How to Deal With Sexual Harassment WHILE It’s Happening
Collage by Emily Zirimis

In the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein and his consequent fall from power, the continually misunderstood experience of reporting workplace harassment is finally getting some airtime. Not only is it harder and more complicated than many give it credit for, it’s an emotional labor that a reported one in three women have experienced. As we continue to explore what the aftermath of harassment should look like for the guilty, and how to prevent it in the future, there’s another part of the process we can’t ignore: the moment it actually happens.

Although Weinstein’s alleged transgressions were quite explicit, the American Association of University Women’s definition of harassment includes a range of subtleties: “‘Sexual harassment’ describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Due to its broad definition, a reported 16% of women don’t even know what they’re experiencing is sexual harassment in the first place. Of the women that do, a whopping 72% of them don’t report their experiences. The stats change depending on the study, but they’re never not disturbing.

I asked two experts to help me put together a guide for people who have found or may find themselves in uncomfortable situations at work, which may not make the news, but which happen every day on a startling scale. Dr. Astrid Heger is the Executive Director at Violence Intervention Program and a professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine with a focus on violence against women. Lindsey Pratt, LMHC, is a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma. Their tips are specifically geared toward women experiencing sexual harassment at work from men, but it’s important to note workplace discrimination happens between people of all genders, races, orientations and backgrounds, and many of these reminders are broadly applicable.

Prioritize your feelings over someone else’s

Remember this person is making you feel this way. It’s not your job to protect the harasser’s feelings. “Women may feel the urge to spare a person’s feelings with a smile,” Pratt says. “We live in a society where assertive men are branded as confident and assertive women are labeled as bitchy.” If you feel uneasy, Pratt strongly suggests you not invalidate your own feelings. “If you feel threatened or uncomfortable or pissed off, that’s all relevant information and can be delivered as is and without sugar-coating.”

Frame your words around how you feel

Instead of pointing a finger, both Pratt and Dr. Heger stress explaining how this person is making you feel. Although your accusations (i.e. “You’re discriminating against me”) may be completely fair, Pratt explains that citing feelings, which a person cannot argue with, will usually provide the quickest means to an exit. Resist the urge to soften the blow by providing an explanation. Try saying, “You’re making me uncomfortable,” instead of, “I don’t date people from work.” By stating a feeling, the hope is that you can avoid arguing semantics and shorten the interaction. Pratt says clarity is key when you’re dealing with someone who’s already willfully ignoring boundaries.

Dr. Heger, who has experienced a lot of workplace discrimination herself, has found this straight-forward approach highly effective. “I would say right to a man’s face, ‘I feel embarrassed and devalued when I’m treated like this,’ and it stopped him in his tracks.'” She teaches all the women in her department to respond that way.

Don’t worry about intent

Pratt suggests not busying yourself with analyzing a person’s intentions. No matter how playful a conversation may be, if it solicits an emotional response in you, honor that. “Any time you feel uncomfortable or threatened, there is something there that has merit,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what the other person’s intention is.”

Accept that it will happen so you’re ready when it does

As discouraging as this may sound, Dr. Heger says that accepting sexual harassment will occur can help you be more prepared for it. That way you can respond right when it happens, which she suggests doing in lieu of letting the situation cool.

“When I was in medical school,” she says. “I decided that harassment was going to be a given, and that I was going to respond in a way that made it impossible for them to come back at me.” She says that even when it happened in front of other colleagues, she didn’t let that stop her from calling someone out. “Women would come up and thank me afterward.”

Don’t assume it’s an isolated incident

To that end, Pratt and Dr. Heger urge women to assume they’re one person in a line of others, and that this isn’t the first time this person has crossed a line. As Pratt explains, “For anyone who’s exhibiting aggressive behavior, that’s probably a pattern for them in many areas of his life.” She suggests you use that as a reason to confront the situation head on, rather than ignore it. “This is probably not the first time he’s heard something like this, and it’s something he needs to continue hearing.”

 Here is how the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines workplace harassment, and here are six important things to know about it. Whether or not you think someone’s behavior directly violates the law or your company’s employee handbook, it’s important that you speak up if you feel uncomfortable in you workplace. RAINN’s 24-hour sexual harassment hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-HOPE.

