Sexual harassment in the workplace has existed since men and women started working. Yet the term sexual harassment and the problem of sexual harassment were not legally and publicly recognized until the 1970s in the United States and later in other countries. Historical accounts of sexual harassment in shipyards, factories, and department stores demonstrate that women and men experienced various forms of unwanted sexual behaviors at work, but there was no name for it nor any possibility of legal recourse. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, including protections for sex discrimination in Title VII, the door was opened for the creation of sexual harassment as a legal wrong. In the 1970s, sexual harassment complaints started to appear in the legal arena. Combined with the momentum of the women’s movement, support from prominent feminist legal scholars, and media attention, sexual harassment became defined as a social and legal problem by the 1980s.
National surveys of sexual harassment estimate that approximately 20-50 percent of women will experience sexual harassment at work in their lifetimes. Behind these statistics is an enduring conundrum: many women and men who report experiencing unwanted sexual behaviors at work say “No” when asked if they experienced sexual harassment. Surveys show that people may experience behaviors that are legitimate forms of sexual harassment, but they may not label these behaviors as such. These statistics highlight some of the important issues around sexual harassment. First, what is sexual harassment? Second, why do so many people who experience sexual behaviors at work not define these experiences as sexual harassment?
Defining Sexual Harassment
Emerging from the groundbreaking work of legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon, sexual harassment in the United States is viewed as a form of sex discrimination. Legally, two types of behavior comprise sexual harassment: quid pro quo harassment and hostile environment harassment. Quid pro quo harassment involves sexual threats or bribery that are made a condition of employment or used as the basis for employment decisions. Established by the 1980 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Meritor v. Vinson, hostile environment harassment captures those behaviors, such as sexual jokes, comments, and touching, that interfere with an individual’s ability to do her or his job or create an “intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.” This includes forms of gender harassment, such as gender-based hazing and put-downs. To be considered hostile environment harassment, it must be established that there was a single serious incident or a pattern of usually less severe behaviors occurring over time. Since the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Forklift, the law considers whether a “reasonable person” would find the behaviors unwelcome as well as the “subjective” experience of the person experiencing the behaviors. Some lower court decisions acknowledge that sexual harassment is a gendered phenomenon, with women more likely to experience harassment and to be adversely affected by it. These courts have adopted a “reasonable woman” standard when evaluating whether harassment occurred.
On the surface, the legal definition of sexual harassment appears straightforward, with its focus on men using their power over women to satisfy their sexual desires. Yet, this focus has limited what can be claimed as sexual harassment. Critics identify several shortcomings in the current legal framework of sexual harassment. First, the legal definition of sexual harassment overemphasizes (heterosexual) sexual acts and sexual desire at the expense of gender-based harassment. Research shows that most sexual harassment that occurs is hostile environment harassment that involves the denigration of women (and men).
This means that at its core, sexual harassment is often not about sexual desire but about letting women (and men) know they are not welcome in certain workplaces and that they are not respected members of the work group. There is some concern that the current legal definition of sexual harassment may end up only ridding the workplace of such “nonthreatening” sexual behaviors as flirting and joking while overlooking how gendered hostility can exclude workers from the most desirable jobs in a workplace and lead to sex segregation and inequality at work.
Second, the founders of sexual harassment law in the United States considered the sexual harassment of men to be a rare event. Yet does this mean that men cannot experience sexual harassment? Research that takes this question seriously shows that men do experience some forms of sexual harassment and identify some behaviors as harassment that are not identified by women. These behaviors include those perpetuated by women, such as verbal comments that negatively stereotype men (e.g., “Men are pigs”). Men also report being labeled as “unmasculine” or “not man enough” (e.g., being called “fag” or “pussy”) when they do not participate with their male colleagues in jokes about women or other male-bonding activities. Due to the privileging of heterosexual masculinity, men are likely to be harassed when they step outside the traditional male role or are seen as less masculine compared to their peers. Sexual harassment of men, just like much of the sexual harassment of women, is not about sexual desire. Rather it most often occurs when a group (or individual) asserts power over those who violate traditional gender roles. In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Oncale case ruled for the first time that same-sex harassment between men can be sex discrimination.
Because of the limits to the legal definition, some social scientists prefer to define harassment more broadly. Psychologist Louise Fitzgerald and colleagues have developed a three-tiered measure of sexual harassment, the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire: sexual harassment consists of gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. Measures such as these are based on “behaviorally based” survey items that attempt to capture the range of harassment experiences of women (and men). These survey items are useful for understanding the predictors and consequences of sexual harassment.
