Sexual harassment is a term that describes behaviors that women have endured for ages. The word -harassment- comes from an Old French word for being pursued by dogs. The mere vision this conjures up should make it easy to relate to the feelings attached to such an unwanted pursuit. Add to this a history of horrific treatment, unequal status, attitudes and policies designed to maintain women’s inferior role in society, and we can only imagine the level of harassment endured by women prior to any recourse for redress.
We can pull references from any period to reveal the negative and persistent negative attitude and treatment of women. Stories from biblical times give us a historical reference, which validates the long history and consistent attitudes held toward women. For example, the book of Judges, chapter 19, which records one of the darkest periods in Israel’s history, tells a vivid story of the failure of God’s people as revealed in the horrible treatment of a woman by her companion and other men.
“And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel that a certain Levite staying in a remote mountain of Ephraim took himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But his concubine played harlot against him, and went away from him to her father’s house in Bethlehem in Judah.” The Levite had gone after her. They had come from the house of the concubine’s father in Bethlehem when they stopped in Gibeath for the night. As darkness came nobody in Gibeath wanted to extend hospitality to the Levite, his servant, and his concubine. Finally an old man, a foreigner himself, opened his home, begging them not to spend the night in the town’s square.
As they were enjoying themselves, suddenly certain men of the city, perverted men, surrounded the house and beat on the door…..the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No my brethren! I beg you, do not act so wickedly! Seeing this man has come to my house, do not commit this outrage. Look here is my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine; let me bring them out now. Humble them and do them as you please, but to this man do not do such a vile thing”…..So the man took his concubine and brought her out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night unto morning; and when the day began to break they let her go. Then the woman came as the day was dawning, and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, till it was light.
When her master arose in the morning and opened the doors of the house and went out to go his way, there was his concubine fallen at the door of the house with her hands at the threshold. And he said to her, “Get up and let us be going.” But there was no answer. So the man lifted her onto the donkey; and the man got up and went to his place. When he entered his house he took a knife, laid hold of his concubine and divided her into twelve pieces. Limb by limb and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel”.
This example is not one of sexual harassment, but it so vividly gives color to the depth of feelings, attitudes and beliefs toward women, which continues to impact perceptions. Such attitudes are the basis for the negative treatment of women in its various forms.
In this case, his “concubine” attempted to end the relationship and sought refuge in her father’s home. She was attempting to change the conditions of her immediate situation before her companion sought her out for reconciliation. We don’t know if she really wanted to start over. We do know that story had the same horrific ending as so many similar accounts of domestic abuse during modern times.
If we fast-forward to 1870, the history of the treatment of women remains evident in the telling words of a physician:
“It is as if the Almighty, in creating the female sex, had taken the uterus and built up a woman around it”. (Rosenburg- Smith C. and Rosenburg, C., 1973)
Physicians viewed women as the product and prisoner of her reproductive system. This was her identification stamp, and around it was built her role in society. Being so tied to her reproductive function and role as a mother, women were seen to be gentle, affectionate, and nurturing, which were characteristics used by males to keep women in an inferior position. These characteristics, if attributed to males, would be viewed as weaknesses. The women’s body was seen as weaker compared to her male counterpart, and confined by menstruation and pregnancy. Therefore, she was both physically and economically dependent upon the stronger more forceful male whom she necessarily looked up to with admiration and devotion. This view of women needing men due to her deficits by nature and liking it, made women easy targets for ill treatment and abuse. The sexual overtones ingrained in much of the bad treatment toward women can be traced to the belief that women are ruled by their uterus. Therefore, there is a biological basis for their behavior and the warranted and/or desired responses by men.
The language used to describe women during various times is revealing. During the nineteenth century a woman’s s ideal social characteristics: nurturance, intuitive morality, domesticity, passivity, and affection all assumed to have a deeply rooted biological basis. (Rosenburg and Rosoenburg, 1973). As women during this period began to challenge their role dictated by such characteristics men, steeped in tradition, used reasons couched in medical language to validate the reasons for the differences between men and woman. “During puberty, orthodox medical doctrine insisted that a girl’s vital energies must be devoted to the development of her reproductive capacities. The girl who curtailed brainwork during puberty could devote her body’s full energy to the optimum development of its reproductive capacities. A young woman, however, who consumed her vital force in intellectual activities, was necessarily diverting these energies from the achievement of true womanhood”. (Rosenberg and Rosenberg, 1973). This view of women was used to keep them home and dependent on men.
The above references only serve as samples of our history but it can be said that in every period men are positioned as positive, forceful, aggressive, intellectual, dominant, and objective while in contrast the habits, skills, art, concepts by women have been ridiculed and/or suppressed. This is also revealed in the great literary work of women who felt forced to use a male name in order for their work to receive recognition and respect.
The link to past values, traditions, beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and customs are all evident today. The language has changed. As Gloria Steinem puts it, “Now we have terms like sexual harassment and battered women. A few years ago, they were just called life.”
Our history is entrenched in the male’s beliefs and attitudes about women that have successfully set the stage for women to be subject of varying levels of abuse and discrimination. As mentioned, the sexual overtones in much of the debates in relation to a woman’s role are very much connected to her reproductive ability.
