This is a slightly revised version of the opening speech given at a public forum on sexual harassment, sponsored by a group of feminist activists in Boston, February 1981. It originally appeared in print in Radical America, in a 1981 special issue on sexual harassment. That it is republished now serves as a painful reminder not only of the resistance to the feminist campaign for the de-objectification of women but of the roll-back of women’s freedom that confronts us now.
The existence of this public meeting reflects the big victory we have already won. It is a great achievement of the women’s liberation movement that sexual harassment has been dragged out of the sanctum of tacit male privilege, with its disguise as harmless badinage and play ripped off, and recognized as a violation of women’s rights. Indeed, not only is sexual harassment now a violation of the law, but to many it is becoming apparent that it is even unjust. A decade ago such recognition did not exist. Indeed, a decade ago the phrase “sexual harassment” would have been unrecognized by most people in this country. The creation of a new vocabulary by the feminist movement is not a minor accomplishment. New concepts like sexism and sexual harassment, and new definitions of old concepts like rape, are the symbols of profound changes in consciousness. Such consciousness-changing is absolutely as fundamental a form of progress toward a better society as any material or organizational gains – in fact, probably more fundamental, since consciousness must be the basis of political struggle.
In this talk I want to do two things: first, to summarize what the experience of women has shown about the seriousness of sexual harassment and the importance of making it a high-priority target in all political work; second, to take stock of some of the new problems created by the victories we have gained.
There is no universal definition of sexual harassment; involved in its definition are controversial implications, some of which I will mention later. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, referring to legally actionable harassment in work situations, has a particular definition.1 The Alliance Against Sexual Coercion here in Boston offers a much more flexible and realistic definition.
One point worth noting is that the definition of the wrong has itself been evolving historically as women gain power to set higher standards of the way in which they expect to be treated, and as both women and men evolve different standards of acceptable sexual behavior. The earliest records of women’s experiences in socialized and heterosexual work situations include complaints of sexual harassment. In the 1820s in the Lowell textile mills women objected to harassment. They included as harassment offensive language used in their presence (language which may be used by women themselves today) as well as indecent propositions by men with power over their jobs. There is both continuity and change in the manner in which men harass women.
A second point is that a definition of sexual harassment cannot ever be complete because of the literally infinite variation in the forms in which men use sex to intimidate and subject women. Much of sexual harassment is embedded in innuendo, in body language, in rude stares – gestures that will vary by culture, social group, class, and era, as well as by individual. One consequence is that it is often impossible to prove that a certain gesture was harassing; to some extent one has to accept the fact that harassment is what feels harassing to the individual woman. Furthermore, the implied threat may be extremely subtle. Men have power over women in so many ways that they need not be bosses, nor make direct threats, for their sexual overtures to be coercive. What a woman perceives as harassing may not be intended hostilely or even arrogantly. Men frequently make remarks about women’s looks that come no doubt from their genuine appreciation of beauty; yet these remarks may deepen the women’s sense that they are only sex objects and thus further deprive them of the ability to take themselves seriously as workers, friends, and people with ideas about the world.
Despite this variety and historical change in the nature of sexual harassment, there has been remarkable continuity in the results – or perhaps one should say function – of sexual harassment. In the Lowell textile mills 150 years ago, as in insurance offices today, harassment is a major contributor to the consciousness that women have of themselves as workers, that men have of themselves, and that the sexes have toward each other. The notion that women are fundamentally out of place in the wage-labor force is perpetually maintained and reinforced by their treatment as passive sexual beings. By contrast, men are workers (we cannot say men are treated as workers since they claim the right to self-definition) who can behave sexually if and when they desire.
In contemplating the many reverberations of the patterns set up by sexual harassment, it is hard to keep in mind all the consequences. That women are forced to accept the image of themselves as fair game in any public space – even if for the least serious of attacks, say, whistling from across the street – maintains and reinforces women’s sense of belonging at home in the family, and hence of the most basic sexual division of labor, one of the biggest sources of sexual inequality.
The attitudes that produce sexual harassment also maintain a powerful bonding among men which not only weakens any existing class consciousness, but is one of the major obstacles to its development. I might add that this is the hopeful view; the more skeptical one is that the historically developed notion of class consciousness that we have inherited is based so fundamentally on male bonding, on fraternity, that it cannot be transformed into a comradeship including women without changing the image of comradeship itself.
Thus, from a socialist perspective as well as from a feminist one, no general issue is more important than sexual harassment. To challenge it, to make it unacceptable, is to attack one of the major barriers to unity among people who have the possibility of bringing about radical social change. To challenge it is also to challenge one of the aspects of the male ego and the male-dominated culture that feminists so dislike – the ego and the culture that depend on the subordination of others.
The very difficulty of defining sexual harassment specifically should be an asset, for it cannot be combatted effectively in a mechanical, legalistic, or superficial way. Teaching men to quit harassing women cannot be done by rote. It requires enjoining them to try to see the world from a woman’s perspective: it requires developing the faculty of empathy that is so atrophied in many people; it requires challenging all those patterns of bonding which block the possibility of understanding a different point of view.
