During the last few decades a lot of awareness has been created in South Africa surrounding the education of what non-verbal and physical sexual harassment is. The number of sexual offences that have been reported has increased from 64 512 during the 2001/2012 period to more than 66 000 sexual offences reported during the 2012/2013 period. This clearly indicates that people are feeling more empowered to report sexual offences or that sexual offences are on the increase. Either way, though it may not be all of them, sexual offences are being reported nonetheless.
Now, I must make it clear that being a woman, I am writing on behalf of other women. And although men also fall victim to sexual offences, I know how I feel as a woman, when something like this happens to me. (Perhaps the men can inform us about how they feel regarding these issues).
Particular attention has been paid to the harassment of women in the workplace, as we have traditionally been seen as weaker, less powerful and less knowledgeable in the workplace. However, thanks to many pioneers, who are found in almost every industry these days, the opportunities of women have almost become as abundant as those for men. With this, came channels through which women can confidently report any sexual harassment that they experience in the workplace.
What is worrying however is the verbal sexual harassment that is still experienced by women every day in the workplace as well as in social and public spaces. Furthermore, channels to report verbal sexual harassment, are not as readily and openly available (cause let’s be honest, the police don’t exactly have time to go and arrest the guy that just called you “sexy” at the bus stop). In addition, there hasn’t been a great deal of education amongst both genders regarding what exactly verbal sexual harassment is. This should be highlighted from a young age.
The United Nations Women Watch site provides a definition of “unwelcome behaviour”, which it refers to as a critical word in the definition of sexual harassment. It provides a short description of what unwelcome behaviour entails:
“Unwelcome does not mean ‘involuntary’. A victim may not consent or agree to a certain conduct and actively participate in it even though it is offensive and objectionable. Therefore sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome. Whether the person in fact welcomed a request for a date, sex-oriented comment, or joke depends on all the circumstances.”
Unwelcome behaviour has particularly become tolerated by women in the workplace who may not have any defence, particularly women who are required to work with or lead a team dominated by males (they “take it like a man”). Unwelcome behaviour is also tolerated in public spaces when women who are cat called while walking in the street; choose not to respond to the cat call.
The UN site further goes on to list examples of verbal sexual harassment:
- Referring to an adult as a girl, hunk, doll, babe or honey
- Whistling at someone, cat calls
- Making sexual comments about a person’s body
- Making sexual comments or innuendos
- Turning work discussions to sexual topics
- Telling sexual jokes or stories
- Asking about sexual fantasies, preferences, or history
- Asking personal questions about social or sexual life
- Making kissing sounds, howling, and smacking lips
- Making sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy or looks
- Repeatedly asking out a person who is not interested
- Telling lies or spreading rumours about a person’s personal sex life
The lack of education regarding the classification of verbal sexual harassment makes it easy for women to be subjected to this type of harassment, and not realise that they are being harassed, the same goes for men who may not be aware that they are harassing women. Those women who do choose to take action, may feel disempowered or fearful when a man who is being reprimanded for verbal sexual harassment starts making physical threats. Perhaps this is why some people refer to cat calling as the “gateway drug” for sexual harassment.
What can you do? Empower yourself with information, know who to speak to at work when you feel like you have been harassed. And next time the guy at work makes a slide whistle when you walk past his desk, simply inform his that he is sexually harassing you; I bet he will think twice about losing his job for doing something silly.
For more information regarding what sexual harassment is:
For information regarding South African crime statistics:
United Nations Women Watch n.d., What is sexual harassment, viewed 07 October 2014, from
Africa Check n.d., FACTSHEET South Africa: Official crime statistics for 2012/13, viewed 07 October 2014, from http://africacheck.org/factsheets/factsheet-south-africas-official-crime-statistics-for-201213/
Originally published on 7 October 2014