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Combatting Stereotypes About Gender Harassment

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Misconceptions and stereotypes about gender harassment

Unfortunately, people sometimes still hold outdated opinions or believe misinformation about how gender and sexual harassment and violence are perpetrated, who is impacted, and how frequently these behaviors occur.  Sometimes, these beliefs keep people from reporting offensive conduct or seeking assistance.  Please review some of the most commonly held myths, misconceptions and misinformation encountered by prevention educators and University investigators, reviewed below.

1. Only women are harassed, and only men are sexual harassers.

Anyone, regardless of gender, can be the victim of harassment or violence or a harasser/perpetrator.

2. The person who is directly harassed is the only victim in these situations.

Third parties who witness harassment or are aware of it may also be victims of harassment.  Gender harassment may affect an entire unit or department.  The behavior may sometimes appear as preferential treatment to others, who feel denied the same opportunities, attention, or advantages the target is receiving, while the target may be experiencing unwanted attention and contact that is uncomfortable and harms their professional reputation.  Vicarious trauma is common when students or employees witness discrimination, particularly if it continues unaddressed.

3. Sexual harassment always occurs between a man and a woman.

Sexual harassment harms people of all gender identities and can occur among people of the same gender or different genders.

4. If I ignore harassment, it will go away.

Unfortunately, ignoring harassment usually does not make it go away. In fact, the problem may get worse.  Understandably, the target of harassment may be reluctant to come forward, for a variety of reasons.  Similarly, sometimes witnesses also worry about reporting the behavior or do not know exactly how to handle it.  However, research indicates that when we do not address misconduct in our midst, situations may escalate and others can get the idea that inappropriate behavior will be tolerated here, prompting new attempts to engage in similar types of harassing, discriminatory behavior.

5. Harassment is always verbal.

Talking is not a necessary part of sexual harassment.  Many comments can amount to harassment, but it is important to remember that a conversation or other verbal interaction between the harasser and the target is not required for the behavior in question to amount to gender or sexual harassment.  Non-verbal behaviors are often part of harassment and discrimination and may amount to policy violations.

6. It was intended as a compliment, so it does not amount to harassment.

Even if a person intends their conduct to be flattering, it may still be offensive to others. When it comes to harassment and discrimination, impact can more relevant than intention.  A person does not have to realize that their behavior is biased or discriminatory for it to actually be biased or discriminatory.  Part of addressing sexism, homophobia, and other forms of gender and sexual harassment and discrimination requires us to acknowledge and address unconscious bias, as well.  Intentions matter but do not erase the discriminatory impact of statements and behaviors.

7. Harassment requires touching or other physical contact.

Sexual harassment does not need to have a physical component.  Gender harassment often will not involved physical contact, yet its harms remain significant.  People often rank harassment and discrimination as less severe than violations involving physical contact, yet non-physical forms of harassment and discrimination have been shown to cause similar levels of harm to the targets, taking a toll on the target and witness’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

8. If the offensive conduct happens off-campus, it does not violate Vanderbilt’s policies governing gender and sexual harassment, violence or other forms of misconduct.

Inappropriate conduct that occurs off-campus between university-affiliated friends or colleagues can violate Stanford’s policy if it contributes to a hostile environment or involves quid-pro-quo harassment.  Discrimination, harassment, and violence may occur off-campus yet still impact our community, particularly when that behavior occurs at conferences, on study abroad, on field sites, or on other University-affiliated programs or projects that occur away from campus.  With Vanderbilt’s broad reach in the global economy and in global education, prohibited conduct could occur nearly anywhere in the world.

9. Sexual harassment occurs only when there is a power differential between the parties.

Sexual harassment can occur between peers, as well as between individuals in a hierarchical relationship.  If you are a mandatory reporter as part of your role in our Vanderbilt community, you should report any form of gender or sexual harassment you know of occurring anywhere in our community.  While supervisory relationships can pose a particular risk for the abuse of power, unaddressed sexual harassment among peers can also cause serious harm.  The University has a duty to address all forms of sexual harassment and offers a variety of resources on and off-campus who are here to help.

10. The inappropriate behavior must be repeated to amount to sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment could consist of repeated actions, or can arise from a single incident, if it is sufficiently serious or severe.

11. Harassment is motivated by a desire for sex.

Actually, sexual harassment is often motivated by dominance, power, and/or is related to bullying.  Some forms of gender and sexual discrimination, harassment, and violence involve threats, coercion, and blackmail yet may not involve physical contact or sexual activity.  Increasingly, the use of cellphones, tablets, social media, camera and video applications are involved in the commission of gender and sexual misconduct, and no face-to-face human interaction is required for such behaviors to amount to policy violations.

Adapted from the ‘Myths and Misconceptions’ resources from the Stanford University Sexual Harassment Policy Office.


Iceberg of sexual harassment

This figure displays the public consciousness of sexual harassment and specific sexually harassing behaviors.

Iceberg of Sexual Harassment

Download a pdf of this graphic: Iceberg of Sexual Harassment

Graphic used by permission from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine