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The new harassment? Same-sex abuse Add to ...

A female lawyer in the United States is suing her former employer in what's hardly your typical case of alleged sexual harassment. The lawyer, Jennifer Braude, claims the firm didn't act quickly enough to protect her against her boss, who, according to court papers, said she was "dirty hot," told Ms. Braude of a desire to have a threesome with her and commented about the size of her chest. What's so notable about this? Ms. Braude's boss was a woman.

"Same-gender sexual harassment is rare, but it happens," says Diane Mason-La Course, president of HR Proactive Inc., a Hamilton-based company that offers sexual-harassment prevention training.

While the vast majority of cases of sexual harassment remain that of a man harassing a woman, the number of same-gender harassment cases are on the rise in the United States and may also see an increase in Canada, experts say, because of the changing nature of the workplace and because men may be more likely to come forward with complaints against male co-workers.

"Males would feel more comfortable raising those issues now than they would 20 years ago," says Blaine Donais, president and founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute. Indeed, one such case made headlines across Canada in July. An unidentified man filed a human-rights complaint against his former co-workers at a youth facility in Nova Scotia, alleging he was sexually harassed by colleagues who suspected he was gay.

A decision is still pending in the inquiry.

From 1990 to 2008, the percentage of sexual-harassment charges filed by men with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or state and local agencies doubled to 16 per cent from 8 per cent. In Canada, men have filed 34 workplace sexual-harassment complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission since 2005.

Of course, it is impossible to know how many of these cases involve men complaining about other men or, for that matter, how many of the complaints filed each year by women concern a female harasser. Those details are not recorded by agencies that field complaints.

However, experts say there is good reason to believe that many of the complaints filed by men concern a male harasser and that at least some of the complaints filed by women concern other women.

As for the latter, says Stephanie Ross, an assistant professor of labour studies at York University in Toronto, "more women are in positions in leadership in workplace hierarchies."

To understand why men may be harassing men, we need to better understand the legal meaning of sexual harassment, Mr. Donais says.

While we typically think of sexual harassment involving a man making unwanted sexual advances toward a female co-worker, the legal understanding of the term is much broader, he says.

The Canadian Labour Code defines sexual harassment as, "any conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion."

A tough-guy male boss picking on a male colleague by constantly calling him a "pansy" could, for example, be considered sexual harassment, Dr. Ross says.

"Sexual harassment has never really been about sex. Sexual harassment really is about exerting a certain kind of power in the workplace," she says. "As long as workplaces are hierarchical and are competitive places, we're going to find a persistence of forms of harassment. The form that harassment takes, whether it's opposite sex or same sex, what underlies that on the whole is the exertion of power in a workplace where people are competing for advantage."

It's very likely that men have always harassed other men at work, she says. "Many workplaces have been very masculine cultures," she says. "There's always been forms of gender harassment of men against men, of men enforcing certain notions of masculine behaviour in the workplace."

Given that such behaviour is no longer tolerated in many workplaces, however, it's likely that more men can be expected to come forward.

"Increasingly men are aware of these things as problematic. They're feeling it too," says Diane Crocker, an associate professor in the department of sociology and criminology at St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia.

Most companies will treat all cases of sexual harassment with equal seriousness regardless of whether they follow the traditional model or not, Mr. Donais says.

"The liabilities associated with not doing it are pretty high," he says. But, he says, "our relative levels of awareness of different kinds of sexual harassment are at different stages of maturity." While we have no problem recognizing sexual harassment when a man makes advances or threats toward a woman, it is more difficult for us to see men acting similarly to other men as the same thing, he says.

Indeed, men engaging in sexually offensive behaviour or making such comments toward other men may not even realize that what they are doing can be considered sexual harassment, Dr. Crocker says.

"The harasser may perceive this as good fun between guys," she says.

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