Nothing illustrates more vividly than 'Fruitbatgate' how the issue of workplace sexual harassment has become loaded with adolescent lad culture and chauvinism.

Once broached, it quickly descends into an argument about why po-faced, prudish and sexually uptight women need to "loosen up" in the real world, that imaginary place where free and easy sexual banter goes on between real men and real women and everybody's just having fun and dealing with it.

Last week, we got a "real world" example of the dynamic that goes on in a real workplace when the sexual harassment case brought against Cork University lecturer Dr Dylan Evans exploded into the public arena.

Dr Evans, a lecturer in human behaviour, published an online appeal for support, claiming that his career was in jeopardy because he'd been put under two years of supervision and counselling even though, he said, external investigators had cleared him in a complaint of sexual harassment against him. All he'd done was show a fellow female lecturer a respectable research paper about the sexual proclivities of fruit bats.

Fruitbatgate, as Dr Evans must have predicted, went global. It had everything – a dispute between two senior academics in a Cork university, one a beautiful Italian, the other an English lecturer, researcher and author of books on human behaviour. And then, of course, not to lower the tone, there were the fruit bats and oral sex – sexual behaviour in the natural world which has been studied, as Dr Evans has been pointing out ever-more assiduously on radio and in the many interviews he has done, in a "recognised" scientific journal.

An online petition followed Dr Evans' cri de coeur, as well as the publication of all the confidential papers relating to the case. It was an easy step – too easy – for the woman lecturer who had made the complaint as part of the college procedures to be identified. Her picture, her position in the medical faculty and her marriage to another senior college professor all became public knowledge even though, when she made the complaint, she thought she was doing so confidentially.

Initially, Dr Evans' case won widespread support, and thousands of academics around the world who are concerned about the need to preserve an atmosphere within colleges that is conducive to academic debate and freedom of expression were quick to criticise what they perceived as an assault on liberty.

Gradually, however, as more facts have emerged, so too has the insidious nature of sexual harassment in general and the dilemmas that those on the receiving end – male or female – have to confront.

As the complainant in this case wrote, she only decided to take official action over Dr Evans' arrival in her office at 8am when she was alone to show her the article on fruit bat fellatio because it was the final straw in a series of incidents that made her feel uncomfortable. He had spoken of his admiration for Casanova, complimented her on her beauty even though she said it meant nothing to her, hugged, patted and touched her when they met.

The woman wrote that the pattern of incidents distressed her and made the workplace unpleasant and unsafe. "He does not seem to understand boundaries and does not respect my right to dignity in the workplace," she wrote.

Dr Evans has maintained he was cleared of sexual harassment. This is not totally true.

His actions in showing his colleague the fruit bat paper were, the authorities said, "a joke with a sexual innuendo" which it was reasonable for his colleague to be offended by. So much for the freedom to debate academic "research". That was why he was put on two years' probation and asked to get counselling to give him some insight into his attitudes.

Dr Evans now faces further actions by college authorities for discussing the confidential case so publicly. Senior academics who initially supported him have asked for their names to be withdrawn from the petition as they regard breaches of confidentiality as crossing a line.

Sexual harassment is defined specifically under the Employment Equality Act. It includes straightforward acts of unwanted physical intimacy or requests for sexual favours, or the display of sexually offensive pictures or words which employees can find humiliating or intimidating.

But more generally, it is a process, a series of continual suggestions, innuendos, unwelcome sexual advances, "accidental" touching, "jokes" and flirtations which, in the interests of politeness, people don't like to confront explicitly, but which, because the harasser purposely or otherwise chooses to ignore being rebuffed, make the workplace impossible for the victim.

Like all bullying, sexual harassment succeeds because it thrives on power and control. To make a complaint makes the victim look churlish and weak, a bit of a "fruit-bat" even. The victim is always at a disadvantage: to directly slow down the harasser could mean confronting a superior, which is not something any employee either male or female ever wants to do.

A woman with career ambitions will rarely complain against a colleague, let alone a superior, because she knows that within the sort of culture that sexual harassment thrives, being labelled as a prudish, politically correct female will immediately damage her credentials as promotional "material".

Sexual harassers display an insidious contempt for women. But failure on their part even to recognise that what they are doing is much more than harmless "fun" is evidence of a wider cultural contempt that, unfortunately, will take a lot more than equality legislation and codes of conduct – as necessary as they are – to rectify.