Let’s get practical about sexual harassment. This is not just about prominent people and the news they generate; it is about regular folks, as well. The #MeToo campaign illustrated the pervasiveness of sexual assault, and sexual harassment is a close cousin.
First, let’s talk about the workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says this about sexual harassment:
It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).
The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
It’s important that we understand the above. I’m not a lawyer and will not get into legal details. I simply want us to be aware of this description. This is not just a matter of following or disobeying the law; Christians should care about appropriate, respectful behavior.
Life, of course, carries us beyond the workplace.
A national survey of U.S. adults by Barna Oct. 19-25 asked “American adults to identify specific acts that they consider to be harassment. The answer differs based on gender, but Americans say that sexual harassment is most often about being touched or groped (women: 96%, men: 86%) or being forced to do something sexual (women: 91%, men: 83%).”
This chart by Barna makes it easier to see what Americans think of various behaviors:
This is a reflection of current American opinions about the varied behaviors; it is not a reflection of how people, especially Christians, should behave.
If you are married, you should not do any of the things listed above anywhere anytime with anyone who is not your spouse. And you should not force yourself on your spouse or make your spouse uncomfortable with intimidating behaviors. (The current issue, however, is not about intra-marital behavior; it’s about how we behave with others in social settings.)
For those who are single, you're in a different situation regarding some of the behaviors lower on the list. The key, I think, is not to make another person feel uncomfortable -- harassed. (But also be careful that you don't make co-workers feel uncomfortable. That wouldn't be sexual harassment; it would be bad interpersonal relationships.)
Most people understand that forced sex, groping, exposing oneself, sexual messages, and pinching are wrong. They shouldn’t be done, but we now understand just how pervasive these behaviors have become. I take heart that they still evoke widespread condemnation. We would have a more serious cultural problem if these behaviors were not condemned.
I used the list to help add some concrete behaviors to discussion of this issue. One of my female colleagues says sexual harassment, especially in the church, is "often subtler than groping. It is inappropriate and unwanted touching." She said this includes hugging; making jokes about the abilities and competencies of a particular sex; and making comments about clothing and appearance. Also, it's important that church leaders not be dismissive if a complaint is registered.
Hugging is a good behavior to use in dealing with this issue at the borderline between appropriate and inappropriate. It seems to me Christian people are divided on this. Personally, I like to hug people whom I know well -- both men and women. I try to be sensitive to non-huggers. They send signals if we will pay attention; often it's in how they extend a hand -- straight ahead at waist level means I prefer a handshake not a hug, while reaching for your shoulder means I prefer a hug. In the former case, I would never want to make the person feel uncomfortable so no hug is perfectly fine. In the latter case, I don't hug men or women in the same way I hug my wife. When in doubt, don't hug.
A Christian should never want to cause another person to feel harassed -- intentional or not.
Many harassers, however, are intentional, and they often create a trail of victims through their lives. It’s simply wrong, and these sinners need to face the consequences of their sin. Grace is available for the confessing sinner, but first things first. This is sexual immorality, and it is condemned.
Flee sexual immorality! Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body. Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body
(1 Corinthians 6:18-21, CSV).