Is Sexual Harassment Just Bonding in Disguise?

Officer Lori M. Connelly takes an interesting view on reasons for and ramifications of sexual harassment at work.

Lori Connelly Headshot

Sexual harassment is an employer's nightmare. It is a doorway to lawsuits and paranoia in the work place. In a utopian world it would be a non-issue and for the most part even though police work is still mostly a "man's" world sexual harassment doesn't seem to be a particularly prominent issue when I talk with other female officers. Or is it?

First it is important to identify what sexual harassment is. It is unwanted and unasked for attention of a sexual nature that can come from the opposite or the same sex. It isn't just a man whistling at a woman or making a comment that a woman's place is in the home. It can be silent, like a dirty look or an entire squad refusing to ride "two man" with the only female on a squad just because she is a female.

It can even be something that is presented as a joke like posting a calendar of swimsuit models on a new detective's desk to see if she will laugh. These things aren't so funny though when they cause problems in the work place - even when it just causes tension and doesn't result in a full blown investigation.

A couple of years ago, a female officer consulted me about what to do when she was assigned to a new unit and a calendar of female swimsuit models was posted on her desk. She was the only female assigned there. I knew most of the guys she was going to be working with and I knew they didn't mean anything by the gesture other than to welcome her as one of the "guys." She was really offended, though.

Instead of taking my suggestion that she laugh it off, she took offense and made a complaint. This resulted in a big mess and ultimately her new squad never accepted her as one of them.

Everyone does have a right to be offended by unwanted and unasked for attention, especially of a sexual nature. But I knew there was something deeper there than what was on the surface. It wasn't until I read about a study done many years ago on dock workers in the UK and their employee theft that I began to understand what was really going on.

In the study it was discovered that dock workers were stealing at work not because they needed what they were stealing but because they were establishing bonds of trust between each other. Yes, that is what you read: stealing to establish trust.

If the dock workers saw each other steal a little and they kept each other's secrets they built a bond of trust between each other. If one of them didn't steal at all then the group didn't trust the person. If one of them stole too much the group didn't trust the person. The stealing was never about need; it was only about establishing a level of trust.

In this same way I have known when to laugh at things that could have been considered sexual harassment but I knew weren't. It was just the guys testing me to see if they could trust me. They wanted to know if it was safe to let me in and be one of "them."

It is a fine line and it sounds kind of crazy. I realize sexual harassment and theft are not the same things at all, but there is certainly something about building levels of trust at work that is universal. The kind of trust we need when doing police work is the deep kind you need when the guy who has your back will lay down his life for you and you for him.

About the Author
Lori Connelly Headshot
Officer (Ret.)
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