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What Exactly Is Sexual Harassment?

You have seen the stories at the top of the news cycle most days for the last several months: Sexual harassment has occurred and been reckoned with in almost every sector. Though many people imagine that the church would be a place where such things would never occur, that is unfortunately not the case.

A church survey found that almost 25 percent of Christian women had experienced sexual harassment. A third of those women had been harassed at church.

Sexual harassment is defined as “any unwanted sexual comment, advance, or demand, either verbal or physical, that is reasonably perceived by the recipient as demeaning, intimidating, or coercive” by the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

Some common ground between those definitions is the presence of the words “unwanted” or “unwelcome.” That means that even a comment meant as a compliment or a joke could be construed as sexual harassment if it makes the other party in the exchange feel uncomfortable – regardless of the intention behind the comment.

If sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, it could result in a hostile working environment. But, the workplace is not the only place where sexual harassment can occur. It is possible for church leaders (lay or clergy) or members to behave inappropriately toward other church members, which could turn the church into an abusive environment rather than a safe haven.

Zero tolerance

As it states in the Book of Discipline, “Sexual harassment undermines the social goal of equal opportunity and the climate of mutual respect between men and women. Unwanted sexual attention is wrong and discriminatory. Sexual harassment interferes with the moral mission of the Church.”

In order to diminish the possibility of sexual harassment occurring in your church or mission, outline a clear policy of zero tolerance and create and share protocols for reporting sexual harassment with church members, volunteers, and staff.

An unequal power dynamic

Sometimes the perpetrator of sexual harassment is in a position of power over the person harassed. This creates a situation where the victim may feel unable to speak out about the harassment – or they may not know how or to whom to report the behavior.

Remove the stigma that sometimes accompanies talking about or reporting sexual harassment by fostering an environment that is open to such discussions. Trainings and workshops around sexual harassment can help to prevent it from occurring and encourage reporting. If churches demonstrate that they take sexual harassment seriously, people may feel more inclined to report it when and if it happens.

Understanding what constitutes sexual harassment, communicating that it will not be tolerated, and providing a clear means for reporting it can help to deter harassment behaviors, creating an atmosphere of mutual respect.

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