Op-ed: Fighting sexual harassment
Associate Professor of psychology and education tackles the sensitive issue of sexual harassment.
With classes resuming this fall, the issue of sexual harassment at school - and of sexual harassment in general - seems to be back in focus.
In June 2012, a male teacher at a prominent Lebanese school was accused of sexually harassing girls as young as 6 years old. The story filled the headlines for a while as the Lebanese community raged over the incident.
Combatting sexual harassment first necessitates an understanding of it. It is important to distinguish between the various terms related to sexual offenses.
“Sexual harassment” is a legal term that refers to sexual advances made by an authority figure (e.g., an employer) accompanied by a threat to harm if the person resists the advances (e.g., getting fired). “Sexual molestation” refers to an inappropriate and unwelcome bodily touch of a sexual nature, and “sexual assault” refers to forcible and non-consenting intercourse, commonly called rape. Although all of these situations result in harmful psychological effects, the consequences vary depending on the specific offense and the circumstances of its occurrence. The case of the girls in the Lebanese school is still being investigated, but based on media reports, it appears the young students were sexually molested.
Sexual offenses are unfortunately not uncommon. Studies have shown that approximately 79% of women endure some kind of sexual offense at one point in their lives, with this act ranging from mild to severe assaults. Although more common among females, males are also victims of sexual misconduct. The numbers are not clear in the Middle East, or specifically in Lebanon, as research on this matter is practically non-existent.
The consequences of a sexual offense on the victim vary depending on the severity of the act. In some cases, the effects might last only a short while, whereas in others, the physical and emotional damage is irreversible. In certain rape cases, the trauma experienced might lead to long-lasting intimacy and sexual problems whereas other rape victims might overcome the experience with counseling and family support. Vulnerable people, such as isolated individuals without a support system are at a higher risk of experiencing long term detrimental consequences.
What causes a person to become a sex offender? Psychologists do not all agree on this matter, but most concur that the root of the problem is a combination of genetic/neurological dysfunction and a perturbed social environment. Offenders might have been subjected to sexual abuse themselves, or some other kind of abuse, such as physical or psychological. These individuals might also suffer from personality disorders (e.g., antisocial) and impulse control disorders (e.g., ADHD or conduct disorder) or a combination of both that render them unable to control their urges. In the case of pedophilia characterized by a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children, the offender is typically someone who feels socially inadequate and finds children to be non-threatening and safe. Unfortunately, there is no known cure for sexual offenders, as the relapse rate after treatment is high. However, psychiatric intervention was found to reduce the frequency of occurrence of these acts.
To protect our children from sex offenders, several precautions should be taken. At first, parents must keep the communication lines with their children open at all times. Children should feel comfortable approaching their parents when something bad happens. Parents must explain to their children that their bodies are sacred and private and that no stranger is allowed to touch them inappropriately and that any time they feel uneasy about someone’s words or touch, they should leave the scene and report the incident to a trusted adult. Also, children’s need for love and attention must be satisfied at home otherwise they will seek to satisfy this need with strangers who could be sex predators.
Unfortunately, sex offenders will always exist in society, so the problem cannot be eliminated, but it can be significantly reduced when certain measures are implemented. For example, strict laws that punish severely sex offenders must be enforced. Public awareness about the problem and how to protect oneself or one’s children from possible assaults is crucial. Loving parents who create a wholesome home environment for their children will significantly contribute to reducing the problem. In sum, a joint effort between the public and the private sectors is needed to make our country a better place, not only in reducing sexual offenses, but also in preventing other societal ills from happening.