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  • Lindsay D

    It often seems so easy to say I wouldn’t allow it, or I’d stand up for myself. In the moment you freeze, having a prepared reaction is necessary. I was sexually harassed at a former job. I think this article is great, 22 year old me had NO idea how to process/respond to what was happening, so I did nothing.

    • Adrianna

      I think a lot of women feel like they did nothing in the moment. I’m 28, and I think I would still be caught off guard despite experiencing sexual harassment since high school

      • I read this kind of brain freeze is a part of a biological programm we all share. The trick is supposed to be to start self-defense as soon as we de-freeze. I decided to take that for granted and act later if possible.

      • The worst thing, this started happening to us when we were in HIGH SCHOOL. I think I can remember from about the age of 15 having whilstling in the street at me.
        I freeze up all the time. I think I am going to rehearse the line ‘this is making me feel embarrassed and devalued’

    • Aydan

      my old company was like this. Full of older men and young young women. There was a lot of touching and in some cases things even more inappropriate and none of us knew how to deal. Thank god I’ve moved on, but I think education for younger peoples (can happen to dudes too) is so necessary because when you are just starting out its so so so hard to speak out (not that its hard in all / most cases!)

    • TinySoprano

      I’ve always found it easier to step up and defend other women in the moment than myself. Which ended up being the biggest step towards being able to call it out for myself – the thought that I wouldn’t accept someone treating another woman like this. I still get the panic response, but at least now I can trust my mouth to automatically come out with “that’s inappropriate and you need to stop it.”

    • Danielle Cardona Graff

      That’s exactly right! In theory, we have the best of intentions, but when IN IT, we often freeze and don’t act as we’d imagine.

  • Charlie

    “Don’t worry about intent”. Such a valuable lesson! This is something to remember!

    When I was an intern a senior from another department had this bad reputation and every time I was alone at my desk he came in, leaned in over my shoulders so he could see what I was typing at my computer… He even rested his head on mine once. I felt incredibly uncomfortable and I was so young. In some organisations (and especially when in the position of an intern) you feel this strong hierarchy. But something needed to be said – if not for me for other students and coworkers in the future. I don’t know how seriously they took me. I hope they did (also another issue, not being taken seriously… it often happens that women are labelled as “emotional” “reading too much into things” or even “want to be wanted”).

    Also, “We live in a society where assertive men are branded as confident and assertive women are labeled as bitchy.” This makes me sad, angry, and a lot of other emotions. This is a reality faced with so often.

    • tmm16

      This last statement makes me sad too. I am hoping for the day this mentality changes. I really hope it well.

      • Charlie

        I share this hope! I truly believe that platforms such as MR help in the process of this change!

  • Caroline Walker

    “You’re making me uncomfortable.” Wow, that is actually so powerful. Never thought of that before.

  • Junglesiren

    Driving from a site with my boss when I was 23, he told me he really needed a massage… I suggested Burke Williams and left it at that. It was fortunate that he did not continue passed my stop sign…. many other men would have, and I’m not sure what 23 year old me would have done in that case, but 56 year old me (a bit passed the point of men wanting to molest me) I would humiliate him thoroughly. That said… I was molested as a 12 year old girl and never said anything… I would freeze every time he came into my bedroom and would fake like I was asleep through it.

    • pamb

      So sorry to hear… I hope you were able to talk to someone about it, even if it was when you were older.

  • Anne Dyer

    Really important writing, thanks MR for continuing to expanding your platform.

  • Screenshot. Screenshot. Screenshot. Thank you for this ❤️

  • beckly

    Fantastic advice to not worry about intent, but state how the behaviour is making YOU feel. And to get ready for it because it’s going to come.

    I’d add to talk to other women if it’s in the workplace. I worked in a large organisation where one man was covertly bullying and belittling women, making them feel isolated and powerless. Once we shared our experiences we realised we were quite powerful as a group. We visited his manager to warn him we would not tolerate the behaviour any more, and when the organisation was restructured he lost his job. I don’t know that it was because of us, but we all stayed and he went.

