Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

Sexual or sexualized harassment

What is harassment?

In the legal sense, harassment is understood to be discrimination in which a person's dignity is violated by unwanted behavior on the basis of a characteristic worthy of protection1 and an environment characterized by intimidation, hostility, humiliation, degradation or insult is created. In this context, the disadvantage may be intentional or unintentional. Harassment can never be objectively justified.

1 The General Equal Treatment Act (AGG) refers to the characteristics of ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age and sexual identity.

What is sexual or sexualized harassment?

In the legal sense, sexual harassment is a special form of harassment and a sexualized form of discrimination. It includes any unilateral and unwanted behavior with a sexual reference that violates the dignity of the person concerned. Sexual harassment can create an environment characterized by intimidation, hostility, humiliation, degradation or insults. Affected individuals perceive the behavior as disrespectful and transgressive.

There are also various definitions of boundary violations with sexual connotations, ranging from harassment to violence, and are referred to by both the term "sexualized" and "sexual." In the course of this overview, we would like to differentiate and define two basic forms as follows:

By "sexualized harassment and violence" we mean, in distinction to a fundamentally positive concept of sexuality, which is aimed at equal interaction of individuals, a deliberate exercise of power and control by sexual means. A person does something with sexual reference without first securing the consent of the other person or although it was perceived that the other person does not agree with the action. Sexual harassment, for example, can be used by men as a means to make women feel insecure about their career aspirations.

By "sexual harassment and violence", on the other hand, we mean a boundary transgression in interactions in a sexual context that was not intended and not perceived by the perpetrator - for example, when a person assumes a consensual act, but this consensus (from a certain point in the interaction) does not (no longer) exist, but the perpetrator does not perceive the signs in this regard and mistakenly assumes consensuality.

The decisive factor in both forms is how the person affected feels about the respective action, and both forms can have serious stressful consequences for the person affected.

This is a largely taboo subject that is fraught with shame. Affected persons feel violated in their dignity, humiliated and degraded, because they were treated like a passive object, their limits and their will did not count. Often, there is also a feeling of powerlessness, since the situation could not be controlled in a self-determined way. The feeling of not having defended oneself adequately in the situation can also be stressful. Those affected may also feel guilty. However, there is no justification and those affected do not bear any share of the blame.

Since structural dependencies favor the deliberate exercise of power by sexual means, this can also occur in clusters at universities. However, sexual transgressions in a private context can also have an impact on the university sphere - for example, if there was a sexual assault between fellow students in a private context and the person affected feels unable to continue attending classes with the perpetrator.

Examples of harassment with sexual connotations:

  • Lewd or disparaging remarks about appearance
  • Whistling behind, cat calling
  • Indiscreet questioning about lifestyle and love life
  • requests for sexual acts
  • exposing oneself
  • Displaying or sending pornographic images
  • intrusive glances
  • unwanted physical contact
  • repeated physical advances that appear accidental
  • inappropriate letters, phone calls, messages or gifts
  • sexual innuendo, obscene jokes, gestures or comments
  • Stalking, following, or harassment
  • physical violence, sexual assault, and rape

Who can be affected by sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment largely concerns women, but also men and people, who do not locate their gender in neither category can be affected by it. The perpetrators are mostly men, but people of all gender can sexually harass. Harassments can occur between people of various hierarchical levels (e.g. between a student and a professor, a staff member and a supervisor), but also on the same hierarchical level (e.g. between fellow students). Sexual harassment is particularly severe, when it happens in relation to exploitation of dependency or under threat of personal or career-related disadvantages.

Examples for different forms of sexual harassment that can occur at university:

  • A professor stares at his students breasts during a meeting.
  • A lecturer asks inappropriate questions about the private and love life of a student during an examination.
  • A lecturer promises a student advantages in exchange for a sexual favor or threatens with disadvantages, if the favor stays out.
  • A student sends emails with pornographic content to his*her lecturer.
  • Two fellow students talk loudly about the physical characteristics of a fellow student in a salacious and degrading way.
  • A student grabs a fellow students behind unrequested during an event of the university department.
  • A professor makes sexist jokes during a lecture.

How to prevent sexual harassment?

Every person has an individual limit as to when behavior constitutes a violation of dignity and when it does not. This boundary must be respected by everyone. Just because one person reacts positively to a lewd comment does not mean that the comment is okay for all other people. To ensure that you are not violating another person's dignity with your own behavior, you should respectfully ask for their consent before taking any action that is sexually related.

Consent is only possible if a "no" is accepted as an answer in an equally respectful manner. In this context, it is particularly important to consider hierarchies and relationships of dependency - the prospect of professional advantages in the case of sexual concession is just as much not free consent as the threat of disadvantages in the absence of such concession. Increased caution is especially necessary when dealing with individuals between whom there is a structural dependency (e.g., students and faculty). You are on the safe side if you always maintain a professional distance here.

All actions to which all parties involved have freely given their convinced consent without fear of negative consequences are not to be considered harassment. Negotiations and reassurances are always necessary here, since it can be determined, for example, during an action that a person does not want it, although he or she previously assumed that this would be the case.