As we moved from reliance on agriculture to an industrial age, the roles of women changed. Increasing numbers of women joined the workforce and the Woman’s Rights Movement strengthened and important victories were realized: Civil rights Act, 1964 and Roe V. Wade decision. The ramifications of these decisions were profound, as they protected the right of a woman to control her body, thus threatening the patriarch structure.
As women increasingly entered male dominated arenas, progress was marked by layers of consequences including responses by males’ intent on maintaining their perceived power and authority. Sexual harassment is one such response, which for a long time was not recognized as a problem warranting attention or social redress; as it was sexual in nature and therefore intimate and private.
Although the most significant developments in recognizing and creating remedies to deal with sexual harassment have occurred only during the past few decades, it was the Fall of 1991, when the issue of sexual harassment entered our homes in a manner never experienced before. Anita Hill had our attention as she accused Clarence Thomas of a history of behavior toward her that was sexual in nature, unwanted and made her feel powerless due to the authority of his position. The Clarence Thomas hearings forced a spotlight on an issue that was and is being endured by thousands of women. The hearings also provided a sounding board for a range of responses as Anita Hill’s allegations were heard and read in the mass media’s coverage. The dichotomy in perspectives and ideologies, and the link to the attitudes of our distant past was made very clear.
It was no wonder that there was not more prior public exposure around this issue. The dominant conservative male view that sexual advances are in all cases motivated by desire, biological forces, and are therefore that of a private matter, was a belief held closely by many of our leaders and was made obvious as the hearings unfolded before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Even more telling was the underlying belief that Anita Hill was a scorned woman who was not successful in the seduction of Clarence Thomas.
This perspective is rooted in the patriarchal belief that really holds the behavior of Clarence Thomas as a normal biological heterosexual drive, but should be “overtly” condemned (political correctness). It echoes the notion “she asked for it” reflecting the view that men are expected to express their heterosexual drives and women understand and love it; thus, placing the victim on trail instead of the accused.
Anita Hill’s defenders and supporters expressed the importance of Anita having the right to pursue her career goals free from interference by other individuals or by the state. They contended that her right to equality and economic independence was threatened by the unfair power exerted by Clarence Thomas, her boss. This liberal ideology is rooted in the value of equality, human dignity and individual autonomy, which are not achievable if interference occurs.
The liberal feminist maintained that Anita suffered this treatment because she is a woman, and in order for women to have full equality and freedom, they must be economically independent and free from interference in that pursuit within their work environment. Equality and human dignity are not possible for women if they are not able to earn at a level that would sustain independence. So to hold up a standard of equality without directly addressing the discriminations of women violates all of liberalism’s political values; the values of liberty, equality and justice.
Further, women suffer in society on the basis of sex, without regard to their individual wishes, abilities, ambitions and interests. This deprives women of the right to pursue self-interests and makes economic independence impossible. This social construct provides permission, for behaviors such as sexual harassment, which is a response to maintaining the status quo. The Thomas vs. Hill hearings brought a pervasive and persistent problem to the forefront, and made the different ideologies on sexual harassment transparent.
Sexual harassment is a pervasive and continuing condition in the work environment. The most straightforward example is “put out or get out”. (MacKinnon, Catherine, 1979). In 1981 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognized the impact of sexual harassment on the employment opportunities for women and promulgated guidelines to deal with this issue. It took the courts much longer to recognize the connection between sex discrimination and harassment, but once established allowed workers a place for redress by defining it as a form of gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment and unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work.
The courts stated that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and have divided sexual harassment into two categories: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.
The quid pro quo form of sexual harassment describes a situation in which the supervisor offers job benefits in exchange for sexual favors. Failure to submit to the sexual favors result in lost of job, promotion, or benefits.
The hostile work environment requires five elements:
o Employee was member of a protected class
o Employee was subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment
o Harassment was because of a person’s sex
o Harassment had the effect of unreasonably interfering with the employee’s work performance creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment
o There is a basis for imputing liability to the employer
(Roberts, D., SIECUS 2000)
Radical feminist views patriarchy as a total system of domination and control in every nation. Therefore the “national” culture is synonymous with the “male” culture. So what appears to be one national culture is really the male culture which sets itself up as the national culture. Every aspect of the culture, including government, the arts, sciences, philosophy, etc. is defined by the national culture – the male culture. Radical feminists believe that male dominance, in all its manifestations, is grounded ultimately in men being in control over women’s sexual and procreative capacities. A woman’s oppression is not just in the lack of equal jobs or full participation in the public and political world, but more importantly, the oppression is in intimate relations, in the home.
Radical feminists therefore advocate for the private becoming the public. Unlike liberals and Marxist feminists who want to make adjustments within the male culture, radical feminists want to develop new values based on women’s traditional culture. “We are proud of emotion, intuition, love, personal relationships as the most essential human characteristics” (Jagger, Allison).
