A Deviant’s Guide to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Demitri Wylde
8 min readJan 20, 2024

An in-depth account of what sexual harassment looks like and how to navigate harassment in the workplace with grace.

A Personal Story

One of my first jobs was a bag boy/cashier at a local grocery store. The job itself wasn’t so bad, it was a steady paycheck, easy work, and all the perks that come with joining a union (insurance, etc.) I was there for about two years in my early 20s.

One of my coworkers, who I generally got along with if it weren’t for the fact that he was severely homophobic. It was always one snide remark, or a passive gay joke that I usually would roll with or ignore. It never bothered me. Except one day, as I was helping a customer with her groceries, I heard it:

“Faggot.”

It was just under his breath but I know I heard it.

“Excuse me?” I said as I stopped what I was doing and looked at him dead in the eye.

“Uh… I didn’t say anything,” he said.

It was a lie, of course. He had been harassing me ever since he foound out I was gay. I mean, I didn’t hide it, but for whatever reason he simply couldn’t be an adult about it.

This was the last straw, though. I had finally had enough. I marched straight into the managers office and told them what was going on. They had me fill out a form and explain what had happened. Then they sat both of us down separately to discuss it. Nothing really happened from that though, it was documented, but one of the joys of being in a union was even perpetrators have a defense. Wonderful.

One night, a few days later, I was at home when I got a phone call. It was him. He called to yell at me about trying to get him in trouble, and he threatened to tell them I touched him innapropriately (obviously a lie), but I was stunned. How did this fool have the audacity to call me at home and threaten me?

The next day I told my boss about what happened. He believed me, but I could tell he didn’t know how to handle the situation, or perhaps just didn’t want to anymore. So, instead of investigating further as to why one of his employees was being called off the clock by another employee and threatened, he said “this needs to stop or I am letting both of you go.”

I said fine. I didn’t care anymore. I put in my two weeks and never looked back. I don’t know what happened to the other guy, nor do I care.

This, my friends, is an example of sexual harassment.

In the complex tapestry of workplace dynamics, sexual harassment casts a dark shadow on many communities, threatening the well-being and the dignity of workers. In addition to being a violation of personal boundaries, sexual harassment infiltrates the very fabric of personal and professional lives, and creates a hostile environment, and negatively affects the well-being of victims.

In this latest installment of A Deviant’s Guide, we are revisiting the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace. We, as a company (welcome aboard!), will be examining its definition, looking at how it shows up, gaining perspective of its impact on victims, and increasing awareness of how to best handle those difficult interpersonal situations.

Let’s dive in.

What Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Means

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a pervasive problem. It is a toxic brew of unwelcome behaviors that transforms professional settings into hostile territories. It encompasses verbal, non-verbal, and physical transgressions, and creating an environment where power dynamics undermine the safety and respect of employees.

Sexual Harassment Can Include:

  • Verbal Harassment: Unwelcome, inappropriate comments, sexual jokes, and explicit language.
  • Non-Verbal Harassment: Leering, gestures, and the exhibition of explicit materials, invading personal space.
  • Physical Harassment: Unwanted touches, groping, and any form of physical intrusion without consent.
  • Quid Pro Quo: Unlawful exchanges where employment decisions are contingent upon submitting to unwelcome sexual advances.
  • Hostile Work Environment: Pervasive sexual jokes, comments, or actions.

Who is More Likely to be Sexually Harassed?

While sexual harassment can impact anyone, it disproportionately affects women. The ACLU states that anywhere from 25 to 85 percent of working women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Additionally, those in subordinate positions may find themselves at increased risk, as harassers exploit power differentials within the workplace.

It also disproportionately affects sexual minorities like gay men and women, non-binary, and trans individuals.

Is Sexual Harassment a Crime?

Though not universally classified as a crime, sexual harassment is considered a violation of civil rights and is illegal under anti-discrimination laws. Legal consequences can ensue for both perpetrators and employers if not adequately addressed. In severe cases, certain behaviors may escalate to criminal charges, such as sexual assault.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits discrimination based on sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity). Sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII.

How Sexual Harassment Can Affect You

The aftermath of sexual harassment extends far beyond the professional realm. Victims grapple with emotional scars, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Professionally, setbacks abound, ranging from damaged career prospects to job loss. The pervasive nature of harassment infiltrates confidence, self-esteem, and overall well-being.

