An Anatomy of Sexual Harassment

December 2017 Pulse 

There have been a slew of scandalous revelations of sexual harassment perpetrated by the who’s who in Hollywood and American TV that is truly disconcerting. From the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to the actor Kevin Spacey to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News’ popular O’Reilly Show, disclosures of these scandals have appeared steadily and unabated almost every day.

Women in Singapore are not immune from this scourge. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), over half of the 500 people interviewed said that they have experienced sexual harassment in some form at work. The spectrum of abuses ranges from getting sexually explicit text messages to being inappropriately touched to rape.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of the United States defines sexual harassment as ‘unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature’.

In a 2006 study conducted in the United States, Berdahl and Moore conclude that ‘women experienced more sexual harassment than men, minorities experienced more ethnic harassment than Whites, and minority women experienced more harassment overall than majority men, minority men and majority women’.

One of the myths surrounding sexual harassment is the view that it is all about the sexual needs and desires of the offender. Research has shown, however, that in most cases it is really about power and discrimination.

Sexual harassment is a sordid act that exploits an unequal power relationship, for example, between an employer and an employee. As the EEOC points out, in some cases the submission of the employee to sexually inappropriate conduct on the part of the employer is either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition for employment.

Sexual harassment is the abuse of power and a display of dominance over people whom the offender disrespects and consequently mistreats as mere sex objects. Violence against women is therefore the ultimate form of sexism and sexual discrimination.

The problem of sexual harassment, however, must not be analysed in isolation from the broader cultural milieu. In an interesting study entitled, ‘The Socio-Cultural Context of Rape’ (1981), Peggy Reeves Sanday argues quite persuasively that there are sociological and cultural impetuses behind violence against women in modern society.

Sanday identifies at least three characteristics of our modern cultural ethos that nurture such violence. The first is the violence that we find generally in war and aggression. The second is male dominance in our culture and society and the relegation women to subordinate roles. And, related to this, there is, thirdly, the institutionalisation of male activities and the exclusion of women from certain spheres of public life, like politics.

Even if one disagrees with Sanday on certain aspects of her argument, her general thesis is surely sound. The phenomenon of sexual harassment is undergirded by certain social and cultural factors.

Sexual harassment is an assault on the dignity of the victim. The Bible clearly teaches that human beings – male and female – are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). This means that regardless of their unique individualities, all human beings possess an inalienable dignity and must therefore be equally valued.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus showed uncommon respect to women against the social conventions of the patriarchal society of his day. From the Samaritan woman at the well to the woman caught in adultery, Jesus showed love, compassion, understanding, sensitivity and forgiveness.

Christian writers such as Judith Balswick and Jack Balswick discuss the problem of sexual harassment in light of what the Bible has to say about justice. They conclude that ‘Biblical justice is oriented toward recreating communities so that each gender participates fully and equally in society’.

This is one aspect of the biblical concept of shalom. ‘When women are not free to live in their full femininity because they fear being sexually harassed’, Balswick and Balswick write, ‘there is no shalom’.

In Ephesians 5:11, we read: ‘Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them’. In the case of sexual harassment, not only must Christians have no part in it, they also have the moral duty to report such offences.

This is important because there is a tendency in our society to respond to allegations of sexual harassment with what some have described as ‘automatic defensiveness’. There is also a tendency to give the accused the benefit of the doubt or to simply dismiss the allegation. Such approaches give the impression that the victims of sexual aggression and abuse are not valuable, that they simply won’t be believed.

Large organisations are known to cover up sexual offences, especially if the perpetrators are significant or key figures. While this is true in secular organisations, it is unfortunately also true in the Church – the scandalous cover-up of the offences of predatory paedophile priests in the Roman Catholic Church is a case in point.

A biblical response to sexual harassment, however, must not only focus on the harassed. It should include the harasser and the community in which the harassment took place.

Failing to show genuine concern for the harasser is in some ways to ignore his (or her) humanity. And failing to take into consideration the responsibility of the community where the harassment occurred is to fail to create a social space where such offences are taken seriously and prohibited.

As Balswick and Balswick put it, ‘A biblical response to sexual harassment involves redress and restoration at both the interpersonal and community level. A concerned response is incomplete if it focuses only on the victim and offender; it must also seek the restoration and peace at all structural levels’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.