Sexual Harassment

To solve a problem requires acknowledgement and acceptance of its existence, and because sexual harassment and assaults are far more common than many would believe them to be, the ever-increasing international coverage of the scores of allegations could therefore be a catalyst for the development of concerted responses to this problem.

In T&T under the Sexual Offences Act, sexual harassment is not a charge. There is also some level of confusion about what constitutes sexual harassment, and what is a sexual assault.

According to Rape Crisis Organisation –sexual harassment is defined as any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that you find offensive or which makes you feel distressed, intimidated or humiliated.

That can include:

  • Someone making sexually degrading comments or gestures
  • Your body being stared or leered at.
  • Being subjected to sexual jokes or propositions.
  • E-mails or text messages with sexual content.
  • Physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances and touching.
  • Someone displaying sexually explicit pictures in your space or a shared space, such as at work.

The London Metropolitan Police defines sexual assault as an act of physical, psychological and emotional violation in the form of a sexual act, inflicted on someone without their consent.

It can involve forcing or manipulating someone to witness or participate in any sexual act. Such as ­– a person intentionally sexually touches another person; when the person does not consent to the touching.

It is mind-boggling just how widespread sexually inappropriate behaviours are, but in many respects unequal power relations which deny others the right to own and express their sexuality, and socio-cultural norms help to normalise such behaviours.

There is also a level of social complacency which trivialises sexual harassment as long as there is no physical interaction, and for some reason it becomes accepted as just one of those things that happens. I have seen a woman at a party very politely ask someone to desist from wining on her, and she then received a barrage of abuse, not only from the winer boy, but from other party patrons who felt that if she didn’t want anyone to wine on her she should have stayed at home.

There is now the distressing realisation that celebrities whose talents many of us have admired are themselves being accused of sexual offences, such as the likes of Bill Cosby, R-Kelly, Sylvester Stallone, Ben Affleck, Dustin Hoffman, and Kevin Spacey.

But what is more disturbing is the negativity doled out to some of the accusers. Some of them have been subject to very negative backlash – they have been called attention seekers, liars or opportunist gold diggers by people with no knowledge of the details of the incidents.

Granted, there are instances of so-called victims of sexual offences who turn out to be unscrupulous and deviant, but the vast majority speak up because they have a desire for justice, and to curtail the appalling acts from befalling others.

Disclosure is not easy. It can be very stressful, and the decision to speak out and open up is not one that is usually taken lightly. Not only does it mean rehashing the pain and reopening the scars of the humiliating emotional injury. But embedded social judgments and attitudes make it risky, and that naturally deters people from coming forward.

The reality is that sexual harassment and assaults are incredibly common, they happen at home, schools/colleges/universities, workplaces, on public transport etc. Those who have been on the receiving end of such behaviours know only too well the overwhelming impact it can have on their lives.

Therefore, it would be more rewarding and beneficial for a solutions-focused approach to be taken as a response to allegations, instead of victim blaming and shaming, and coming up with conspiracy theories.

Encouraging sensitive reactions, efficient reporting mechanisms that enable effective data collection, reinforcement of workplace policies, access to useful resources (bearing in mind that not everyone is literate or can understand or make meaning of written leaflets), availability of safe, supportive spaces, having sexual harassment legislation, and increased awareness raising could prove to be advantageous.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UK-based disability and mental health specialist advisor. She is a social strategist and trainer who works internationally at various levels of government, business and civil society. Contact her at

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