How Sexual Harassment is Handled in the Workplace

Employers wield immense power in combating sexual harassment. Establishing clear anti-harassment policies is paramount. Regular training sessions on sexual harassment awareness equip employees to recognize and combat inappropriate behavior. A thorough investigation of complaints, along with confidential reporting mechanisms, is essential. Leadership must exemplify a commitment to a culture of respect and inclusivity.

If you need help with sexual harassment consultation for your workplace, feel free to contact me. I will happily assist you in coming up with a sexual harassment training program that is both compliant with all current laws, and also tailored to your business or institution.

What to do if you are being sexually harassed at work

Navigating the murky waters of workplace harassment is like dealing with that one annoying coworker who never gets the memo on personal space. I, too, have dealt with unnecessary discrimination in the workplace. It’s not fun for anyone to deal with.

Let’s break it down, step by step, with a dash of official HR wisdom, and a sprinkle of real-life experiences:

1. Assert Your Boundaries

  • The first step is a simple one, but often the one that seems the most difficult. It all starts with the polite, “Hey, could you not do that?” If someone’s making you squirm in your swivel chair, asking them nicely to cut it out is step one.
  • Even if you don’t ask the person directly, maybe go through someone they know if they make you that uncomfortable. Sometimes a third-party mediator can add weight to your request, making it crystal clear that your discomfort isn’t a joke.

2. Firmness Without Fireworks

  • When being polite doesn’t pack the punch, it’s time to be more direct. Let them know how their actions are making you feel. Sometimes a direct word, without being overly confrontational, is all it takes.
  • But — and there is a but…- walking the fine line between assertive and abrasive is an art. Not everyone has what it takes. But if you can find the fine balance of being frank, but not forceful, you will find it often works wonders, especially if it’s someone you generally get along with.

3. Talk to Management

  • If the discomfort persists, it’s time to skip a few rungs up the ladder. Approach a manager you trust and spill the beans. I get it, you don’t want to come across as a narc, but trust me, it’s ultimately better this way.
  • The reality is this; yes, incident reports might come into play, and yes, they’ll likely have a chat with the culprit. But calling for backup when the situation gets out of hand is often the best course of action when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.

4. Go to Human Resources

  • When management fumbles the ball, HR steps onto the field. These folks are trained specifically to untangle the mess. Whether it’s employee relations or de-escalating drama, they’re the pros. They might even pull off some workplace acrobatics to relocate troublesome coworkers, like separating oil and water.
  • Real Talk from Experience: I once faced a situation where a coworker turned the office into their personal gossip mill. HR swooped in, juggled some logistics, and presto! We were relocated, and peace was restored.

5. Consider Quitting

  • Not the ideal solution, but sometimes, it’s the final play. If you’ve exhausted all avenues and the situation hasn’t improved, it’s worth asking yourself if the job is worth your mental health. But hey, ensure you’re financially stable before taking this leap.
  • I’ve had to quit a job before because of harassment. It was a difficult decision but the issues were not being addressed, so I got another job and I left.
  • Pro Tip: If you do decide to walk away, write a letter explaining why you’re leaving and how the lack of support affected your decision. Send a copy to HR too. It’s the ultimate mic drop, making sure they know exactly why they lost a valuable team member.

When to Tell Someone if You are Experiencing Sexual Harassment

While deeply personal, prompt reporting is necessary to ensure a timely response and effective intervention. Delaying disclosure may inadvertently permit the harassment to persist and complicate potential legal actions. The sooner it is reported, the better.

Why Sexual Harassment Awareness is Important

Sexual harassment awareness serves as an important workplace catalyst for various reasons:

  • Prevention: Education on acceptable behavior and a culture of respect are vital for preventing harassment.
  • Empowerment: Informed individuals possess the tools to recognize and confront harassment, fostering a collective sense of empowerment.
  • Legal Compliance: Awareness ensures both employees and employers understand their rights and responsibilities under anti-harassment laws, promoting legal compliance.
  • Organizational Culture: A commitment to awareness cultivates a positive and inclusive culture, attracting and retaining diverse talent.

In conclusion, unraveling the layers of sexual harassment is an imperative step toward creating workplaces free from this scourge. Everyone is there for the same thing: a paycheck, and everyone deserves to work in a peaceful and stress-free environment. Yourself included. Through heightened awareness, proactive measures, and decisive actions, we can dismantle the toxic culture that sexual harassment thrives in, and cultivate positive environments where everyone can flourish.

This concludes today’s Human Resource Training. Thank you for participating. Remember to push in your chairs and throw away your trash in the bin. Have a lovely day.

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Demitri Wylde

Sex educator on a mission to help you understand topics around sex, dating, and relationships. linktr.ee/demitriwylde