SEXUAL HARASSMENT: Violence Against Women At Work
Complete Citation: Morgan, Phoebe (2001). Sexual harassment: Violence against women at work. In Claire Renzetti, Jeffery Edleson and Rachael Bergin (Ed.) The Sourcebook On Violence Against Women.
Nearly a century ago, Louisa Mae Alcott (1874) published a moving account of a brief career in waged domestic work. According to Alcott, while the physical demands of house care took its toll, it was the uninvited sexual attention of her employer, the Reverend Joseph, that made her job intolerable. Fortunately for her–and for consumers of great literature—Alcott found the means to leave the Reverend’s employ, quit domestic service altogether, and become one of America’s most prolific novelists. The other working women of her day, however, were not so lucky.
At the turn of the last century, women whose only means of support was waged labor had little choice but to take jobs where toleration of sexualized aggression was part of the job. Like Alcott, those who complained about it or who confronted their harassers were punished with either demotion or the assignment of exceptionally harsh duty. Sadly, those who succumbed to seduction were deemed no better than whores by their family and friends and treated accordingly. In either case--those that confronted their harassers, as well as those who capitulated--sexually harassed women were nearly always dismissed. Those who lost their jobs to sexual harassment lost their reputations as both as workers and as virtuous women. Deemed unfit for either marriage or reputable work, many sexual harassment victims joined the ranks of the poor and destitute (Bularzik 1978).
Today, 97% of all employing and educational institutions in the U.S. have policies that expressly prohibit sexual harassment, and 84% of those who work and learn in them are aware of the consequences for violating them (HR Focus 1999). Steady increases in the number of reports made to state and federal agencies since 1991 suggests that a growing number of women are no longer tolerating such behavior (Bureau of National Affairs 1994; U.S. Office EEOC 1999). Despite these changes sexual harassment continues to be one of American society’s most pernicious forms of violence against women (National Council for Research on Women 1992).
This chapter takes a closer look at this particular form of violence against women and in so doing addresses some of the more commonly asked questions about it. What exactly is sexual harassment? Who is at risk of becoming a sexual harassment victim? How does this type of victimization impact those who endure it? The following pages pursues answers to these questions through a synthesis of legal theory, social science research, government data, as well as first hand accounts of victims and complainants.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
While the sexual harassment has been practiced since the advent of waged labor, it has only been in recent years that women have had a name for their experiences of it. A name is no small thing, for without one, victims cannot take the next step to assign blame for their plights, much less lay claim to redress (Felstiner, Abel & Sarat 1980-81). So, until there was language for articulating their experiences in a way that authorities could hear their pain and meaningfully act on it, victims of sexual harassment suffered in silence. In the early 1970s the phrase "sexual harassment" was first coined (Farley 1978). Since that time, millions of women and men around the world have added it to their daily lexicon.
For a lot of women the phrase effectively summarizes a core experience associated with work or school. But for many, the term is an inadequate reference for their violation. Lesbians, for example, find it difficult to articulate the added dimension that being homosexual adds to their experience of being sexually harassed by a man (Schneider 1982). For women of color, the experience of being harassed by white man does not fit neatly into the rubrics of either sexism or racism (Defour 1990). As a consequence, for these women evoking the term can mystify rather than clarify the ways in which homophobia and racism carve unique contours into an otherwise common experience (Winston 1991).
Sexual Harassment is Part of the Larger Continuum of Violence Against Women
In a number of important ways, sexual harassment is more alike than different from other forms of violence against women (National Council for Research on Women 1992). Sexual harassment is a form of woman control. As with rape, incest, and battering, the locus of control is sex (MacKinnon 1979 & 1995). When successfully practiced, sexual harassment sustains male dominance and women’s subordination by privileging the sexual desires of men over the needs of women.
Like other forms of violence against women, secrecy shrouds the face of sexual harassment victimization (Fitzgerald & Ormerod 1991). Sexual harassment is practiced in public, at many workplaces and inside classrooms, sexual harassment is common. Yet, talk of the experience is taboo. Women have been socialized to keep the details of their victimization private. Thus, the pain that sexual harassment brings often goes unnoticed, and the suffering of its victims is greatly underestimated.
