Twenty years ago, men were the thought of as the main perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment with women as their victims. Having been one of those victims in two separate work industry environments, with a boss and co-worker, the demoralizing encounter left a scar. It was frustrating to be recognized not for my hard work but rather, my appearance and naivety.
But as with everything else, times have changed. There are now mandatory trainings on the subject, reporting is semi-confidential, and awareness has increased. But unfortunately, the perception that it is dirty old men sexually harassing young women has remained. This could not be further from the truth. Women can be perpetrators and the harassment is not confined to heterosexual interaction.
Regardless of the players or their sexuality, the pattern is the same for the perpetrator. I have seen this entire pattern happen over a period of years or as short as a couple of hours. It depends on the agenda of the perpetrator and their level of skill.
- Belief. In order for a perpetrator to walk through these steps, they must first believe that they are entitled to whatever or whomever they want. This process demands confidence and arrogance to be executed fully. It takes practice to perfect their assault especially with sexual harassment warning posters in a workroom. There are many missteps and almost victims along the way.
- Awareness. In the first stage the perpetrator becomes aware of their potential victim. There is most certainly a one-way sexual attraction in which the victim is completely unaware. The perpetrator cannot get the victim out of their mind and often fantasizes about having sex with them. The role of perpetrator to victim is one of dominance to submission. The perpetrator wishes to dominate the victim into submission. This is about power and control, not love.
- Glimmer. The perpetrator will have a glimmer in their eyes when near the potential victim. This is the first warning to the victim that they might be a target. Unfortunately, the perpetrator often misreads signals the victim is sending back. While the victim might be acting friendly, the perpetrator views this as a sign that they can proceed.
- Game. Now begins a cat and mouse game of sorts in which the victim unknowingly participates. To reaffirm the dominance, the perpetrator will show off their power, influence, money, position, or control over the victim and others. They will create opportunities to assert themselves in positions of authority in front of the victim. Then they will retreat, assert, and retreat again. This is done to lure in the victim and generate interest.
- Innuendo. Every now and then, the perpetrator will drop an inappropriate line in the middle of a work related conversation with the victim. Most victims are so caught off guard that they quickly dismiss the suggestion. But the perpetrator is studying the victim’s reaction like a hawk. The more shocked or surprised the victim reacts, the more enticing it is to the perpetrator. Strangely enough, the excitement often disappears if the victim reacts expectantly because this does not fit within their dominance/submission game.
- Brushes. Seeing astonishment in the victim’s eyes with the innuendos, the perpetrator moves to physical touch. It might be an accidental brush against the victim, a demanding hug, an unwanted back rub, or a hand placed on the thigh. Most victims freeze in moments like this which further draws in the perpetrator who views this as a sign of compliance or worse desire. With each physical contact, the boundary of acceptability is stretched more and more.
- Gifts. One of the easiest ways to continue to lure in a victim is gift-giving. This could be something small such as a card or obvious such as a potential promotion. Usually the perpetrator will offer something in exchange for overlooking their advances. It is not commonly openly stated, however, some well advanced perpetrators will be bold enough to admit it. But only to the victim. If caught, they will deny everything and blame the victim instead.
- Isolation. In order for something to happen, the perpetrator must physically isolate the victim. This could happen behind a closed office door, during a private lunch meeting, or at an overnight business trip. The first time the two are together, it is all about creating a “safe” environment. The perpetrator, sensing the victim’s level of discomfort, may pull way back to give the victim time to let their guard down.
- Assualt. When the victim least expects it, the perpetrator will attack. Their boldness in this moment will be appalling. The victim will feel as though they have no option especially given all of the advances and gifts they have let slide at this point. Remember the perpetrator has imagined this moment for quite some time and put a great deal of thought into planning this attack. So they will be over-prepared for any response including complete deniability should the matter come forward. All of the previous steps are done to discourage and intimidate the victim into submission.
If you find yourself as a victim, unknowingly in the middle of one of these steps, there is time to get away. Tell a trustworthy friend outside of the workplace first before notifying human resources. You will need the support as the perpetrator is confronted. Don’t let the perpetrator get away with their harassment, remember, they have practiced on several others before you.