- Quid pro quo (Latin for "this for that")
For example, it is sexual harassment when a teacher or school employee offers a student a better grade or preferential treatment in return for sexual favors or if a teacher threatens to lower a grade if sexual contact is refused.
- Hostile environment
Sexual harassment also occurs when sexual touching or comments create an environment where people feel uncomfortable and unsafe, or are prevented from participating in or benefiting from a program or activity. This type of harassment does not have to involve a threat or promise of benefit in exchange for a sexual favor.
Remember: Any romantic or sexual relationships between people in positions of power or authority over others constitute an abuse of power and are, by definition, abusive. For this reason, Calvin College prohibits romantic relationships between faculty members and students, between students and staff members in mentoring positions, and between employees when a supervisory relationship is involved.
What to do
If you have experienced sexual harassment or abuses of power at Calvin, or suspect that someone you know might be involved in a situation of harassment or abuse, call the I Will Report It designated message line at 616-526-IWRI (616-526-4974). The line is available for students, faculty, and staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. You may also speak to a trusted person who will report it to their Vice President or the Associate Vice President for Human Resources*. The College encourages the reporting of all perceived incidents of discrimination, harassment or retaliation regardless of the offender's identity or position.