Mythology about the "true" sexual natures of men and women mystifies the motivations of sexual harassers and the responses of the women they target. Too often, men who impose talk about sex or sexual behavior onto women are forgiven for "just being a guy," or "acting like a man." When women question the naturalness of such impositions, it is her own credibility and reasonableness--not the actions of her harasser, nor those of the organization that permitted it-- that goes on trial (Estrich 1991).
Sexual Harassment is A Form of Sex Discrimination
While 44-85% of American women will experience sexual harassment at some point in their lifetime (National Council for Research on Women 1992), less than 19% of men report being sexually harassed (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board Reports 1981 & 1988). Thus, a disproportionate number of women contend with this type of behavior, and therefore, are unfairly burdened by its effects (MacKinnon 1979).
The practice of sexual harassment supports the institutionalization of gender inequality in all its forms. Even those women who manage to avoid first hand experience with it are negatively impacted by its practice (MacKinnon 1979). Because so many women have no other recourse but to handle their sexual harassment problems by quitting or changing jobs, sexual harassment is a significant factor in women’s job turnover and slower career advancement. Sexual harassment sustains the gender gap in pay. Too often the decision to hire or promote a woman depends upon the degree to which she appears capable of provoking, resisting, or simply surviving sexual harassment.
In the early 1980s the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) put the sex discrimination theory to the test by adding sexual harassment to their lists of discriminatory behaviors. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld, and therefore legitimized the actionability of sexual harassment claims under Titles VII and IX. As a result of these actions, early sexual harassment claims laid the foundation for more recent attempts to conceptualize violence against women as a civil rights issue.
The EEOC defines sexual harassment as any form of uninvited sexual attention that either explicitly or implicitly becomes a condition of one’s work (U.S. Office of the EEOC 1999). Along the same lines, the OCR conceptualizes it as a form of unwanted sexual attention that becomes condition of one’s educational experience (U.S. Office of Civil Rights 1999). The types of behaviors that fit EEOC and OCR definitions include but are not limited to: unwanted talk about sex, jokes about sex or sexualized horseplay, uninvited physical contact, requests for sexual favors, pressures for dates or sex, sexual abuse, and sexual assault. A substantial body of case law now supports the labeling of such behaviors as illegal, and organizes them into two types of discrimination claims: quid pro quo and hostile environment.
Some Sexual Harassment Is Sexual Black Mail
The Latin phrase "quid pro quo" refers to the trading of favors. With respect to sexual harassment, it references the exchange of sexual favors for special employment treatment. In a quid pro quo situation, going on a date, providing sexual services, or simply enduring sexual touching or talk is rewarded with a decision to hire, to promote, or to deliver job related perks (i.e., better office space, a new computer, the mobilization of travel stipends, etc.). Those who appear to "renege" or fail to deliver sexual favors risk punishment in the form of demotion, dismissal, or the denial of basic necessities for doing their jobs. Thus, as was so vividly illustrated by the plot of the highly controversial movie, Disclosure, quid pro quo harassment operates as a form of on-the-job blackmail.
Only those individuals with sufficient organizational authority to affect the condition of another person’s employment have the power to perpetrate this type of sexual harassment. For this reason, the vast majority of quid pro quo complaints involve harassment of a subordinate by a person with the power to hire, promote, or assign their benefits (Benson & Thomson 1982).
Most Sexual Harassment Is A Manifestation of Hostility
The first wave of sexual harassment litigation almost exclusively involved complaints of quid pro quo harassment, and, in fact, until the late 1980s only those cases involving the loss of employment were deemed worthy of legal action. But in 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court broke new conceptual ground by declaring actionable a claim in which there was no evidence of the exchange of favors, nor was there any suggestion that the victim was punished for her intolerance (see Meritor Bank v. Mechele Vinson 1985). Their opinion legitimated a second category of perpetration now commonly referred to as "hostile environment" harassment. Hostile environment is a far more common form of harassment than sexual blackmail. In a study of graduate women, for example, 80% of the respondents that experienced harassment reported hostile environment experiences. As a consequence, the number of sexual harassment claims filed has grown almost exponentially (Bureau of National Affairs 1994).
