Natalie Timperio

Senior InsideOut Editor

There’s a fine line between what constitutes friendly behaviour and sexual harassment. Innuendos may often be taken for commonplace among the student body, whether in workplaces, classrooms or other social settings. Then again, even if someone does in fact feel sexually harassed, speaking out about it can be quite difficult at times; no one wants to look a fool making a fuss over a petty sexual joke.

And this is where the problem largely lies. As members of a progressive society and, moreover, a university campus, sexual harassment seems more of an issue reserved for other groups of people. A ‘joke’ is nothing to get worked up about; we’re liberal, like-minded individuals, so no harm is meant when someone’s ‘just kidding.’ But this is a common misconception. Though we’ve progressive, sexual harassment is still a very real issue.

“Many of our students wear double hats; they’re here as students, and as a student they’re entitled to service in the form of education that is free of discrimination and free of harassment,” says Vilma Rossi, Program Coordinator for Human Rights and Equity Services (HRES) at McMaster.

While most people have a general sense of what sexual harassment is, being able to break it down can be helpful, Rossi explains. McMaster University’s Sexual Harassment Policy defines sexual harassment as a comment or conduct directed at an individual or group by someone of the same or opposite sex where it is known or ought to be known that such attention is unwanted.

“It’s not only the words that are being said but also the tone and the body language that goes along with using the phrase or the term or the word. If someone touches you, grabs you, strokes your hair, leans over you all the time, is invading your personal space,” this would constitute harassment, says Rossi.

Accounting for context is very important. If there are instances in which a comment or touch is welcome by the party in question, then this is something that would not constitute sexual harassment. Though, drawing the line between what is innocent flirting and what is a sexualized environment is something to be wary of.

Nonetheless, Rossi noted that any discomfort someone may feel as a result of sexualized comment or conduct is not something to be taken lightly.

But speaking out about sexual harassment can be difficult. “In my experience, sexual harassment is quite often treated as a joke by the people who are engaging in the behaviour. People who are targeted by the behaviour will develop all kinds of strategies to try to cope with their discomfort,” says Rossi. Often, people will attempt to ignore harassment by laughing, for example.

Indeed, while acknowledging sexual harassment is difficult, asserting oneself can prove all the more arduous. “It’s really an interesting dynamic that gets created where you actually have certain rights, but you can’t assert these rights because you’re going to be targeted even though you should be protected from being targeted,” Rossi explains.

In fact, escalated sexual harassment can ensue if one chooses to speak out about it. In this case it can become even more difficult to deal with; someone who finds themselves in this situation may experience anxiety, become easily distracted and, in more severe cases of harassment, experience health problems.

There are informal and formal avenues of action if you are experiencing sexual harassment. Rossi recommends documenting the date of the occurrence, as well as what happened and who saw or heard it happen. And, depending on your level of confidence, you can also directly or indirectly confront the perpetrator(s) of the harassment.

In a workplace, you can inform your supervisor of the misconduct. The HRES office, located on the second floor of the student centre (MUSC 212), can provide additional assistance, whether individual or group counsel, or helping to facilitate an appropriate resolution to stop the sexual harassment.

When informal resolution does not work, you may choose to file a formal complaint, either with McMaster’s internal human rights tribunal or the Ontario human rights tribunal. Depending on the context and severity of the situation, either course of action is appropriate when dealing with a case of sexual harassment, whether within McMaster University or without.

Rossi explained that sexual harassment is about “putting you in your place, putting you down, sending a strong message that you’re ‘less than’.” What’s important, then, Rossi stressed, is creating a environment of zero tolerance for disrespect: “You’re [at McMaster] to get an education, get a good job and gain experience—you are not here to expend a whole bunch of energy about how to handle [sexual harassment].”


Subscribe to our Mailing List

© 2022 The Silhouette. All Rights Reserved. McMaster University's Student Newspaper.