Complex Dynamics of Sexual Harassment

Human systems dynamics teaches us to stand in inquiry, but there are some things we know for sure. As we listen to and engage in conversations about sexual harassment, certainties rise to the surface and need to be voiced.

Here are some things we know for sure about sexual harassment.

  1. Women should be heard and believed. Whether it is a report of harassment or a great idea at the board table, women have the right to be heard, taken seriously, and believed. HSD talks about Four Truths:
  • Objective truth is held by everyone and supported with incontrovertible evidence.
  • Normative truth is held by a particular group and supported with dialogue and shared understanding.
  • Subjective truth belongs to a single person, and it is supported with stories of an individual’s experiences or beliefs.
  • Complex truth acknowledges that the other three are true—all the time. As a community we choose which deserves attention in any given setting.

Regardless of the objective or normative truths, when a woman reports harassment, it is her undeniable subjective truth, and it should be heard. 

  1. Harassment is about power not sex. People with power find it easy to confuse the two, but those without power do not.
  2. It isn’t just about women.  Because it emerges from the abuse of power, sexual harassment thrives where racism and other kinds of disrespect or abuse exist. We should not let the most obvious voices (regardless of gender, race, or geography) drown out the voices of anyone who experiences harassment. . 
  3. There are differences that make a difference. All sexual harassment is bad and should be stopped, but not all instances are equal. We should respond differently when the victim is underage; when the perpetrator is consciously abusing power; when there is violence involved; or when the perpetrator should hold the public’s trust.  
  4. Dismissal should be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of a problem for an organization. If one victim was wiling and able to report, you can be pretty sure there is more than one guilty party. Someone knew and didn’t report. Someone watched and mimicked. Someone tried a little something to see what would happen. Someone enjoyed a story or a joke at another’s expense. The goal should be transformation of a culture of systemic disrespect, not witch hunting for individual actors.
  5. Training is never enough. To borrow a powerful phrase, “Culture eats training for lunch.” Training does not teach us how to be sensitive and responsive in a moment of interaction. And, until individuals and groups are sensitive to the effects of their actions on others and responsive to others’ needs, harassment will continue. Cultural transformation requires a concerted, consistent effort to surface and address behavioral patterns of all people in all places.  
  6. Boundaries shift in times of change, and we all must adapt. People used to smoke in public and ride without seatbelts. Those were always dangerous behaviors, but at one time they were accepted as the norm. Such cultural shifts are not simple pathways from what was to what will be. People get trapped in today’s consequences for yesterday’s actions. In these times, we are experiencing the shift of many long-held cultural norms. Yesterday’s perceived innocence turns into tomorrow’s perceived guilt, and yesterday’s guilt into tomorrow’s impunity. Whether or not we agree with the new norms, until the lines are clear, we should approach each other with empathy and curiosity.   

The public discourse about sexual harassment has been rife with blaming and shaming. I hope we can pay attention to the complex dynamics, so we can rise above this destructive pattern to create dialogues that empower equity and justice. We can be conscious. We can choose. HSD can help.

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