Sexual harassment or sexual assault? Do you know the difference?

U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program logo. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Parker.

Written by Lt. Cmdr. Dan Rogers, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Military Campaign Office.

Where does sexual harassment end and sexual assault begin? The answer to this question may not be as clear as you think.

When I first read the definitions of sexual assault and sexual harassment, I found it hard to understand their relationship to each other. Many authors have either confused the terms sexual assault and sexual harassment, or they have relegated sexual harassment to a back seat issue very different from sexual assault.

What I wanted clarified was what I saw as a conflict between the two definitions. I used to believe that within the continuum of harm, sexual harassment eventually might lead to sexual assault. Both include unwelcome sexual advances to include touching. As I studied the issue, I found that while there is overlap between the definitions, this overlap doesn’t constitute conflict.

Before we compare the two terms, let’s first agree on their definitions.

Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is a form of prohibited harassment. It is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:

1. Submission to such conduct is made either implicitly or explicitly a term or condition of employment.
2. Submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as a basis for employment decisions.
3. Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.
4. This definition also encompasses unwelcome display or communication of sexually offensive materials.

Within the Coast Guard, there are two categories of sexual harassment: tangible employment action and hostile environment.

Tangible employment action is an official action taken by a supervisor, such as hiring, firing, promotion or failure to promote, demotion, undesirable assignment, or significant change in benefits or pay,or work assignment. In these cases, the Coast Guard is strictly liable for the actions of the supervisor.

Hostile environment encompasses all other situations addressed within the definition of sexual harassment, whether the offender is a supervisor or a coworker. To meet the definition of a hostile environment, the harassment must be so severe and pervasive that a reasonable person would view the environment as hostile, offensive or abusive.

Sexual Assault
Sexual assault, as defined in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program Manual (COMDTINST M1754.10D), is intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, threats, intimidation, abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent. Sexual assault includes rape, forcible sodomy and other unwanted indecent contact (e.g., kissing against another person’s will) that is aggravated, abusive or wrongful (to include unwanted and inappropriate sexual contact), or attempts to commit these acts.

“Consent” means words or overt acts indicating a freely given agreement to the sexual conduct at issue by a competent person. An expression of refusal or lack of consent through words or conduct means there is no consent (i.e., “No Means No”). Lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from the accused’s use of force, threat of force or placing another person in fear does not constitute consent. The victim’s lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from intoxication, from unconsciousness due to sleep or alcohol consumption, or from any other conditions which render the person substantially incapacitated or substantially incapable of understanding the nature of the sexual act, declining participation in the act or communicating unwillingness to engage in the sexual act does not constitute consent. A current or previous dating relationship shall not constitute consent. The manner of dress of the victim shall not constitute consent.

Now that we have our definitions clearly established, let’s discuss the differences and similarities.

Comparing the Two
The real distinction between sexual harassment and sexual assault is sexual harassment’s connection to the victim’s employment and/or work performance, which is why sexual harassment is a civil rights issue. However, in some contexts, sexual harassment may constitute a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Sexual assault is a crime against another person. However, unlike sexual harassment, it has nothing to do with their employment and/or work performance, it is a criminal assault, of a sexual nature, against another person.

In dealing with both matters, our focus should not be to emphasize one over the other. Rather, we need to recognize their relationship, how poor command climate fosters sexual harassment which can prevent bystanders from intervening and can embolden predators. In the response side of the equation, it is important to recognize the very real possibility that a victim may in fact have been subjected to both sexual harassment and sexual assault by the time a report is made.

The importance of maintaining a command climate founded upon the principle of mutual respect becomes even clearer when we look at the term “hostile work environment.” To meet the definition of a hostile environment, the harassment must be so severe and pervasive that a reasonable person would view the environment as hostile, offensive or abusive. If all people have ever known is a workplace that condones or turns a blind eye to sexual harassment and other forms of harassment that have the potential to create a hostile work environment, how will they know what a reasonable person would consider hostile? How would they know that kind of behavior isn’t normal?

Leadership and the prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment are inextricably connected. As leaders, we need to not only assess our command climate, we need to assess how well we are helping our shipmates understand what is and is not acceptable behavior and the connections between sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Both sexual assault and sexual harassment are incompatible with our Core Values and service in the Coast Guard. Offenders can and should expect serious consequences if they decide to engage in either behavior.

If you have been, or think you may have been, sexually assaulted, contact your sexual assault response coordinator, or call the Safe Helpline at 1-877-995-5247. Information about reporting options and resources for survivors of sexual assault can be found on the U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program website.

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