  • Jamie

    I am fortunate to work with a boss who respects me and goes out of his way to not make me feel uncomfortable. I have had my fair share of random stranger incidents though, a few years ago I was standing in a very crowded space watching a concert and whoever was behind me held me by my elbows. I froze, after a while worked my way out of the crowd. Now I have no problem with making it clear visually or verbally that I am not putting up with that behavior. Recently a drunk man sidled up to me while I was waiting for a light to change, and I took a giant step away. He swore and crossed the street. I saw him standing in front of another girl on the sidewalk talking on her phone, he was right in her face, and I could see she wasn’t sure how to react. So as I walked by I yelled that if he kept doing that I would call the police. He stumbled off and yelled some abuse at me, but it felt good not only to stand up for myself but for someone else. It is jarring though…

  • Jay

    Been there. Done that. And am shocked how many women I know have. And have never spoken out. But who am I? Haven’t either…

    Being young, just starting off, and being on the smallish side, very much, there were tons of occasions. Business dinners. Drinks with colleagues. But even in meetings. There were doors that were held open, when I found a hand on my butt. There were „I take your coat“ with a touch to my chest.

    But what I always found the most annoying was the „shutting me up“ – like the not taking me seriously. not listening to me in meetings. Having to repeat myself all the time. Getting the „next please“ like on a casting show“. I have been five years on the job now, and I worked myself up, but I still get that a lot. And though its not sexual harassment strictly speaking. I feel it is kind of a sexual discrimination and well… its not harassing, or is it?! Maybe…

    A good article on this is here

    And I would so love us to change company culture in general… This is so important, I feel.

  • Basil

    Very helpful guide.
    Maybe I’m being optimistic, but in the decade that I’ve been working in a professional environment, things have definitely improved. When I started out, there was this guy in another team (married, 3 kids) who was CONSTANTLY inappropriate. Things like complaining that you couldn’t have nudey calendars at work any more, giving our PA a “design a muff” (and no, not the hand warmer thing) toy as a secret santa, and asking me to joint a group via FB where he asked girls to send in pictures of their “camel toe” and topless shots. Back then, I blocked him -on FB and refused to speak to him at work. Now her I’m older and wiser, I wouldn’t think twice about reporting him to HR.
    I say it improved because my old boss (married, 3 kids – what is it with these people?!) got fired from his new organisation (in the UK, where labour laws are strict-ish), as in – escorted out of the office by security. He was relatively senior and professionally is good at his job. For weeks there were all these theories going around about what happened, and then it slowly came out (from him) that he had sent inappropriate emails from his work address and (from others) that he had had inappropriate relationships with subordinates. When both explanations came out, neither came as a surprise. He was always making comments about women’s physical appearances, and having dodgy relationships with junior girls in the team (I know some who were involved and I doubt they would have done anything – they were married or in serious relationships, but I always had my doubts about him).
    He will get another job – there a shortage of people as skilled as him, but I’m glad that he finally had consequences for his behaviour. It’s his wife I feel really sorry for – she gave up her job to be a stay at home mom and to raise his kids, while he was out almost every night drinking with women in their early 20s. I don’t know HOW he explained to her why he was fired

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    Very glad to read this-especially because it discusses sexual assault and harassment as the very grey complex issue that it is, and not as one specific scenario. There are all sorts of situations we find ourselves in. I find that the more subtle, slow moving scenarios are the hardest to navigate, because they play the most on our fears of appearing crazy or bitchy. I recently learned the term “grooming” which refers specifically to sexual assault & children-how the sexual predator gets close to their victim and builds their trust, working incrementally up to the actual assault. When I first heard that description, I was flooded with memories going as far back as age 11 or 12 and well into my twenties… In my thirties I’m tough, no is no, and I know how to cut myself off from certain situations earlier on, but it took far too many incidents in my teens and early twenties that I didn’t know how to handle, or just didn’t handle at all to get to that point. I also am certain that the number of assault and harassment victims, is far far higher than what any statistic would indicate…

  • Marquise de Merteuil

    Ugh I am so tired of avoiding various creepy men in my office building, often taking longer routes to stay away from them. I really need to just be flat out mean to them, I think. (In my case, these people aren’t colleagues.) I’m a lawyer and so far, I’ve been sexually harassed in some way at every single job I’ve had. So tired of this disgusting bullshit.

  • romiette Yazbeck

    Thank you a million times. I was sexually harassed a few days ago for the first time. I am an intern and it took me a while to understand his intentions because i thought that i was being paranoid and that he is a nice person who wants to release the tension from my shoulders. It wasn’t until he touched my ass that i knew what was going on and i completely freezed and didn’t know what to do. This article really helped and also reading other stories. I felt bad because i didn’t have the chance to confront him after. But I’ll heal. Now i am sure that i will. Lots of love ❤️