Some critics argue that survey measures do not adequately capture the subjective and ambiguous nature of what behaviors individuals define as harassment. This is also reflected in media and lay discussions of sexual harassment. From the 1991 Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy to everyday discussions around the water cooler, debate has ensued as to when a joke is just a joke and when it is sexual harassment. Research demonstrates women and men sometimes have difficulty defining workplace sexual attention as sexual harassment. The concept of a “boundary line” is useful for understanding when sexual behaviors are harassing and when they are pleasurable or at least tolerable. For example, for some women, experiencing sexualized behaviors is institutionalized or considered part of the job, such as being required to wear a sexy outfit while working as a waitress in a restaurant. In workplaces such as these, women may view the sexual behaviors they experience as “disgusting” but inevitable since the behaviors are a normalized part of their job. Hence women may not define these behaviors as sexual harassment. Workers who experience more than one type of harassment and discrimination also may have trouble labeling their experiences as sexual harassment. Women of color who experience racial harassment alongside their sexual harassment may not see their experiences as fitting within the legal definition of sexual harassment. Sexual discrimination law in general is criticized for forcing women (and men) of color to choose which wrong they will pursue: race based or gender based. The sexual harassment law appears blind to the issue of how race intersects with men’s and women’s experiences.
Understanding Who Is at Risk for Harassment
Various theoretical perspectives exist for understanding why sexual harassment happens and who is at risk for being sexually harassed. Most perspectives have an underlying agreement that power, whether it be from such sources as gender or position in the organization, is at the core of most sexual harassment. At this point, though, there is no unifying theoretical perspective for explaining sexual harassment. Some of the approaches overemphasize certain types of sexual harassment while excluding others. The primary explanation for why sexual harassment occurs is based in the power derived from culturally legitimated power and status differences between men and women. This type of explanation fits with the “dominance” model that emphasizes sexual harassment’s origins in patriarchal society. This model predicts that women are most likely to experience sexual harassment because of the economic, physical, and other forms of power men hold in workplaces and society. Within this model, there is little room for explaining same-sex harassment.
A second approach points to a sociobiological source for sexual harassment. Women are the most likely targets because men harass women out of the “natural” outcome of their biological sex drive. This approach is not supported by recent evidence that most sexual harassment is not based in sexual desire. Rather it is based in hostility toward women or men. Similar to the power perspective, an emphasis on sociobiological factors also ignores same-sex harassment.
Sexual harassment is also perceived to be an outgrowth of the gender socialization process and is a mechanism by which men assert power and dominance over women both at work and in society. Within this perspective, some research demonstrates that numerically skewed sex ratios in work situations, such as female-dominated and male-dominated work groups, play a prominent role in explanations of sexual harassment. Some approaches focus on the gender roles associated with female- and male-dominated work situations, while others discuss the issue in terms of numerical dominance of males over females in certain workplaces. With much of the focus on male-to-female harassment, male-dominated workplaces pose the biggest threat of harassment, since men both numerically and normatively dominate. More nuanced approaches draw on theories of masculinity to explain sexual harassment. For example, recent research implicates heterosexual norms of masculinity in the way that male coworkers ignore the harm of watching or “checking out” their female coworkers.
Organizational culture and context is also theorized to explain the occurrence of sexual harassment. Research demonstrates that if an organization has a culture whereby management does not tolerate harassment, workers are less likely to experience unwanted sexual behaviors. Examinations of sexualized workplaces move beyond this work to emphasize how organizational culture contributes to how sexual behaviors are interpreted as harassing, tolerable, or pleasurable. By bridging both power and gender socialization approaches, this research demonstrates that the context of work matters for what it means to be sexually harassed. For example, female editors working for a male pornographic magazine experience a daily litany of sexual joking and pornographic material, yet they do not define these as sexual harassment. Only when jokes become directed at them personally are behaviors defined as harassment. Taking into account the context of where one works helps understand not only who is at risk of sexual harassment but who is likely to label their experiences as sexual harassment.
Sexual Harassment Beyond the United States
The U.S. legal definition has been the prime mover behind the development of sexual harassment as a legal construct and social problem in other countries. However, countries such as France and Austria, along with the European Union itself, have developed laws focusing only on the sexual abuse of power aspect that is now eschewed by feminist critics of the U.S. harassment law. The reasons for this are not simply that European lawmakers, feminists, and the public view U.S. law as a consequence of American “prudishness” about displays of sexuality in the workplace. For example, the harassment law in France emphasizes harassment as an abuse of hierarchical power, not as sexual harassment between coworkers. What is considered sexual harassment in the law and in society is bounded by the national and organizational context of workers.
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