Hostile environments are created when sexualized talk and behavior is experienced by some as demeaning or humiliating. They occur when acts of sexual harassment are both the products and the precipitators of sexist thinking and misogynst attitudes (Cook & Stambaugh 1997). Hostile climates are nurtured in any organization where values supporting gender inequality are legitimated and hostility against women is permitted. They thrive in workplaces and classrooms where masculinity is conflated with success and femininity is associated with failure (Messerschmidt 1993). As a result, many hostile environment complaints have been filed by women attempting working in occupations where masculinity is an implicit job requirement–oil rigging (Holcome & Wellington, 1992), coal mining (Yount, 1991), policing (Martin 1994), corrections (Jurik 1985), automobile manufacturing (Gruber & Bjorn, 1982), and the military (U.S. Department of Defense 1993)--to name only a few.
Who Is At Risk of Becoming A Sexual Harassment Victim?
In a highly hierarchical society such as ours, women and men work and attend school within complex, interlocking systems of oppression (Collins 1990). As a consequence, risk of sexual harassment victimization varies within the social strata. Certainly the greatest risk factor is being female as 44-85% of American women will experience sexual harassment during their academic or working lives (National Council for Research On Women 1992). While the risk of victimization for men is significantly smaller (12-19%), they are not immune, and the proportion of men reporting sexual harassment appears to be growing over time (U.S. Office of the EEOC 1999, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 1992).
The amount of risk a woman assumes varies according to the type of environment she performs her work or attends school. Women who work in highly sexualized environments experience more harassment than those who do not (Loe 1996). Those who work in male dominated workplaces or who assume masculine occupations report more harassment than those who perform jobs associated with women’s work (Gruber 1998). Especially vulnerable are those who depend on men for job security or career advancement (Defour 1990).
The Sexualization of Work Promotes Sexually Harassing Behavior
It is not possible, nor even desirable for students, teachers, workers and their supervisors to check their sexual desires at the classroom or office door. However, when talk about sex and sexual behavior is part of a work group’s routine, sexual harassment is likely to be as well. Some lines of work invite sexualization more than others do, and as a result, they carry a higher risk of sexual harassment as well. Sexualization of work relieves the stress of danger and even boredom. Once sexual behavior becomes routine, it becomes difficult for workers to imagine doing their jobs without it.
For example, in her participant observational study of underground coal mining, Yount (1991) noticed that male miners reduce stress and build solidarity by sharing especially crude jokes and engaging in highly sexualized horseplay. Those who are unwilling or unable to play along become easy targets for derision. As a consequence, most of the women coal miners became the butts of their coworkers’ jokes.
In addition, those who have jobs where sex is commodified, or where it is performed as a service, endure more sexual harassment than those who do not. Waitresses, for example, who are require to wear sexually seductive uniforms, or who have been trained to flirt with their customers as part of the job, encounter sexual harassment from their supervisors and customers (Loe 1996). An occupational hazard of the sex trades is sexualized violence, and sexual harassment by customers is endemic (Pettiway 1996). Even those sex trade workers that provide services deemed legal assume a much greater risk but receive less protections than other types of service workers (Ronai & Ellis 1989).
Male Domination Is A Primary Risk Factor
The vast majority of sexual harassers are men. A study of same-sex harassment, for example, found that only 1% of the female respondents and 35% of the men experienced harassment by a woman (Dubois, Knapp, Faley & Kustis 1998). Thus, next to being a woman, working or learning in close proximity to men increases one’s risk of sexual harassment victimization more so than any other factor.
Few areas of employment are more male dominated than the armed forces. The majority of military personnel are men. In addition, the majority of jobs comprising military work continue to be viewed as "men’s work." As the number of women inside military academies and on bases has grown, so have the number of sexual harassment complaints made by them (Moss 1997). In fact, one New York Times (1991) survey found 2 out of every 3 military women experience at least one form of sexual harassment. While male domination of the armed forces is more visible than in other areas of the workforce, there are other masculine domains where sexual harassment is common. For example, sexual harassment is equally pervasive in such male-dominated occupations as criminology (Stanko 1992), criminal justice work (Martin & Jurik 1996).
