Sex Harass Definition Discussion (Feb 1997)

[Editor's Note: This discussion is an off-shoot of the "Paula Jones and Feminists discussion, also available on this web page. See also: Sex Harass Solutions Discussion, which came out of the discussion below.]
>From Janine Beichman 01 Feb 1997

Maura Doherty's telling of the murder of the Northwest Airlines baggage handler makes the very good point that the most extreme and terrible cases of sexual harassment are not the ones that get the most attention. It's not just because Paula Jones involves the pres. that we hear more about her; it's also because the episode appeals to the prurient interest--how interesting to hear about the Pres. with his dick out. I agree that we don't hear enough about ones that cause death. My ignorance of the Northwest worker's murder is a case in point. such cases are civil rights violations just as much as a lynching is, and really ought to be prosecuted by the federal government. I begin to wonder about the whole term 'sexual harassment'. Maybe there needs to be a less 'sexy' phrase that makes it impossible to confuse 'sexual harassment' with using sexual talk or action to harass someone.

>From Jeanette Keith 01 Feb 1997 I second Janine Beichman's comments. In watching the news of the Citadel harassment cases, my husband commented that the young women had not been harassed--as far as he was concerned, setting someone's clothing on fire was assault with intent to commit murder. Maybe if we call assault "assault", instead of harassment or domestic abuse...

>From Clifton Hawkins 01 Feb 1997 Also, of course, rape and murder is far worse than "harassment," however extreme.

>From Tim Hodgdon 01 Feb 1997 Janine Beichman, responding to the thread, poses an interesting question, which I paraphrase (and I hope I'm hearing her correctly) as: does calling sexual harassment "sexual harassment" lead to a trivialization of the phenomenon, because in our culture we compartmentalize sexual violence? In other words, do people often understand "sexual harassment" as sex, not violence, and therefore not really harmful at all? If so, should the term be modified to underscore the violent nature of the behavior?

Personally, and I speak for no one else on this, I feel that "sexual harassment" is aptly named because its perpetrators experience sexual pleasure through the behavior. Downplaying the sexual nature of the behavior might indeed underscore the gravity of the harm of harassment in the public mind, but I worry that it might also make it harder to name sexual behavior as harassment--for much of what the term covers could still be dismissed as sex, not violence. I think what this means is the problem lies not with the term, but with cultural resistance to consciousness of its implications: it makes sexuality part of the continuum of oppressive behavior that includes murder. As unsettling as that insight is, I hope that continued common usage of "sexual harassment" will encourage at least some people to consider its implications.

>From Darlene Wilson 01 Feb 1997

Re: Janine Beichman's response the murder of the... baggage handler [and] her...about the use of the whole term 'sexual harassment'...

...The point is: ...That state's institutions, and many other workplaces, still are without a coherent, comprehensive policy for dealing with crimes-against-the-person that come wrapped in sex-labelling or sex-rhetoric. I fear that, in our campaign to attack workplace harassment, we erected an extra-legal--or perhaps the more proper term is supra-legal system--to protect the rights and safety of the victim that often still allows (by the policy's omissions as well as in its specific provisions) other acts of violent and/or sexually-aggressive behavior to go "unrecognized" and unpunished. ... any episode or series of episodes in employer-sanctioned, mental and physical torture of a co-worker constitutes serious crimes of assault and battery and malicious mayhem with intent to inflict bodily and mental stress/harm. The possibility of cloaking these crimes and more importantly, allowing them to be subsumed under the ambiguous banner of 'sexual harassment' provides convenient cover for these criminals (and their management allies) to go undetected by the criminal justice system and thus they remain unpunished...while a committee or several sub-committees debate the philosophical and factual discrepancies between their stated policy on sexual harassment and that particular worker's charge(s).

Less deadly, perhaps, but still very serious is the tendency of institutions to confuse/conflate acts of sexual discrimination with harassment. yes, Janine, we need serious discussion of the terminology. I would like to argue that we are losing these...struggles for justice because we have yet to disrupt the white-winged male hegemony that so skillfully exploits the power-to-name the crime, the victim and the terms of redress. Serious assault and battery style offenses occur and are hidden in many workplaces by the manipulation and deployment of such legal and quasi-legal potholes. {Ed. Note...full text of Ms. Wilson's message can be found on the message log for January 1997]

>From Julie Johnson-McGrath 03 Feb 1997 I agree that the term "sexual harassment" unfortunately connotes a certain subjectivity that helps create a backlash against those who experience it. I speak from experience: when I protested the routine sexual harassment of women, including myself, at the Hagley Museum and Library, the responses I received from administration and staff included, "you are simply too sensitive--others haven't complained," and "I don't believe in sexual harassment." This manufactured subjectivity makes it easier to solve the problem by getting rid of the harassee, rather than instituting any serious changes that would correct the behavior of the harassers. Interestingly, one of the chief harassers, who activities ranged from displaying Playboy-type centerfolds in his office to aggressively propositioning visiting women scholars, was only dismissed after he threatened to strike a visiting male scholar.

{Editor's Note: The Sexual Harassment Definitions Discussion continues under "Sexual Harassment Solutions Discussion" on this same web page.]

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