I do not consider sexual harassment as a gender-neutral phenomenon which women do to men as often as men to women. I would hardly deny that women can use sex in an harassing way; far from it. Sex is one of the few weapons women may have. But it is absurd on the face of it to suggest that the sexual harassment of men by women or of women by women is a social problem, any more than rape by women. For better or worse, women’s sexuality in our culture, whether heterosexual or lesbian, is not typically aggressive. Furthermore, acts of sex or sexual flirtation cannot be abstracted from the overall context of male supremacy which, with few exceptions, deprives women of coercive powers. These basic facts can be obscured when the struggle against sexual harassment becomes disconnected from a women’s movement, as has now happened to some extent. Thus we see polls which show men to be harassed as often as women!
This brings us to the second general topic, the changes created by the victory we have won in making sexual harassment illegal. Perhaps the most important characteristic of this victory is its fragility. In this period of strong anti-feminism it does not take much imagination to figure out how sexual harassment could be licensed again, and the legal and social weapons we now have against it taken from us. Only constant vigilance and militance on this issue can maintain these weapons for us.
Furthermore, as feminists we face a particular problem in how to use the weapons we have because of the definitional problems. There is a big area of overlap between sexism and sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is part of sexism; to detach it from that context would be to miss its importance. Yet we have an interest in defining sexual harassment specifically so that we can use the legal and moral weapons we have gained. If we insist on total subjectivity in the definition of the “crime” – that is, that whatever makes a woman feel harassed is harassment – then we will sacrifice all access to legal weapons. Perhaps someday we will be strong enough as a movement to make sexism itself a crime; but we are not that strong yet and “merely” pressuring sexual harassment out of existence would be most welcome.
We have yet another interest in being specific about sexual harassment: because we women are changing, are deciding not to accept treatment that we previously regarded as normal, many men are genuinely confused. Indeed, many men are defensive and angry; many conceive of the pressure against sexual harassment as a rejection of their very personalities, and lack confidence in their ability to find other sources of identity. This does give us the responsibility to examine what it is that we find harassing, at least enough to be able to explain it to others. It is not our fault, of course, if men are thick-skinned about this, and our explanatory attempts may often, perhaps usually, fail, because men benefit from harassing women, and thus have an interest in not understanding. Still, our only hope after all is that the majority can be forced to change, so that a new norm can be developed, a new pattern of male-female public relations that allows women more space to define and initiate the sexual content of encounters. There is no substitute for patient, as well as impatient but repeated, explanation.
These necessities for specific definition of sexual harassment bring us a new risk: that of separating it from the larger political struggle against male supremacy. Such a separation is, of course, exactly what the government and other institutions forced by our pressure to deal with sexual harassment would like to accomplish. They will want to take control out of our hands, and to transform the issue into a bureaucratized, mechanistic set of procedures for disallowing certain very narrowly defined behavior. That sort of legalism will tell the majority of victims that their experiences do not qualify as sexual harassment and must be tolerated. It is therefore vital for the women’s movement to retain a primary commitment to nonlegal and nonbureaucratic means of struggle, means that we can control ourselves.
There are important civil-liberties dangers involved in sexual harassment actions in general, and in particular resulting from our commitment to extralegal, movement-based struggles. A person’s reputation can be ruined, in certain communities at least, by an accusation of harassment. We do not believe it is ever in women’s interest to override civil-liberties concerns automatically, because those kinds of protections are so important to us as a subordinate group. Furthermore, we want to encourage victims to protest, and we think women will do so more easily if they do not feel that they bear the responsibility for ruining someone’s life because of a mistake. In addition, sexual harassment procedures can easily be used against lesbians and gay people as part of a homophobic campaign. The record of sexual harassment cases litigated so far suggests that the government and institutions are more likely to act against accused men who are themselves members of vulnerable social groups – racial minorities, or leftists, for example. And judging from the so-called statistics that claim men are often harassed by women, these procedures can easily be used against heterosexual women too, with women of color or other oppressed groups again liable to be more vulnerable.
Civil-liberties considerations lead us to believe that sexual-harassment procedures – whether formal or informal – should whenever possible begin with private conversations. Since women victims cannot be expected to risk such confrontations alone, it is vital to build organizations and support groups in all situations to take the initiative in behalf of a harassment victim, to confront the accused and give him a chance to apologize and change before beginning public and legal actions which may risk everything. Furthermore, our procedures ought to recognize, without apologizing, that women can be wrong. We get angry like everyone else, and can try to hurt out of anger. We ought also to avoid the trap of assuming that every harassment victim must be an angel in order to qualify as a genuine victim entitled to justice.