Women Who Depend Upon Men For Employment Are Especially Vulnerable
Despite significant advances within the last two decades, a disproportionate number of women perform low prestige jobs where their work is organized and evaluated by men (Kelly 1989). Women who depend upon men for their job security or for career advancement are especially vulnerable to on-the-job sexual blackmail—e.g., quid pro quo harassment.
Some women are more dependent upon men for employment and educational opportunities than others, and as a result, their risk is especially high (DeCoster, Estes & Mueller 1999). Women who depend solely upon their own wages to support themselves and their families are unlikely to take risks at work. Their reluctance to either confront or complain makes them easy prey for sexual harassers (Stambaugh 1997). Single mothers—especially those unable to garner child support--are in greatest need of employment and therefore have the least leverage for a direct confrontation (Morgan 1999). It is no wonder that victimization rates are significantly higher among young, single and divorced women than among older married women (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board 1988).
In addition, women building careers in male dominated workplaces and professions have little choice but to depend upon men for their training and mentoring. Thus, in workplaces where interactions have become sexualized and harassment is common, a woman’s ability to obtain her own organizational authority rests upon her ability to manage not only harassment by male coworkers and supervisors, but harassment by her male subordinates as well. Those who complain about sexualized hazing or who protest sexualized epithets risk being branded as unduly sensitive" or too brusque and are then passed over for promotion. For this reason, ambitious women whose careers are on the rise are likely to encounter more sexual harassment than the complacent (DeCoster, Estes & Mueller 1999).
Far more women of color than white women depend upon men for job security and career advancement. With the exception of Asian women, women of color earn significantly less than either white women or white men. Because unemployment among men of color is disproportionately high, women of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be their family’s breadwinners (Collins 1990). For these reasons, a larger proportion of women of color support entire families on a single wage, depend upon male superiors for job security, and therefore have fewer options for escaping (e.g., transferring, quitting, changing jobs) their harassers. At least among autoworkers, black women endure more sexual harassment and experience more severe forms of it than their white counterparts (Gruber & Bjorn 1982). It is perhaps for these reasons that women of color filed a preponderance of the first wave of sexual harassment claims (Winston 1991).
Few women are more dependent upon men that those residing in U.S. prisons. As a consequence, those most vulnerable to sexual harassment in all its forms are incarcerated women who are supervised by male correctional officers (Off Our Backs 1997). Lawsuits filed by incarcerated women assert that sexual blackmail is common place. In addition, they claim that male correctional officers routinely subject female inmates to unwarranted surveillance and gratuitous pat downs by their male correctional officers (Finder 1998).
Those Who Challenge Male Dominance Are At Greater Risk Than Those Who Comply
When routinely practiced, sexual harassment does more than gratify the few individuals that perpetrate it, it also serves to enforce the patriarchal status quo (Wise & Stanley 1987). Within highly patriarchal institutions, those who question the superiority of a few men, or who resist dominance by them, are likely to be labeled as traitors and then treated accordingly. Within the ranks of traitors can be found non-compliant women, unconventional men, and homosexuals.
Women who challenge the superiority of men by acquiring social, economic or organizational power over them are visible targets for sexualized hostility. In fact, the findings from one study revealed that the more tenure and education a woman possesses, the greater her risk of sexual harassment victimization will be (DeCoster, Estes & Mueller 1999). Thus, the more power a woman acquires, the more she is perceived to be a threat to those in power and the greater her risk of being sexually harassed by them will be.
Within any patriarchal system only a few men possess super-ordinate status. Sexual harassment is one of many tools used by the powerful elite for managing unruly men as well. Powerful men routinely sexually harass other men as a means to intimidate them into subservience (Messerschmidt, 1993). Men who violate patriarchal norms by doing women’s work, being feminine, or by questioning the superiority of men are at a greater risk than are those who accept their place without question.
