Taking Sexual Harassment Seriously

Filed under , .
by Barry Shapiro


            - San Francisco: Irene Sanchez hurries to catch the corner trolley. The four young men emerging from the donut shop across the street notice her, and give out a chorus of catcalls. Irene appears calm. She's not.


   - Boston: Helen Tobias scowls as she leaves her teaching assistant's office. "He can't have meant that he'd change my grade if I'd go to bed with him. It's so gross to joke that way..."


   - Chicago: Agnes Fortier moves her chair back, trying gracefully to let her manager know that she doesn't want him standing so close to her and brushing her breast as he reaches across to point to some item in the report she's typing for him. He's not deterred.


   - Atlanta: Gloria Hawkins is discovered by the morning maintenance crew. She has been hog-tied, gagged, and suspended from an overhead industrial fixture. She does not press charges against her co-workers. "If that's what they do when they're just kidding around, I'd hate to think what they'd do if they were really angry with me." She quits the job.


      For most men, most of the time, sexual harassment is taken about as seriously as a dirty joke. In fact, it is a dirty business and no laughing matter. It affects almost half of all working women at some time in their lives: keeping them from accepting jobs, or from retaining ones that they hold (tin Farley, Sexual Shakedown, Warner, 1978). Sexual harassment is the cutting edge of sexism, severing women's good feelings about men, and often about themselves, from easy and natural expression.


What is sexual harassment? It takes many forms, from the extreme of attempted rape to unrelenting sexual innuen­does; from street hassles to photos of nudes hanging on office walls. Workplace harassment, generally, is any behavior of a sexual nature that pes­ters, bothers, annoys, degrades, humiliates, or intimidates another worker - usually a womam - and prevents her from enjoying a sex-neutral work environment. Men as well as women can be victims of sexual harassment, and the law protects both equally. Statistics indicate however that women are harassed five times more often than men.


    Alan Campbell, director of the Federal Office of Personnel Management, defines sexual harassment as "deliberate or repeated unsoli­cited verbal comments, gestures or physical contact of a sexual nature which are unwel­come." Sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, suggestive looks, pressure for dates, repeated phone calls, letters, cornering, touching, or pinching when they are unwelcome and unwanted, constitute sexual harassment. The key word is "unwanted."


    Not all sexual attention at work is har­assment. A sexual harassment prevention program is not aimed at discouraging sexual attraction or sexuality among workers. These programs clarify however what is appropriate, and which behaviors rob indi­viduals of their right to work without sexual harassment.

Traditionally, sexual harassment fun­ctioned to keep women out of jobs that had been held exclusively by men. It discou­raged women from seeking certain kinds of work, and could drive women out of the workplace once hired.  But other motives are evident too. By treating women as sex objects (“girls”) rather than co-workers and full collea­gues, some men attempt to keep women out of real competition for career recogni­tion and rewards, hoping to eclipse their professional competence with compliments about their appearance and attractiveness. Other men see an opportu­nity to exploit their power over women at work to gain sexual advantages that they could not otherwise expect. As Catherine MacKinnon writes, "...harassment is sexual attention imposed on someone who is not in a position to refuse it."


    Jokes about the "casting couch" in the entertainment industry symbolize a sardonic acceptance of sexual harassment. It is hard to imagine how this extortion has been taken so lightly for so long. Compromising someone's sexual integrity for a job oppor­tunity is, after all, unfair, unethical, and illegal. Yet it was only in the last decade that sexual harassment has been interpreted by the courts as a violation of the 1966 Civil Rights Act. Several landmark court decisions, with astronomically high monetary settlements, have finally forced government and business to become aware of this issue's seriousness. The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board has calculated that in indirect costs alone, not including in or out of court settlements, sexual harassment now costs the government $189 million every two years.


   Lower productivity, reduced morale, absen­teeism, increased medical expenses and leaves, higher turn-over, lost contracts, tarnished corporate reputations, and large court settlements are among the costs of sexual harassment. Yet managers still tend to ignore or minimize the issue, preferring to think that if it does exist, it's somebody else's problem. 


   In reality it seems to be everyone's problem. A recent news article described how the Academic Senate of the University of California voted this fall to ban roman­tic relationships between faculty members and students in their classes, because "such relationships raise questions of fairness..." "Everybody knows" responded one UCLA professor, "that teachers shouldn't sleep with students. Some things are so obvious that they shouldn't be in the rule book. Recent headlines ("Judge Charged in Sex Case"; "Sonoma Sheriff Hit for Sexual Harassment - $13 Million"; "Sex Harassment at the FBI") indicate however that the problem exists almost everywhere.


    While many instances of sexual harassment are deliberate and even malicious, in other instances it is the result of insensitivity and misinformation. Harassment is, in many cases, bad taste gone rampant, aided by the victim's fear of expressing her displeasure clearly and forcefully. Old myths blind men to the realities of sexual harassment: "Women want to be told that they are attractive, and the workplace is no excep­tion" ; "You can't blame a guy for trying" "For a woman, getting sexually hustled at work is just part of the job, it comes with the territory..."


      Incredibly, over 50% of American women either quit, get fired, or refuse to take a job because of sexual harassment. This country must commit itself to overcoming the ignorance and prejudice that cause such hardship and grief, and rob the nation of its human resources. Men need to become aware of what constitutes sexual harassment, and how it can be avoided. Women need assurance that resisting sexual harassment will not result in retaliation.