There is also a danger that work against sexual harassment can become or be interpreted as antisexual. In the past, feminism has shown distinct tendencies toward sexual prudery, with good reason. Sexual relations are intertwined with sexism; because of sexism, sexual relations with men have often been exploitative, joyless, and unfree for women. In the nineteenth century women had few options – economically or socially – other than heterosexuality, and it was reasonable for feminists to picture heterosexual sex as something to be minimized and kept within the family. In the early twentieth century the feminist movement began to seek ways of welcoming heterosexuality as potentially fun for women too, and in the past decade a second wave of feminism has helped make it easier for lesbians to come out. One purpose of a campaign against sexual harassment is to make it more possible for women to enjoy sexual freedom — as active participants, not as passive recipients. Today, when a right-wing antifeminist backlash is attempting to reinstitute prudish and repressive limits on sexual freedom, it is more important than ever that feminists not project antisexual attitudes.
To fight sexual harassment without being antisexual is complicated, because sex is itself complicated. Enjoyable and mutual sexual flirtations often include teasing; and due to a long tradition of victimizing those who are open about sexual desire, women do sometimes say no when they really mean yes. No doubt this happens because in a sexist culture sexuality has been connected to violence, and even romance and play often involve coercion and female submission. One can deplore such a state of affairs, but few can live their whole sexual lives without these cultural forms leaving some personal mark. What is more, different people may experience the same come-ons very differently. Again, there must be somewhat subjective criteria about what constitutes harassment. Such criteria ought to encourage women to take responsibility for our own sexual behavior: identifying what makes us feel harassed – that is, out of control – and reclaiming our own sexual and flirtatious impulses.
Because different women may respond differently to men’s overtures, it is extremely important to avoid moralism. Moralism is not the same as morals. Moralism is a kind of rightline-ism in which we impose our own standards on others, disrespecting their own culture and circumstances. Moralism frequently invades discussions of sexual harassment. Some women put down others for wearing sexy clothing, or enjoying treatment by men which they find offensive; some women get put down for being up-tight when they can’t accept treatment which other women find normal. One long-range goal might be to raise all women’s standards for the treatment which they expect, and to increase their confidence to protest when they don’t get it. But in the short range one must begin by honoring each woman’s own sense of what violates her integrity, at least to the extent that her charges do not violate another person’s rights.
The main theme of all this is that an effective struggle against sexual harassment should not be separated from an overall fight against male supremacy. The strictures laid out here no doubt are very demanding: We need to produce a strategy that respects civil liberties, that acknowledges the inevitable subjectivity of judgments without losing the claim to legal objectivity, that criticizes sexual harassment but not sexual flirtation (even when the latter takes forms that may be personally distasteful), and that educates people about the relation between sexual harassment in particular and sexism in general. But all these various goals flow organically out of our basic commitment, which is to make the world a better place for women. And with that as our main commitment, we really cannot afford to lose sight of these complexities.
We are unlikely to be able to keep all these things in mind all the time. And at some times our anger will and should simply explode. But I do think it is important for us at least to acknowledge the complexity of the task we are attempting, and to realize that we are the ones with the most to lose if campaigns against sexual harassment become single-issue reform drives severed from an overall feminist perspective on changing the world.
No matter how radical and ambitious our views of the kind of new society we would like, the starting point must be that sexual harassment is bad for women. It makes women uncomfortable in their workplaces and therefore encourages them to accept themselves as peripheral in the labor market; it keeps them stratified in the worst jobs, and keeps them subordinate to men in every way. Sexual harassment functions to keep women domestic, to reinforce the tradition that public spaces belong to men. It tightens the double bind we are all – especially heterosexuals – in: that to be a true woman we must look sexually attractive, but not too sexual. And it encourages blaming ourselves for not being able to meet these double and conflicting expectations. Sexual harassment encourages women’s internalized sexualization in a passive mode; it dooms us to reacting and receiving, never inventing and initiating sexual (and also nonsexual) experiences. This passive sexualization discourages women from taking ourselves seriously in other ways. It is hard to function as a serious intellectual in a university when one is being addressed mainly in the form of compliments on our appearance. It is hard to do manual work with strength and skill when one is constantly made conscious of one’s body as it is sexually perceived by others. It is hard to be politically active when one is not heard.
Sexual harassment is not a matter of manners, or style. It is a fundamental form of oppression, and one of the most widespread in our society. Tolerating it is absolutely against the interests of anyone committed to freedom and equality. The understanding of this issue and the struggle against it can only be effectively advanced within the context of an overall feminist analysis. Of course we need to use legal and administrative procedures against sexual harassment wherever they are available to us, but we must resist turning the power completely over to the state or other institutions. We need to hang on to the power to define sexual harassment; to understand that the only reliable protection for women will be the power of the women’s movement, not the threat of official punishment. Therefore our primary goal should be to raise the consciousness of other women about the kind of treatment they deserve, and their capacity to defend each other’s “individual” rights collectively.
This text first appeared in Radical America 15, no. 4 (July-August 1981): 7-14.
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. ↩