If You Want to Prevent Harassment, Teach Us Not to Harass

It’s possible I’m just attending the wrong workplace conduct and sexual harassment prevention trainings, but these programs always manage to infuriate me. Every. Single. Time. There are two things that happen in harassment prevention trainings, in my experience. 1) Someone tells the trainees how to avoid being harassed. 2) Someone tells the trainees what to do if they are harassed. Both of these things make me mad. Allow me to explain.

1) Someone tells trainees how to avoid being harassed. This is victim blaming, albeit sort of obliquely. Especially because this is usually the only part of the training that has to do with anything that happens prior to a harassment situation. By spending all this time and energy telling people how to avoid being harassed, you’re making it their responsibility to, you know, avoid being harassed. So now we’ve reframed the whole conversation, and when harassment happens, it’s because someone got harassed, allowed themselves to get harassed, or at the very least failed to do a good enough job of avoiding harassment. The fact that it’s really hard to talk about harassment without diving into passive voice (seriously, I’m struggling mightily here and not succeeding), is a funny little indication of the problem here. When harassment prevention focuses on how to avoid being a victim, we’re turning the direct object (the person being harassed) into the subject, when the rightful subject is the harasser. You see? Perhaps an example.

At my college, the Students Against Sexual Assault did an experiment, sort of, where they went around putting straws into people’s drinks at parties. They put a lot of straws into a lot of drinks without anyone noticing. The point was to show students how easy it is to slip drugs into drinks at parties. It is very, very easy. But all this experiment does is make people feel bad for not drinking out of sippy cups. I shouldn’t have to watch out for rogue straw-inserters at every party I go to, because that is not a normal behavior, and I should be able to behave normally and not expect that my normal behavior will result in something unwanted appearing in my drink. All that experiment did was rebrand normal behavior as dangerous behavior. Likewise, if you’re focusing your entire workplace conduct training on avoiding harassment, you’re rebranding normal workplace behavior as risky workplace behavior, because you’re making the potential harassee, rather than the potential harasser, responsible for harassment.

If nothing else, this puts people in a victim-blaming frame of mind, so when a harassment situation occurs, the first response is “well, we all went through prevention training. He should have known better.”

2) Someone tells the trainees what to do if they are harassed. Yes, fine, this is good information to know. But don’t say that it’s prevention, or conduct training.

I wonder what workplace conduct training and harassment prevention training would look like if we focused on teaching how to avoid harassing people, rather than how to avoid being harassed. It is (or ought to be) easy enough with preventing sexual assault: Teaching consent is something folks have been doing for a while, and the lines are (or ought to be) brightly lit. No means no, yes-then-no means no, unconscious means no. There is a vocabulary for talking about sexual consent, and it makes it (or ought to make it) fairly straightforward to teach people not to commit sexual assault. But teaching the sensitivity required to understand when your actions are unwanted or contributing to an uncomfortable work environment sounds really challenging. Who would ever claim to be an expert? I’m curious if there are any workplace trainings out there that navigate this territory effectively.

DISCLAIMER: These thoughts are inspired by, but not a direct response to, a training I attended today. I want to be as clear as possible that I’m not trying to say anything negative about my workplace specifically, but about workplace trainings generally.

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