Sexual Harassment Part I

The term ‘sexual harassment' did not come into existence until the mid-1970s, which may come as a surprise to many my age, as it certainly did to me. Sexual harassment as a concept has distinctly feminist origins; it was coined by activists and given legal context by feminist litigators and scholars. Before the mid 1970’s there was no language to describe the experience of women who felt unsafe at work because of their gender. Over the next few days, I will be sharing some posts on the history of sexual harassment as a term, with this post focusing on the foundation research and texts relating to the establishment of sexual harassment as an accepted concept. 


The two foundational texts that contributed to the establishment of sexual harassment as a concept are Catharine MacKinnon’s “Sexual Harassment of working women: a case of sex discrimination” and Lin Farley’s “Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job. I have provided links to these publications in the comments. Published in 1979 and 1978 respectively, these works provided the social and legal framework for understanding and recognising sexual harassment and put forward the case for sexual harassment being classified as a form of gendered discrimination. 

MacKinnon’s work focuses on the legal understanding of sexual harassment. She put forward two legal categories of harassment which she defined as quid pro quo and offensive working environment. These categories were adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (in 1980) and became the base for the legal understanding of sexual harassment. MacKinnon viewed sexual harassment as a byproduct of structural asymmetries which lead to women holding an inferior position in the workplace. 

For MacKinnon, women in traditionally feminine occupations, also know as pink-collar jobs, are “set up” to be sexually harassed: “In such jobs a woman is employed as a woman. She is also, apparently, treated like a woman, with one aspect of this being the explicitly sexual. Specifically, if part of the reason a woman is hired is to be pleasing to a male boss, whose notion of a qualified worker merges with a sexist notion of the proper role of women, it is hardly surprising that sexual intimacy, forced when necessary, would be considered part of her duties and his privileges.”

In contrast, women in traditionally masculine industries are likely to be singled out for harassment, as their sex makes them highly visible and easy to target. There is also an intrinsic resentment of the invasion of women which may trigger harassment according to MacKinnon. This results in two feedback loop both of which are professional injurious for women: Women are discouraged from entering male-dominated field because of the dangers and reality of sexual harassment, and the concept of women in feminised industries as sexually accessible is reinforced. 

MacKinnon’s was able to argue for the legal recognition of the injury experienced by women through sexual harassment by drawing comparisons to discrimination based on race. She was able to put forward a case that as sexual harassment resulted in the subordination of women in the workforce it should be viewed as unlawful. Obviously there are implications here regarding intersectionality, which will be covered in a later post, as at this point in time, intersectionality was not considered comprehensively. 

Outside of the legal context, Farley’s publication offered a clear historical account of sexual harassment which significantly predated the existence of the term. Farley highlighted the sexual exploitation of slave women by their masters and mill workers by their foremen as early examples of sexual harassment. These two publications, and the adoption by the EEOC of their definition of sexual harassment inspired social researchers to begin investigation sexual harassment. 

Barbara Gutek wrote an early review of the social science literature in the 90s. The most significant conclusion made by Gutek was that women tend to define sexual harassment more broadly than men, and that these contrasting definitions are consistent with the interests of each group. She observed: "It is in men's self-interest to see relatively little sexual harassment because men are most often the offenders whereas it is in women's self-interest to see relatively more sexual harassment because women tend to be the victims in sexual harassment encounters.” This results in a phenomenon known as the ‘two worlds’ phenomenon and offered a challenge to the purported objective legal standards for sexual harassment. A majority of objections to the application of objective standards in the legal realm is that these ‘knowledge-based claims’ are based solely on the partial experience of men. More to come…