Because heterosexuality as it has been traditionally practiced serves to normalize male dominance and female subordination, the acceptance of homosexuality poses a formidable challenge to the patriarchal status quo. Thus, inside organizations where the heterosexual mandate is especially strong, lesbians and gays that are out (as well as heterosexuals who are erroneously labeled as such) can become the lightening rods of homophobic hostility. Such homophobia is often expressed in the form of sexual harassment (Brienza 1996, Bull 1997). Crude jokes about homosexual acts, homophobic slurs (dyke, queer, homo, for example), negative commentary about the gay lifestyle, and even malicious gossip about a person’s sexual orientation are all forms of sexual harassment that serve to punish those that fail to conform to heterosexual norms. In the armed forces, for example, regardless of their true sexual orientations, women who resist sexual blackmail or who complain about sexualized hostilities are labeled as lesbians and their fitness to serve is called into question (Moss 1997).
How Does Sexual Harassment Affect Those Who Experience It?
There is no singular sexual harassment experience. The effects of sexual harassment are as varied and complex as the women who endure it. A history of victimization is a significant factor in how a person interprets and responds to sexual harassment. Specifically, past experience of other forms of violence against women—rape, battering, abuse and incest for example, may heighten the feeling of being violated (Fitzgerald 1993).
In addition, a person’s values about gender, sex, work, and relationships can color the experience as well. Those with feminist orientations, for example, are more likely to define unwanted sexual attention as harassing (Ryan & Kenig 1991). Specifically, women who value gender equality, who believe that women should have the right to pursue careers, and who believe that working women can be good mothers are more offended by unwanted sexual attention at work than those who hold more traditional views.
The nature of the relationship between a woman and her harasser is important as well. The greater the power disparity, the more distressing the experience is likely to be (Benson & Thomson 1982). Feelings of violation are particularly strong when women are harassed by authorities entrusted with their care. Sexual harassment is especially traumatic when coaches, mentors, therapists, doctors or clergy commit it (Rutter 1989).
As previously mentioned, both the sexual and racial identities of the harasser make a difference as well. Harassment by someone of a different orientation or race is more offensive than if the harasser and victim were the same (Schneider 1982, Defour 1990).
Even though no two sexual harassment experiences are alike, analyses of women’s talk about how sexual harassment feels and it’s effect on their lives have uncovered a few salient themes. For most, loss is a core experience. Coping with the negative effects of sexual harassment is emotionally distressing well as physically exhausting. Those who manage to survive the experience gain strength and wisdom from their adversity.
A Core Experience Among The Sexually Harassed Is Loss
It is difficult for the sexually harassed to talk about their experiences without mentioning a loss. When victims share their stories, talk of job loss and the fear of losing one's job often dominant the conversation (Morgan 1999, Stambaugh 1997). Such fears are not unfounded as 60% to 70% of those who contact government agencies for assistance are unemployed (Coles 1986, New York Governor’s Task Force on Sexual Harassment 1993, Welsh and Gruber 1999). In filing formal claims victims usually seek monetary compensation for lost promotions, wages, and benefits. But, beneath these more tangible losses lie less obvious, but no less traumatizing sacrifices. Regardless of the circumstances, recipients of unwanted sexual attention commonly feel a loss of personal dignity. Being sexually harassed is an embarrassing, if not humiliating experience. The pressure to exchange sexual favors for employment is demeaning, as is being the butt of a sexualized joke or gag. A consequence is the erosion of trust in others—especially men (Rutter 1989). For example, in a recent study, 53% of the victims who experienced quid pro quo harassment lost confidence in themselves, 45% lost their confidence in others, and 44% experienced a loss of trust in men (Van Roosmalen & McDaniel 1998).
The act of filing a report or complaint incurs additional loss of dignity and
trust in others. Those whom they accuse often vilify those who blow the whistle on sexual
harassers or on institutions that harbor them, and then ostracized by those that
support its practice (Dandekar 1990). As a result, the cost of complaint can be
the loss of one’s reputation, along with collegiality and their coworkers’
For Most, Sexual Harassment Is A Distressing Experience
The American Psychiatric Association rates sexual harassment as a level 4 or 5 on the DMV severity scale (Charney & Russell 1994). Nearly all (90%) of those who seek help report at least some degree of emotional distress (Crull 1981). Because sexual harassment is a humiliating experience, most victims experience intense anger. Without the means to fully express it, depression and self-destructive behavior can result. Ironically, the strategies most women employ to control their anger (e.g., escape and avoidance) leads to social isolation, which in turn exacerbates feelings of helplessness and hopelessness (Koss 1993).
