Journal of Trauma and Rehabilitation

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Commentary, J Trauma Rehabil Vol: 1 Issue: 1

Addressing the Trauma of Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault

Burke RJ*

Schulich School of Business, York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York, Ontario, Canada

*Corresponding Author : Ronald J Burke
Schulich School of Business, York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York, Ontario, Canada
Tel: 416-736-2100

Received: April 03, 2018 Accepted: May 24, 2018 Published: May 30, 2018

Citation: Burke RJ (2018) Addressing the Trauma of Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault. J Trauma Rehabil 1:1.


Sexual harassment and sexual assault are traumatic events for victims and bystanders. Sexual harassment and sexual assaults have likely occurred over the past several centuries and in every country on earth. In the United States, several women undertook research and writing on sexual harassment at least 30 to 35 years ago. Despite these, and continuing efforts, nothing has changed. Sexual harassment and sexual assaults continue to this day.

Keywords: Sexual Trauma; Sexual Harassment; Sexual Assault; Working women


Things began to move in North America and elsewhere (UK, Australia, Canada) in late 2017 however. The impetus for this was the accusation that Harvey Weinstein, CEO of Miramax Productions, a large film production company, was involved in sexual harassment and sexual assault [1-3]. He was eventually forced out of his job, the Miramax organization filing for bankruptcy. Many of Weinstein’s male colleagues were aware of his behavior but said nothing, being complicit in these assaults. A key element in this change was the emergence of #MeToo, a website that encouraged women and men targets and/or victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault to come forward. The result was an avalanche, with accusations of harassers mentioned daily in the media-but these accusations not yet proven in a court of law.

Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault

What is sexual harassment and sexual assault? Quid pro quo and a hostile work environment represent the legal definitions of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment research however has used broader definitions. Sexual harassment involves unwanted dating pressures, sexual propositions, physical sexual contact, physical non-sexual contact, and sexual coercion or bribery [4]. Women see a wider range of attitudes and behaviors reflecting sexual harassment than do men, women also reporting more incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault than do men [5]. Sexual harassment and sexual assault is about power. Men generally have more power, resources and influence than women in most workplaces. Interestingly, more assertive women are more likely to be targets and victims [6]. Sexual harassment reflects a wider gender inequality in most countries. Men are the harassers of both women and men, few women sexually harass men. A workplace culture that tolerates sexual harassment and sexual assault is the strongest predictor of rates of these abuses. Sexual harassment and sexual assault is more likely to occur in occupations that have historically been male dominated such as the military, policing, the media, entertainment, and manufacturing.

Here are some of the things we know about sexual harassment and sexual assault [7].

1. Targets and victims indicate high levels of distress.

2. Some of these responses reflect post-traumatic stress disorder [8].

3. Bystanders and observers of these incidents also report higher levels of distress.

4. Targets and victims, as well as bystanders and observers, indicate less job satisfaction, lower performance and greater intentions to quit.

5. There are costs to the reputation of firms in which these incidents occur.

6. There are large financial costs to workplaces in terms of lower productivity and higher levels of absenteeism and turnover.

There are large financial costs in terms of cash settlements to victims when charges are made and harassers found guilty. Organizations in most countries are required to have safe workplace environments. Meta-analyses involving dozens of studies and tens of thousands of respondents have documented these negative outcomes [9]. Willness and his colleagues estimate the financial losses due to reduced productivity at US $22,500 per year. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimated coats of about US $50 million per year in the form of monetary awards to victims. These negative outcomes are compounded by the fact that most human resource managers are ill equipped to respond to these complaints, and the legal system in most countries is also complex and complicated and seemingly not supportive of victims.

The first research examined sexual harassment among coworkers, more recent research considering sexual harassment by/of organizational employees and clients and customers [10]. Interestingly, most targets and victims, estimated at over 50%, do not report such incidents to their supervisors or other relevant bodies. Women do not report sexual harassment or sexual assault for a variety of reasons. These include a fear of retaliation, being ignored, shunned and gossiped about; fear of being terminated; discomfort at discussing personal information; being seen as a troublemaker; and believing that nothing will result in any case.

Thus most workplaces are unaware of the levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault that their employees experience. Most male managers and executives believe that this figure is very low in their organizations, and should these incidents occur, their firms are well placed to address them effectively. However, the evidence does not bear these optimistic assessments out.

Feldblum and Lipnic propose five broad initiatives that would reduce sexual harassment [11].

1. Executives and managers must show committed and engaged leadership in addressing sexual harassment.

2. All employees must be held accountable, immediate action must be taken when an incident is reported.

3. The organization must communicate clear and comprehensive policies to all employees.

4. Victims need easy access to complaint procedures, receive support, expect confidentiality and trust, the complaint being handled by trained and skilled staff.

5. Training and education must be given to all employees, emphasizing compliance, workplace civility and bystander intervention training and support.

However while organizations in some countries are required to provide sexual harassment training, the evidence on the benefits of these training efforts is mixed, most showing little benefit. Employees report little benefit of sexual harassment training when the culture is resistant to change, little optimism exists for positive change, and senior leadership is seen as not heavily engaged in bringing about the necessary culture change. The #MeToo movement has moved addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault to a high priority. The #MeToo movement resulted in large increases of targets and victims coming forward. In addition, an increasing number of harassers have lost their jobs and organizations are now paying large amounts of money to settle these accusations. We are now at a critical point. The #MeToo movement has started a journey that could change the ways women are treated, and how women and men treat each other. Only time will tell. Necessary change will not be easy however. We must keep pressure on workplaces to make advances in preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault and improving their support for victims and bystanders [12,13].


Preparation of this manuscript was supported in part by York University.


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