Published 18 August 2023, The Daily Tribune
Sexual harassment engenders three-fold liability: Criminal, to address the wrong committed against society; civil, to address the private wrong against the offended party; and administrative, to protect the public service.
Criminal liability for sexual harassment notwithstanding, the offended party may pursue a separate civil action. Aside from the actual perpetrator, the employer or the head of office or institution may also be impleaded in an independent action for damages. They would be solidarily liable for damages if they did not take immediate action on a sexual harassment complaint.
Unlike in a criminal action where the penalty is a fine, imprisonment, or both, the penalty in an administrative action is, at most, dismissal from the service. This is because an administrative action seeks to protect the public service by imposing administrative sanctions on the erring public officer.
In prosecuting an offender for sexual harassment, the intent is immaterial. The mere commission is sufficient to warrant a conviction. The threshold is whether an act violates and/or threatens the personal space and physical safety of another person, regardless of the motive for committing the act.
Guided by the foregoing, let’s take a quick look at actual cases of sexual harassment decided by the Supreme Court.
In the case of Escandor v. People (G.R. No. 211962, 6 July 2020), the complainant testified to several acts of sexual harassment, including the respondent’s acts of grabbing her hand, kissing her, engaging in improper conversations, touching her thigh, giving her gifts, telling her that “she was the kind of girl he really wants,” asking her out on dates, and sending her text messages telling her that he missed her, that she looked beautiful, and that he loved her.
The complainant stated that these acts made her feel disrespected, humiliated, cheap, uneasy, and frightened. She also could not concentrate on her work, could not sleep, and found herself “staring into empty space.” Without any doubt, the Supreme Court held that the respondent’s acts resulted in an intimidating, hostile, and offensive environment for the complainant, thereby making him guilty of sexual harassment.
In another case (A.C. No. 5900, 10 April 2019), a professor was charged for allegedly unwanted sexual advances or innuendos against his students. One of his students recounted that in one of her class recitations, she sought clarification of a question propounded to her, saying, “Sir, come again?” The professor retorted, “What? You want me to come again? I have not come the first time and don’t you know that it took me five minutes to come, and you want me to come again?”
In his defense, the professor said the joke was intended for himself and that in fact, the students had laughed at the joke.
In ruling against the professor, the Supreme Court stated that the professor’s remarks could not be categorized as an innocent joke meant only to lighten the mood of the class. It was readily apparent that the remark was tasteless, vulgar, and crude and had no place in an academic setting. It was not clever wordplay or a mere statement with a sexual innuendo as its intended meaning was obviously discernible.
The professor’s attempt at humor failed miserably as his words clearly referred to himself needing five minutes to ejaculate again. The professor’s statements made the student uncomfortable and embarrassed her in front of her classmates as it went beyond an innocent joke and was instead a gross graphic and insensitive remark.
Thus, the Supreme Court ruled that the professor abused the power and authority he possessed over the students. His sexually laced conduct had created a hostile and offensive environment that deeply prejudiced his students. In what was supposed to be a safe place for them to learn and develop, they were instead subjected to unwarranted sexual advances.
In another case, however, the Supreme Court clarified that casual gestures of friendship and camaraderie, done during festive or special occasions, and with other people present do not constitute sexual harassment.
In Aquino v. Acosta [429 Phil. 498 (2002)], the Supreme Court ruled that the act of greeting a person with a kiss on the cheek, in “beso-beso” fashion, was not shown to have been carried out with lustful and lascivious desire or was motivated by malice or ill motive. The Court explained that pecks on the cheeks should be understood in the context of having been done on the occasion of some festivities, as busses on cheeks were simply friendly and innocent, bereft of malice and lewd design.
Ultimately, therefore, it is a matter of respecting each other’s boundaries and creating safe spaces for everyone.