Radical feminists believe that men seek to dominate by inventing ideologies, which define subordinate groups as inferior (lazy, shiftless, greedy, childish) creating the circumstances for their exploitation and oppression. For example, the patriarchal ideology defines women specific to their sex and whose functions are primarily to gratify male’s sexual desires and to bear and raise children. This limited view of a woman and her abilities is used to gain and justify sexual possession of women. Sexual harassment is then just another form of exploitation of the powerless by a male dominated society which, views women’s primary purpose to bear children and to sexually gratify males.
Radical feminists seek new values to organize society free from male domination, embracing women’s mystical and spiritual experiences and values typically relegated to the private domain. Radical feminists are concerned with the human side of human relations – emotion, openness, trust, caring, affection and non-manipulation. They are acutely aware of gender domination and perceive gender hierarchy in every institution of daily life. They, therefore, believe that it is necessary to abolish gender as well as other forms of hierarchy designed to maintain the ruling class – male domination.
Much of the woman’s oppression is focused on male control in intimate relations and the radical feminists believe that it is necessary to bring these private relations into the public sphere. As the Thomas Clarence hearings made clear, the radical feminists believe that what happens in a woman’s personal life can be the basis for a new vision of politics. Ultimately, radical feminists seek to build a new female culture influenced by radical feminist values of “wholeness, trust and nurturance, of sensuality and wildness”. (Jagger, Alison, 1983 Ch.9).
The Levite’s actions and attitude in the Book of Judges toward his concubine was not so different from many recent headline news stories. Why did the mean feel comfortable in carrying out such horrible acts? And why did each male in this woman’s life choose not to protect or care for her? Were these men doing nothing more than reflecting norms and values taught by their teachers, parents, elders, etc.?
The Learning theory asserts that culture is a non-biological entity that causes the behavior and desires of men through a powerful process known as “learning”. (Thornhill, R. and Palmer, C.). It is our culture, which teaches norms, values, and attitudes. Such learning begins in nursery, where male and female infants are perceived and handled differently, and continues in the educational system where boys are encouraged to train for prestigious jobs or a well-paying masculine profession and girls are encouraged to pursue lower paying feminine professions.
What males have in common, an element that bonds them, a learned behavior, is an attitude which excludes women from the mainstream. Customs and learned behavior do not allow men to see women as equals. There are assumptions that women are only suited for certain types of work and should take primary responsibility for raising children and running a home. Women are also expected to provide sexual gratification for their husbands and male partners. Within the paid labor force this expectation is extended, as women are expected to tolerate the sexual advances of male co-workers “a sort of nurturing services to men” (Jagger, Allison, 1983)
In a male dominated society the way in which one uses their sexuality is learned and reinforced through the construct of male politics, institutions, philosophies, etc. The goal of being taught such behavior is to maintain the status quo – male hierarchy. Generation to generation such learning solidifies the male culture. Within the national male culture the paradigm in relation to women naturally reflect a vision that elevates males and oppresses women. Sexual harassment is then a predictable response to the threat by women in the work place as they exert their freedom, “wildness” in other arenas.
The Radical Feminist would argue that strength of the “national” male culture would not tolerate the changes required to bring about real progress and it would only amount to making adjustments within a male dominated society. They might even point to the Clarence Thomas/ Anita Hill affair – he still won his seat – and were there changes in behavior and /or attitudes noted?
Well one change was the Senate Committee’s realization that they had to take an overt stance, which condemned sexual harassment consistent with the law. So the protection offered by the inclusion of sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Law forced a change in overt behavior. But the change that will ultimately lead to changed behavior (or learning new behavior) in the work and school environments, are the result of the more recent interpretations of the law which increased the liability of businesses and school districts; motivating change due to financial consequences.
Interestingly, the radical feminists advocate for a change in consciousness – a “redescription” of reality- using new terms/language to facilitate a shift in our currently held paradigm. This assumes that women and men will learn a new way of thinking and viewing the world. They feel that in discarding our current norms, for example what is now called “consent” must be renamed “coercion”, will create a paradigm shift, a new reality (Jagger, Alison). So the radical feminists are assuming that new behavior can be learned.
The fact that it took so long for the courts to recognize sexual harassment as a form of discrimination based on sex, protected under the Civil Rights Act, reveals the ideological blinders worn by those in power. The underlying theories of implied causes focused on normal biological forces between two individuals, which constitute a “private matter”. Therefore the courts reflected the sentiment of the dominant culture, giving no credit to its wrongfulness or to its damage. These stated causes were really smoke screens covering up the real intention for doing nothing. If challenges to this popular thinking were not made, there would still be no redress for women.
Radical feminists have an important role to play in presenting their reality. They are making a loud and constructive noise, which places new lens on important issues. We are still very much “in process” and the necessary tensions to seek out solutions and redress will bring about change, but not necessarily in privately held attitudes. However, as throughout history, financial implications and consequences can cause change, which must be accompanied by increasing intolerance of the negative treatment of women.
The fact that change is taking place may be best evidenced by the following data gathered from the 2006 EEOC report:
EEOC resolved 12,859 sexual harassment charges in FY 2004 and recovered $47.9 million in monetary benefits for charging parties and other aggrieved individuals (not including monetary benefits obtained through litigation). In Fiscal Year 2005, EEOC received 12,679 charges of sexual harassment (14.3% of those charges were filed by males).