What's the Problem
The difference between flirting and overstepping boundaries might not seem that apparent at first. Harassed and assaulted people themselves aren’t always sure if what happened to them was actually sexualized discrimination. Sometimes they feel partially responsible for what happened to them. It is important to recognize these gray areas and yet still develop a clear understanding of what constitutes sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence in order to intervene early and prevent other forms of sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence.
What is sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence?
Sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence refer to sexualized or sexist actions that violate the personal rights of the assaulted persons and can make them vulnerable to discrimination. This might include derogatory or insulting verbal remarks, visual displays as well as physical abuse in various forms. Specific remarks or actions can be interpreted differently by different people in different contexts – the important thing is that the assaulted person knows that they can decide where their personal boundaries are and when they have been violated. Crossing personal boundaries is a demonstration of power, and sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence are particular forms of demonstrating power over someone.
The difference between discriminatory and violent sexualized behavior versus respectful, reciprocal, and positive interactions, like flirting or giving someone a compliment, is the lack of consent and the degradation of the other person. In this respect, sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence violate the fundamental human rights of equality and self-determination, as they are defined in and protected by the German Basic Law, the International Bill of Human Rights, and the UN’s Women’s Bill of Rights.
Sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence depend on social hierarchies and power relations and can thus occur in all areas of society. Women, trans* and intersex individuals are often targets. Men can also be targeted. At the same time, social stigmas and taboos make it difficult to talk about sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence.
Here are some clear examples of sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence to help illustrate:
- Someone forcefully tries to get physically close to you or makes unwanted sexual advances on you.
- Someone makes obscene comments to you.
- Someone repeatedly touches you seemingly by accident.
- Someone makes lewd remarks about your appearance or personal life.
- Someone repeatedly approaches you with unwanted invitations.
- You feel harassed by appraising looks.
- You receive unwanted messages with a sexual reference.
- In your office, people are displaying or passing around unsolicited pornographic images.
- You are stalked by someone.
- Someone violently forces you to perform sexual acts.
Sometimes sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence begin more subtly and certain behavior seems to be in a gray area. For example, you meet your supervisor at a café to prepare for an important meeting. While you are talking with your supervisor, he suggests a couple of times that you go get drinks together later. Maybe you are friends, and he wants to tell you something important. Perhaps you just moved to Berlin to start your new job, and he wants to show you around. But it is also possible that he is taking advantage of the situation and his position of power. In order to grasp what is going on, it is important to know the context and to take your feelings and your perception of the situation seriously.
If you have experienced sexualized harassment, discrimination, or violence, we encourage you to seek help and take action against any violations of your boundaries. You are in no way to blame for what happened. The full responsibility lies in the hands of the perpetrator.
What is the difference between “sexual harassment” and “sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence”?
The term “sexual harassment” includes verbal and physical actions that also count as sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence. However, “sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence” is an overarching term that speaks to the social structures involved in various forms of discrimination and violence that relate to a person’s gender or sexual identity. The term “sexualized” as opposed to “sexual” puts emphasis on the fact that sexuality is being exploited by the perpetrator in order to fulfill their desire for power and control. Such actions are completely different from consensual sexual behavior based on mutual trust, common interests, and shared intimacy.
Why is it so important to confront sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence within a university context?
Universities involve hierarchical relationships that structure the everyday lives of students and employees. The relationships are often based on a high degree of one-sided dependency, which can enable sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence. On the one hand, many victims find it difficult to take action against sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence because they are worried it will negatively affect their academic/professional career. They see their options as limited. On the other hand, certain basic practices and organizational features at universities, such as individual office hours, also provide opportunities for sexual harassment, discrimination, and violence. A confrontational approach is essential at universities in order to let perpetrators know that these actions will not be tolerated.
What are the consequences of sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence?
Sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence can greatly disrupt the life of a person who has experienced them. Crossing personal boundaries can lead to a general sense of discomfort as well as long-term anxiety and stress, which can in turn lead to difficulty concentrating, withdrawal, and a lack of motivation.
In severe instances, a person who has experienced any form of sexualized harassment, discrimination, and violence might lose their sense of self-worth and experience health problems, such as insomnia, headaches, or depression, as well as the effects of physical violence. If they don’t get the support they need, their anxiety and health problems can lead to a greater sense of isolation and helplessness, which might lead them to drop out of their degree program or quit their job.