Noted legal scholar and feminist Catherine MacKinnon defined sexual harassment as "the unwanted imposition of sexual requirement in the context of a relationship of unequal power" (MacKinnon, 1979). Sexual harassment generally falls under two categories: quid pro quo harassment and hostile environment. The majority of victims reporting instances of sexual harassment are women, and the vast majority of reported aggressors are men. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provide legal recourse for victims of sexual harassment. Some sociologists associate the full integration of women into the modern workforce with an increase in instances of sexual harassment. Social scientists are somewhat critical of common approaches to dealing with sexual harassment - particularly in the workforce. Many organizations have made concerted efforts to heighten awareness of issues related to sexual harassment, though social scientist recommend shifting the focus from identifying instances of sexual harassment to pinpointing factors that contribute to instances of sexual harassment with the ultimate aim of lessening future occurrences.
Sex, Gender & Sexuality
Sexual harassment remains a common occurrence in society. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 11,364 sexual harassment charges were filed in 2011, and a 2011 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that as many as 25 percent of women reported having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. However, the challenge of defining exactly what constitutes sexual harassment remains. According to Kingsley Browne (2006) of Wayne State University Law School,
Courts have declared that all of the following kinds of conduct may constitute sexual harassment: forcible rape; extorting sex for job benefits; sexual or romantic overtures; sexual jokes; sexually suggestive pictures or cartoons; sexist comments; vulgar language; harassing actions of a non-sexual form; and even 'well intended compliments'" (p. 145).
Sexual harassment is defined as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII Federal Law Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin (U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, 2002).
Feminist attorney Catherine MacKinnon argued for the legal recognition of sexual harassment as sex discrimination in her 1979 book Sexual Harassment of Working Women. In the book, MacKinnon states that because of the traditional gender roles of our society, women disproportionately occupy inferior positions in the workplace. One psychologist writing on the subject concurred with MacKinnon, seeing sexual harassment, "as a form of sex discrimination that keeps the sexes separate and unequal at work" (Berdahl, 2007, p. 435).
MacKinnon (1979) argues that "intimate violations" of women by men were "sufficiently pervasive" as to make the practice nearly invisible (p.1). She also states that internalized power structures within the workplace kept anyone from discussing sexual harassment, making it "inaudible" (p. 1). In her words, the abuse was both acceptable for men to perpetuate and a taboo that women could not confront either publicly or privately. MacKinnon states that the "social failure" to address these pervasive intimate violations hurt women in terms of the economic status, opportunity, mental health, and self-esteem (p. 1). Many believe that sexual harassment is about the abuse of power, others believe it is about access to sexual favors, and still others believe that sexual harassment is about access to power and sex. In legal terms, sexual harassment is divided into two main categories.
Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employee is made to submit to some form of sexual advance in order to obtain a benefit (e.g., a promotion) or to avoid a burden (e.g., being fired). In such cases, sexual harassment is considered sex discrimination because presumably the demand would not have been made if the employee were of the opposite sex (Browne, 2006). Initially, researchers and courts believed that this type of harassment was motivated by sexual desire, but research has subsequently suggested that it is instead meant to assert dominance over or derogate the target (Berdahl, 2007).
Hostile environment harassment occurs when a work environment is "permeated with sexuality" or "discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult" (Smith, Craver & Turner, 2011). Within this type of harassment, the victim does not claim specific harassment, but rather that the general work environment is discriminatory. Generally, it is believed that this type of harassment seeks to undermine and humiliate its target and is likely to be motivated by sexual hostility rather than sexual desire (Berdahl, 2007).
Men & Women in the Workplace
As women gain greater equity in the workplace, it might be assumed that the instances of sexual harassment in the workplace would diminish. However, the causes of sexual harassment are complex and hard to identify, and sexual harassment remains prevalent in modern society. Women's increasing presence in the workforce has meant that men and women work together more closely in the twenty-first century than at any other time in history. In fact, there are fewer and fewer "male only" professions as women become much more fully integrated into all corners of the workforce. According to one researcher, "one effect of the breakdown of the sexual division of labor is the expansion of opportunities for sexual conflict in the workplace" (Browne, 2006, p. 145). One outgrowth of this conflict may be sexual harassment. Wayne State University law professor Kingsley Brown (2006) analyzed data from numerous studies to argue that sexual harassment is rooted in sociocultural causes, as well as biological and psychological causes. Sociocultural theories of sexual harassment, he says, hold that harassment is a means for the harasser to gain power over his target. Biological and psychological theories, on the other hand, hold that men are biologically and psychologically predisposed to be sexually aggressive and that sexual harassment is an outgrowth of these predispositions (Browne, 2006).
Further, Browne (2006) argues that men tend to interpret female interest as sexual, while women are more likely to interpret male attention as mere friendliness. According to Browne, these differing perspectives may oftentimes lead to miscommunication and unintentional harassment. In other words a man, perceiving a woman's friendliness to indicate sexual interest, may escalate his attention to a level that the woman sees as threatening (Browne, 2006).
Token Resistance to Sexual Harassment
Token resistance is a concept that originated in date rape literature and describes the belief that women may ostensibly discourage sexual attention when in fact they wish it to continue (Osman, 2004). In other words, a woman may say "no" when what she really means is "yes."
Research suggests that a sexual aggression continuum exists with nonviolent sexual aggression at one end and rape at the other (Figure 1). Researchers believe that...
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