What is sexual harassment?

According to §2a par. 5 of the Anti-discrimination Act, sexual harassment is “verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, the intent or effect of which is or may be to violate the dignity of a person and which creates an intimidating, humiliating, disrespectful, hostile or offensive environment.”

Sexual harassment can take many forms, which we assign to several categories: sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention and sexism.

Sexual coercion is the use of psychological pressure or physical force to compel a person to engage in sexual behaviour. It may be:

  • a “quid pro quo” situation – indicating benefits in exchange for sexual contact (in the study or work environment), hinting at negative consequences if the person does not comply with sexual proposals, real negative consequences after the rejection of sexual proposals;
  • rape, attempted rape;
  • dangerous stalking.

“In the second year at the oral exam in histology, for example, the teacher asked her whether she was dating someone, and when she responded that she wanted to focus on writing the preparation because she was nervous, he wanted to know if she was nervous because she did not have a boyfriend, and therefore had too little sex. ‘This derailed me, and I replied that I did not want to talk about this topic. He said that I shouldn’t act like a nun; it was enough to just look at me and he knew that I am definitely a lover of bedroom games... Finally, he said that I had failed the exam, although he didn’t give me a chance to answer a single question. But he said he was not interested in my answers.’ The examiner told her that she should think over her attitude in the future. And a similar situation was repeated a second time... In the third year, she passed the last possible resit of the exam. ‘He was there again, and when the assessor went away for a moment, he told me that he will not let me pass, that I should have behaved differently, and that he had made it sufficiently clear what he required of me. Evidently, all that was required was some “evening tutoring” and I could have passed the exam.’” (Source: SME article)

Another form of sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention. This is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature directed at a specific person, for example:

  • commenting on body parts,
  • sexual allusions and suggestive looks,
  • sending erotic materials,
  • asking questions about one’s sexual life,
  • unwanted repeated invitations for dates or offers for sex,
  • unwanted touching.

“Like every Tuesday, the whole seminar went to sit in the café after the lesson. This time the teacher was also invited. In the course of the evening, he turned to Ivana and asked for her phone number. Ivana was surprised and didn’t know how to refuse the request quickly and elegantly. The next day, she was surprised to receive a flood of text messages. The teacher complimented her and invited her to a meeting. Ivana didn’t know how to tell him not to write to her anymore. She had the feeling that not responding to the teacher would be rude. What’s more, it could come back to haunt her during the exam. So, she answered the text messages neutrally and briefly. Ivana didn’t know what to do. When she told her friends about it, they had a laugh at her and the teacher. Others also took note of the teacher’s interest in her. Suddenly, everyone thought that her good results were not deserved and that she was getting them for free. Ivana was perhaps even more sorry about the reaction of her classmates than she was bothered by the teacher’s interest. In the end, she decided not to complete the course and avoided the teacher.” (source: Qualitative study FHS CU 2008/2009)

Sexism (or otherwise – gender-motivated harassment) is the most common form of sexual harassment in the university environment. These are various types of humiliating, disparaging or hateful verbal and non-verbal behaviour, based on stereotypical notions about men and women – their interests, abilities, needs. Gender-motivated harassment also applies to lesbians, gays, bisexual, non-binary and transgender people – thus, it includes all the aforementioned negative expressions aimed at sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sexism expresses itself, for example, in the form of:

  • sexist comments – statements such as “women are suitable for the humanities”, “men lack empathy”, “women are not interested in management jobs, because they want to devote themselves to the family”, “girls think they can pass the exam with a miniskirt”, “the student doesn’t need to know this, because she will be more concerned with her family than work in the field anyway”, “muscles are enough for you; you don’t need to use your head”, “young man, aren’t those pants a bit tight for you?”, “she was a bit nervous, maybe she was having her period”, “only girls should dye their hair and wear make-up”...,
  • inappropriate and derogatory comments towards a group or individuals based on their sex, gender or sexual orientation,
  • disadvantages based on sex/gender – e.g. ignoring female students during lectures and paying attention only to male students based on the belief that women will go on maternity leave and not devote themselves to the field or a teacher’s conviction that women are not suitable for their field,
  • favouring on the basis of sex/gender – e.g. favouritism in the assessment of study obligations, in providing job opportunities, greater support for career growth based on whether someone is male or female,
  • telling sexually oriented jokes during lessons,
  • telling jokes that mock people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,
  • mentioning sex in cases where it is not related to the topic of the discussion/lecture,
  • the presentation of erotic and pornographic materials during classes,
  • making obscene noises.

“When we ceremoniously finished the theoretical part of the state exams, it was pointed out to us that because we are women, they did not expect such high results from us, and that we had surprised them. They said that they knew that we would still go on maternity leave and not devote ourselves to this field at a professional level; therefore, they would have easily forgiven us a lot during the exams. At that moment, I had the sense that if I were a man, I might not pass. It was humiliating.(statement of a medical student, Source: Qualitative study FHS CU 2008/2009)

“He was a teacher who did not touch us (...) but he was terribly inappropriate in class; he made sexual jokes, sexual innuendos, very often, for example, talking about how he groans.”(statement of a student, source: Qualitative study IVPR 2019/2020)