Posts Tagged ‘sexual harassment’

“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.” 

– Linda Gordon, “The Politics of Sexual Harassment.” Viewpoint Magazine, November 29, 2017, originally appeared in print in Radical America, in a 1981 special issue on sexual harassment.

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