While sexual health is an important topic for mental, physical, and emotional reasons, bringing sexual topics into the work environment is generally frowned upon. It can even be cause for dismissal if an employee/r sexually harasses a fellow worker. So what exactly are the benefits of introducing World Sexual Health Day into your office, and do they outweigh the risks?
First, let’s take a look at what World Sexual Health Day is. Started in 2010, the World Association for Sexual Health created an initiative to promote sexual health, well being, and rights for all. According to the World Health Organization, sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental, and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality. Together, these ideas form the basis for a more egalitarian and far reaching view of how sexual health affects us personally and societally, including how it bleeds over into our work environments, both physical and virtual.
With the pandemic having moved more and more office cultures globally into virtual workspaces, it can be easy to believe problems like sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct have vanished the same way our tidy cubicles have. But that assumption is wrong. In fact, sexual inappropriateness between coworkers and/or management seems to be increasing in the virtual office. Since research shows more than 40% of women and 16% of men have experienced harassment in the workspace, a number that has remained the same for decades, if inappropriate behavior is more prevalent online, how many more people are being affected now?
But what exactly does this have to do with World Sexual Health Day? Quite a bit, actually. The goal of the World Association for Sexual Health is to bring awareness to all aspects of sexual health including the importance of consent and how having our rights violated negatively affects physical, mental, and emotional well being. These principles can and should be applied to physical and virtual workplaces to keep employees feeling comfortable, safe, and free to discuss any problems without fear of reprisal. Reframing sexual harassment training as sexual health initiatives could lead to better outcomes such as less employee turnover, a more cooperative and collaborative team atmosphere, and less time away from work due to stress related illnesses.
So what are some of the cons of introducing World Sexual Health Day? For one, research from the Harvard Business Review shows that sexual harassment training often leads to an uptick in inappropriate behavior in the office. Some employees might see implementation of the day as an invitation to “bad behavior” where inappropriate comments can be made about teammates’ sexuality, or even more straightforward harassment.
Part of the problem is the way sexual harassment training is conducted. Most current harassment programs focus on “forbidden behaviors” and take a de facto approach that men will need to be “fixed” to prevent harassment from occurring. But treating someone as if they are already guilty is a poor way to begin and it ends with some male-identifying employees feeling alienated and as if they will be accused unfairly. A study by the Pew Research Center indicates after a traditional sexual harassment program men’s belief in false harassment claims increase to 30% or more. This is decidedly a problem as 57% of women have said a major barrier to reporting and seeing a harassment claim through is not being believed. Clearly something needs to change.
Particularly in the virtual workplace. Women-identifying individuals have never found cyberspace to be all that welcoming. Rape and death threats are the norm for women not only with online platforms but for nearly every woman who has rejected someone’s advances over the web. It’s easy to imagine why no one would want to bring that online experience into their everyday work hours.
For people in hostile work environments, the effects on their physical and mental well being can be devastating. Everything from developing anxiety disorders to self harm can occur due to the stress of multiple people knowing of the claim, including the original perpetrator(s), and then the disbelief, jokes, or outright hostility and reprisals of other office members. This stress and fear of being forced out of their jobs often leads the victim to seek other employment, leading to high turnover rates for the employer.
While this all seems rather bleak, because it is, there’s also hope for the future. With companies having to reconsider old ways of dealing with sexual harassment in the new virtual world, why isn’t this the ideal time to correct course and incoporate methods shown to be more effective than traditional harassment training?
By focusing on a culture of accountability, managerial training, and working with an ombuds to mediate sexual harassment complaints, companies are seeing far better outcomes than before. 60% of people having gone through the mediation process report feeling satisfied with the results. By treating male-identifying persons as allies instead of potential perpetrators and helping them understand how a bystander culture (where when one sees inappropriate behavior it’s immediately reported) leads to a more stable and comfortable work environment for all, men are able to be part of the solution instead of the potential problem.
Perhaps the most salient reason to acknowledge World Sexual Health Day in offices is this year’s theme: Turn It On – Sexual Health in a Digital World. With so many people working from home in virtual environments throughout the pandemic, the importance of maintaining our physical and mental health have finally taken center stage. Unfortunately, the way women are treated in the digital workplace is often ugly and threatening, and the way companies approach stopping these violations can actually make the problems worse. World Sexual Health Day is the perfect opportunity to open a dialogue between all members of a team about how women are experiencing the pandemic in the digital world, and how the team can work together to alleviate any problems arising from co-worker interactions.
Katherine Taylor’s grandmother prophesied her becoming a writer. Kate’s work has appeared in Bright Wall Dark Room, Very Local Nola, and StarTrek.com among others. You can read more of Kate’s work at Medium.com.