The stress of coping with sexual harassment victimization undermines physical health as well. Nearly 63% of the women who seek assistance the Working Women’s Institute associate physical illness with being sexually harassed (Crull 1981). Among them, nausea, headaches and exhaustion are the most commonly reported forms of physical distress. In one study, a significant minority of victims reported sexual inhibition (Van Roosmalen & McDaniel 1998)
In many cases the emotional and physical distress of being sexually harassed lingers long after the violation ends. Without proper treatment, the physical manifestations of suppressed anger and feelings of loss can develop into chronic health conditions. For example, the experience of being sexually harassed can trigger the onset of eating disorders. Thus, in those cases where the harassment was severe, or when it was perpetrated over an extended period of time, it can take years to fully heal (Koss 1993).
Finally, sexual harassment erodes feelings of satisfaction. Surveys of
university and corporate employees document significant differences in job
satisfaction between victims and non-victims (Klein 1988, Stambaugh 1993). Those
who manage to keep their jobs can become apathetic about work and disaffected
with administration (Morgan 1999). The experience for students is similar.
Victims often cite a change in attitude toward school and some experience a
sharp decline in their ability to perform in class (Benson & Thomson 1982,
Van Roosmalen & McDaniel 1998).
Reporting Is Rarely Satisfying and Can Be Traumatic.
Despite the fact that mechanisms for reporting sexual harassment abound, the vast majority of those who could benefit from engaging them choose not to do so. Only about 24% of victims that participated in the last U.S. Merit Protection Board Survey (1992) told anyone of their plight, and less than 12% took formal action. Instead, sexually harassed women tend to handle their sexual harassment problems via either escape or avoidance (Gruber 1989). Students escape harassers by dropping courses or changing their programs of study. Workers often seek relief by transferring to a different office or shift, or quitting altogether. When asked why they do not seek intervention, victims commonly cite fear of retaliation, of not being believed, and the suspicion that reporting will "do no good" (Gutek, Groff & Tsui 1996).
There is evidence to indicate their fears are well founded. Complaint rarely goes unpunished and litigation is quickly becoming the weapon of choice. Increasingly, those accused of harassment punish their accusers and the institutions that stand by them by filing civil suits, the majority of which never go to trial (Conte 1996). The victims of counter claims experience the process of litigation as an additional or secondary harassment. In addition, in most cases, counter suits undermine the ability of an employer to deliver meaningful support to the victims who seek their aid as they divide the attention and loyalty of complaint handlers and tap already limited resources for aid and resolution (Morgan 1999).
The vast majority of those who seek legal assistance with their sexual harassment problems are turned away (Morgan 1999). With respect to government agencies, the size of the budget has not kept pace with the rising caseload. As a result, the number of requests for investigation has outstripped agency resources for conducting them. In some states the result has been a 1-2 year backlog in claim processing (Bureau of National Affairs 1994). As a consequence, agencies prioritize claims, and only the most egregious of claims, and those with ample documentation are expeditiously processed. Too often, the remaining complaints are disposed of with the dispensation of personal advice and moral lectures before they can ever become cases (Morgan 1999).
Likewise, because sexual harassment claims have a reputation for being high-risk, cases with low returns on the investment, most attorneys practice caution in taking them. Less than 1% of all sexual harassment claims are heard in court, and only 1/3 of the outcomes favor the plaintiff (Terpestra & Baker 1988). As a consequence, most of those who seek legal aid fail to garner it. Rejection by agencies and attorneys becomes one more in a long line of betrayal by those with the authority to intervene (Madigan & Gamble 1989).
