The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights defines ‘sexual harassment’ as an “…unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal; or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
Pretty straightforward, right? It is unwelcomed and it does not matter what the victim was wearing or how they were acting. There has not been a significant decrease in instances regarding sexual harassment, despite the efforts of schools and organizations. The reason for this is because they are targeting the victims rather than perpetrators. Meaning, these efforts are in place to assist victims after the fact or to provide guidelines on how “you can prevent” an unwelcome situation. These preventative measures perpetuate the belief that sexual harassment is inevitable and create a culture that treats people as objects in the world of sex.
Of course you do not have to be a woman to understand what it feels like to receive unwanted sexual attention, but a survey done by the American Association of University Women in schools across the country in 2010-2011 show a higher percentage of women experiencing this type of attention than men. The book “Crossing The Line: Sexual Harassment in Schools” by Catherine Hill and Holly Kearl describes these findings in detail and concludes that “…girls are sexually harassed more frequently than boys are and that girls’ experiences tend to be more physical and intrusive than the boys’ experiences” (Hand & Sanchez, 2000). This is not to say that sexual harassment of boys is any less serious, but a culture exists of women being viewed as objects of sex, which leads to an increasing percentage in the cases regarding women. Who is to blame for this culture? Well, it is a multitude of sources varying from stereotypical gender roles, books, movies, television shows and advertisements.
Jean Kilbourne has a new approach. Her documentary “Killing Us Softly” is award-winning, “named by New York Times as one of the three most popular speakers on college campuses.” The documentary travels through the evolution of advertisements in America and its negative mark on the culture of women’s standards of beauty. Despite the fact that the unrealistic images of a woman’s body support the increasing issue of eating disorders and numerous other issues, the ads transform women into objects and visions of sex. We act by what we perceive to be okay and these ads tell us that it is okay to view a woman as an object and, as Kilbourne mentions, this leads to violence. When something is dehumanized, it becomes much easier to justify taking advantage of that “thing.” So what is the solution? Well, as Kilbourne would agree, the advertisements need to construct a new angle.
This is not to say that other efforts have gone unnoticed. It is incredibly important and effective to provide numerous outlets and safe communications for victims. In addition, there needs to be a shift in the way we prevent the problem. It is not the responsibility of any individual to feel as if it is their fault for getting felt up. Rather, it is the advertisements’ job to produce more respect for women to abolish this negative view. When a larger source has the power to control the way the community perceives an entire category, it also has the power to change it. More of these companies need to assist women in feeling more confident in confronting their assaulters and less like they were the cause. Jean Kilbourne’s documentary is frighteningly real and I would recommend it to anyone. Let’s move forward in continuing the fight to decrease the percentage of any type of unwelcome sexual attention by transforming the way women are perceived through advertisements.