Sexual harassment victims have options

Sexual harassment is any deliberate or repeated unwanted sexual behavior. Such behavior may range from sexual innuendos to coerced sexual relations. Harassment is distinct from acceptable flirting and sexually oriented comments, discussion or activity voluntarily engaged in by both parties. Harassment at its extreme occurs when a person in a position of control or influence over another’s job, career or grade uses this authority and power to coerce sexual relations. Both men and women are victims of sexual harassment; however, the large majority of victims are women.

Sexual harassment may include, but is not limited to, one or more of the following acts: verbal harassment or abuse; subtle pressure for sexual activity; sexual remarks about a woman’s clothing, body or sexual activities; leering or ogling over a woman’s body; unnecessary touching, patting or pinching; “friendly” arms around the shoulder; “accidental” brushes or touches; demands for sexual favors, accompanied by implied or overt threats concerning an individual’s employment or student status, or implied or overt promises of differential treatment regarding such status; sexually suggestive objects, signs, magazines or pictures in the workplace or in the classroom; subtle or direct threats that a social relationship is part of your job; explicit offers of money for sex.

It is normal to feel embarrassed by unwanted, unflattering, sexually oriented attention or demands. Implicit in many situations of sexual harassment is the threat of reprisal for failing to go along with or for speaking out against the behavior in question. Realize that you can do something about sexual harassment. Federal and state law, as well as Northern Illinois University policy, protects victims of sexual harassment. If you do nothing, the offender will almost certainly continue to violate your rights, or the rights of others.

Legal Protections. The Illinois Human Rights Act protects individuals from sexual harassment in all institutions of higher education and covers all educational representatives, administrators, faculty and employees—from a University president to students employed on a part time basis.

The Human Rights Act defines sexual harassment in higher education as including the following: A) any unwelcome sexual advances; B) a request for sexual favors made by a higher education representative to a student; C) any conduct of a sexual nature exhibited by a higher education representative toward a student when the conduct 1) has the purpose of substantially interfering with the students’ educational performance, or 2) creates an intentionally hostile or offensive educational atmosphere, or 3) when submission to sexual conduct becomes a basis for determining admission, grades, work assignments or requirements, class attendance, availability of scholarships, tuition, quality of instruction, or eligibility to participate in extracurricular activities. It is a further violation for any person to retaliate against a person who opposes sexual harassment.

The educational institution must take disciplinary action against its employee when the institution knows that its employee has engaged in committing sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is also prohibited in employment. All employers who employ 15 or more employees within Illinois for 20 or more calendar weeks are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex, as are all governmental agencies and parties to public contracts, without regard to the number of employees. Employers are responsible for sexual harassment committed by their supervisory employees. An employer is liable for non-supervisory employees only if the employer becomes aware of the conduct and fails to take reasonable corrective measures.

Actions you can take. Many situations of sexual harassment can be dealt with by positive steps on your part. First, say no—and mean it. Often an harasser takes silence as encouragement. Politely, firmly and explicitly let the person know you are not interested. Second, tell the individual why you view the action as sexist. Think of the meeting as a kind of consciousness-raising session to help the person understand how you feel. If you are uncomfortable doing this alone, consider going to the professor or employer with several other people in the class or fellow employees. If you can’t find other people willing to come forward, take friends who aren’t in the class or who aren’t employed where you are. Third, prepare for your meeting by bringing documentation of specific incidents of harassment. Fourth, if the actions continue, consult a professional counselor or an attorney. At NIU, there are several offices that can help you, including the Affirmative Action Office, the Ombudsman’s Office and the Women’s Center. You can file a formal complaint of sexual harassment with the Affirmative Action Office. Complaints about other students are filed with the University Judicial Office.

The Illinois Human Rights Act provides that complaints of sexual harassment on the job can be made with The Illinois Human Rights Commission or with a local human relations commission if one exists—in DeKalb, the DeKalb Human Relations Commission.