Causes | Western Cape Government


The causes of sexual harassment vary from person to person and from situation to situation.

This discussion can only cover some of the main factors. Many of the causes are interrelated, and are linked to the culture and values in society and in companies, and to the roles, relative power and status of the men and women concerned.


The way in which men and women were brought up to see themselves and others strongly influences their behaviour. Various viewpoints could create a climate that allows sexual harassment:

  • In a culture where it is, or was until recently, "OK" to discriminate against people because they are different (in terms of gender, race, culture, religion, lifestyle, political conviction or whatever), the abuse of power or humiliation that is typical of sexual harassment will not be unusual. Harassment is often closely linked to prejudice in general, and to sexist attitudes.
  • Men who were brought up with macho beliefs like "real men pinch bottoms", "girls were made to hug and kiss", "the more, the merrier", easily carry these social values into the workplace, and treat their female colleagues accordingly. Such men often even think that women take their harassment as a compliment.
  • Many women have been brought up to believe women's highest calling is to please men, that popularity with men equals success, or that "real women look sexy". This can give the impression - usually unintended - that they invite sexual advances at work. Some women who see sexuality as their only power base, play along. Although research has proven them to be a small minority, their behaviour can also encourage harassment of other women.
  • If women see themselves as dependent on, or of lesser value than men, or are unassertive, they find it difficult to handle harassers or to complain. Often women who are breadwinners are vulnerable and fear victimisation or even job loss, if they reject advances or complain.

Power games

Social and political changes in recent years have changed power relationships. Some men feel threatened by the career advancement of women and people of colour, or are uncomfortable with women's newfound independence and assertiveness at home and / or at work. Other men who have recently gained positions of power (possibly after decades of discrimination) may also try to prove themselves by harassing women subordinates. Some men even regard it as a "fringe benefit" to which their position, their power and their sex entitle them. In tough times of uncertainty, fear, limited promotion opportunities, retrenchments, personal stress and pressure on performance, there is a real danger that sexual harassment and trading of sexual favours will form part of the power games played.

Moral values, divorce and cultural differences

  • In times of moral laxity, when extramarital affairs and "one-night stands" are broadly accepted, when some people equate monogamy with monotony, it is relatively easy for people to indulge in office flirtations, whether one-sided or mutual. The person who tries, and doesn't accept rejection or sees the unwilling colleague as a challenge, easily becomes a harasser, or may victimise the reluctant colleague.
  • The prevalence of marital stress and divorce in our society means that some men and women come to work in a state of emotional distress that could make them vulnerable to sexual harassment.
  • Some confusion results from cultural differences about what is, or isn't, acceptable in our rapidly-changing society. For example, when action was taken against sexual harassment at the University of Cape Town, black male students claimed it was their cultural and traditional right to act in that way. They were strongly challenged by the then vice-chancellor, a black woman. Black women complaining about harassment by black men have been accused of disloyalty to their own group, while whites may fear accusations of racism or prejudice of they reject or complain about such behaviour from black colleagues.

Credibility and victim-blaming

The credibility of the victim is often called into question, as it is usually her word against that of the harasser/s. (Although dealing with rape rather than harassment, the film The Accusedwas a striking example of victim-blaming and male solidarity trying to defeat justice, similar to what often happens in the case of harassment.) Several factors aggravate this problem:

  • The large majority of decent men who treat women with respect and would never dream of taking such liberties, usually find it difficult to believe that respected colleagues would abuse their position in this way.
  • Management may take the word of a senior person rather than that of a subordinate as they are likely to have known the senior longer, and a manager usually has more credibility in a dispute than a subordinate. Particularly if the managers concerned are all men, they may not understand the seriousness of the problem, or may "stick together" out of gender loyalty.
  • If the person deciding whether to take action or not, has himself been guilty of harassment, he is likely to go along with a cover-up, or at least give his "buddy" the benefit of the doubt.
  • The harassed may be a high-level or highly-skilled person who is difficult to replace, while the victim is likely to be on a lower level, and thus more expendable.
  • The common tendency of victim-blaming often causes the plaintiff to end up virtually as the accused. As in the case of sexual assault and rape, the dress, lifestyle and private life of the victim seem to become more important than the behaviour being investigated. Naturally it is advisable that women dress and behave appropriately at work. Yet any woman - whatever her appearance and lifestyle - has the right to decide whether, when, where, and from whom she wishes to accept any sexual approach or comment. And if she declines, she should not be victimised in any way. We should heed the saying: "However I dress, wherever I go My yes is Yes, and my no is No".
  • The victim may be very embarrassed by the events, or afraid of ridicule or revenge, and is likely to wait until matters become unbearable before she complains. She may then be blamed of having played along or condoned the behaviour initially.
  • Many women are also inclined to excessive guilt and self-blaming, and may even believe that they unwittingly did or said something to invite the unwanted behaviour. And if they are ashamed or afraid and don't discuss the problem, they often don't realise that it is a fairly common occurrence, and not their fault.

Aggressiveness or bravado

Men in groups often behave differently from how they would as individuals. This can explain some of the "gang harassment" that occurs when a woman enters a plant or walks past a group of workers at lunch; after a few drinks at an office party; or when a group of colleagues attend a conference. Alone, those men would probably be "harmless", or less bold.

Lack of company policy

  • Many South African companies don't have clear policies and complaint and disciplinary procedures to deal with harassment - or if they have them, they do not implement them.
  • In research for an MBL thesis (done by a concerned man), 76% of the women respondents said they had been harassed at work, while few of their companies had relevant policies.

Women often resign rather than complain, since they do not know where to go, or if they do complain, it is either treated as a joke, or no action is taken by management.

  • If management condones such behaviour or if victims end up being blamed, the perpetrator is encouraged to continue the pattern of harassment, affecting more and more women.
The content on this page was last updated on 5 September 2013