Human Rights Office: Dear Jen: Friends and Sexual Harassment (August 2001)
My name is Melissa and I need some advice about a situation that just doesn't seem to be going away. I work at a downtown bar where most of my friends hang out. About a month ago, a group of my friends was in having a good time and I was their server. They all got pretty drunk and the guys in the group started making a lot of stupid comments about how "hot" I look and what a great "ass" I have...you get the picture. They're all people I know from school and we all party together so it didn't really bother me.
The problem is, one of the guys, Steve, works out at the gym and we often end up working out at the same time. Ever since that night, he's been staring at me constantly while I do my workout. I only know him casually so at first I figured if I just ignored it he would eventually stop. A couple of times he came over to talk and I just cut the conversation short and walked away. I thought he'd get the picture that I don't want anything to do with him, but he's still doing these things 4 weeks later. I just found out that Steve is going to be in one of my classes next year. My roommate thinks I should have told the guys off when they were being jerks at the bar. She thinks I should tell Steve he's being a jerk now, but I don't know him that well so I feel kind of silly telling him to stop looking at me. He's a good friend to a lot of my friends and I'm also afraid of what he'll tell our mutual friends. I think if I stop going to the gym he might forget about me by the time we start classes. What do you think I should do?
Let's deal with the work situation first. You have a perfect right to decide for yourself at what point comments you get have crossed the line and have become sexually harassing - when you're at work you have a right to tell a customer that you don't appreciate comments that make you uncomfortable and you expect them to stop. If they don't stop after you have asked them to, your supervisor should take some action. But that's up to you, and no one can decide for you when that line has been crossed. You obviously didn't feel uncomfortable with your friend's comments at the bar and that's fine.
The situation you're facing now with Steve, however, is not unusual. Steve may be trying to tell you something - like he's interested in you - but he's going about it the wrong way. Staring, or examining someone closely and consistently, like any other type of sexual advances, can become sexual harassment if it is persistent enough or if it continues after you've communicated that it is unwelcome. Lots of people don't seem to get the hint when you're trying to get across the fact that you're not interested. Steve may just not be getting the message when you cut short his attempts to engage you in conversations, and walk away. It is important to communicate clearly that you are not interested, but if it feels awkward or uncomfortable, perhaps you could ask one of his friends to help out. If he continues once he's heard the message clearly, then you'll know it's not just a lack of communication and he has no intention to stop. You may want to get some assistance at that point from professionals like the advisors at the Human Rights Office.
As for your strategy of not going to the gym so he'll forget about you, experience shows that that doesn't usually happen. Chances are you'll miss out on a summer of fitness and in September you'll probably find Steve staring at you again in class. You should not need to rearrange your life around someone else's issues. Steve needs to hear the message and change his behavior.
P.S. You can get confidential advice on any human rights issue from the advisors in the Human Rights Office located in the Old Medical Building. Check out the Webpage for a map of the location or phone: 533-6886 TTY 533-2755 email: email@example.com