On those fortunate enough to garner government intervention or legal representation, the pursuit of justice takes its toll. Without the benefit of legal protections comparable to rape shield laws, the medical, work and sexual histories of sexual harassment complainants are open to investigation. Credit histories, medical reports, even adoption papers have been probed for evidence of a complainant’s unreasonableness. Along with counterclaims, attempts at discreditation become a third—and for those that have lost their jobs, a fourth--victimization.
Surviving Sexual Harassment Can Be Empowering
The humiliation of being sexually harassed is indeed distressful. To be fired or demoted for confronting or complaining about harassment can be traumatizing. Being disbelieved by supervisors, lectured to by government agents, and then sued by one’s harasser pours a significant amount of salt in an already gaping wound. Regardless of the outcome, those who successfully survive their ordeals report intense feelings of empowerment (Stambaugh 1997). For some, the experience of surviving their harassment, complaint or litigation experience results in a significant increase in personal pride and sense of self worth.
In addition to pride, those that pursue formal redress find their knowledge of the law is enhanced. Many victims exit the complaint process with greater understanding of their rights at work, how the legal system works and how rules get enforced. Exercising this new expertise can restore self confidence eroded by harassment. Survivors draw upon their legal knowledge to research potential employers, to assess and respond to their work evaluations, and to negotiate better terms of employment (Morgan 1999).
Finally, the experience of being sexually exploited and economically coerced can be politicizing. Many survivors put their shoulders to the communal wheel by forming peer support groups, writing or participating in media exposes, organizing protests and lobbying for change.
Louisa Mae Alcott is not the first woman to write about her experience of sexual harassment. Since her account was first published, millions of women from around the world have shared similar accounts. While the details of each story differ, the plot lines are painfully similar. With each telling, the silence regarding this endemic social problem is broken, and one of America’s greatest shames is once again exposed.
Comparing the current level of public concern about the plight of sexual harassment victims with that of Alcott’s day, it appears we have come quite a long way indeed. In just a few short decades, a practice that was once considered to be the working man’s prerogative has been recast as an unconscionable abuse of power. Today, women have a name for their experience, laws that prohibit its practice, and mechanisms for redress and justice. Yet, the problem of sexual harassment appears to be exceptionally resistant to current efforts to eliminate it.
Since efforts were first made to document them, rates of victimization, at least in the U.S. and Canada, have remained remarkable stable. Nationwide, incidence hovers around 42 percent. Among those working and attending school in male dominated sectors of society, the rates are much higher. Thus, sexual harassment continues to be a pervasive experience for among women and the number of men suffering from it appears to be in the rise.
Increasingly, clinical studies and survey data continues to portray sexual harassment as an occupational health hazard, the risks of which are disproportionately born by women. Despite widespread institutionalization of reporting mechanisms, most victims continue to endure the problem in silence.
Less than ¼ of the women who experience legally actionable forms of unwanted sexual attention tell anyone about their plight, and only a handful—12%--ever make the attempt to avail themselves of the opportunities for formal redress. Of those that do, most loss their jobs in the process, some are sued, and only a few exit the process feeling justified.
Today it is almost impossible to talk of sex, work, rights and law without evoking the term (Schultz 1998). Yet, there remains considerable confusion about the types of behaviors constituting legal action (Fisher 1998). It is primarily case law that stakes out the boundary that divides a personal problem from a legally actionable one. With respect to sexual harassment, shifts in politics, ideology, and resources have caused the line to drift. Some of the consequences have been confusion and neglect at the institutional level, inadequate protection and intervention by government agencies, and insufficient advocacy among the legal profession. Given the responses (or lack of response) that most victims receive from authorities, it is no wonder that most women prefer to resolve their sexual harassment problems via escape or avoidance.
All male violence against women is political; but few experiences so blatantly connect the personal with the political as that of being sexual harassed at work (Koss et al 1994). Sexual harassment occurs at that those places within the social strata where economic and sexual power overlap (Bularzik 1978). When political, economic and sexual powers converge the environment is especially ripe for abuse (Benson & Thomson 1982). Thus, sexual harassment is a unique manifestation of the struggle between those who possess (and abuse) power and those who seek to reclaim it (Smart 1987) and any to response to the problem that fails to acknowledge that reality will fail to resolve it.
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