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  • Denise Powers

Sexual Harassment: The Most Pervasive and Destructive Form of Abuse

“Our bodies belong to us.” Gloria Steinem




Gloria Steinem, journalist and recognised leader of the American feminist movement

I am going to be in the market in the next year or so to buy an electric vehicle.


I won’t be buying a Tesla.


Elon Musk and his company are making headlines again, as an employee is suing the company for sexual harassment. The complaint by Jessica Barraza says, “Tesla’s factory floor more resembles a crude, archaic construction site or frat house than a cutting-edge company ... The pervasive culture of sexual harassment which included a daily barrage of sexist language and behaviour, including frequent groping on the factory floor, is known to supervisors and managers and often perpetrated by them.”


Bravo Jessica Barraza and to the countless others who are standing up and speaking out about this kind of degrading and humiliating behaviour from people and companies we expect more of. This kind of corporate information is what gives purchasers the power to rid the world of archaic companies that can’t figure out how to treat people with respect: one can make an educated choice on where to spend one’s money.


Social scientists are showing that companies with strong cultures of sexual harassment are those where it starts right at the top and those with a permissive attitude towards it. In other words, if there are no consequences for a perpetrator, including the person in the corner office, a culture of sexual harassment will seep through the rest of the company like an oil spill. Is it a surprise, then, that Elon Musk recently tweeted about his idea for a new university, slyly creating an acronym that spelt TITS? I guess he thinks that this kind of objectification is funny.


Sexual harassment could be perceived as the mildest of the atrocities women face because it is not actively violent: it is difficult to compare it to rape, trafficking, female genital mutilation, or child marriage. But its pervasiveness and normalization within society make sexual harassment one of the most dangerous symptoms of inequity of all.


What is sexual harassment?

Catharine MacKinnon, the lawyer, activist and author who defined, argued and established the concept of sexual harassment under the sex discrimination law in the United States in the 1970s, uses this definition of sexual harassment: “unwanted sexual pressure that you are really not in a position to refuse.” More specifically, sexual harassment is a behaviour characterized by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social situation.


This definition is powerful because it makes quite clear the power role at play between the perpetrator and the victim: between men and women. It is sexist language that successfully works to normalize other forms of violence, like rape. Consider it the ‘gateway drug’, that gets everyone in the mood to treat women as lesser than their male counterparts and to put them in their place, or at least, to look the other way complicitly when someone else is holding the whip.


Sexual harassment looks like this, in practice:

  • It is normally committed by a person who has authoritative power over the victim in social, political, educational or employment relationships and can dictate career progression, job security, etc.

  • Any unwelcome verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that causes offence or humiliation to the receiving person

  • Makes conditions of employment or advancement dependent on sexual favours, either explicitly or implicitly

  • Requests for sexual favours

  • Verbal harassment of a sexual nature, including jokes referring to sexual acts or sexual orientation

  • Unwanted touching or physical contact, like stroking a person’s hair

  • Unwelcome sexual advances

  • Discussing sexual relations/stories/fantasies at work, school, or in other inappropriate places

  • Creating pressure in another to sexually engage

  • Exposing oneself or performing sexual acts on oneself in view of another

  • Sending unwanted sexually explicit photos, emails, or text messages (pornography)

  • Behaviour that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment

Marianne Cooper, sociologist and writer said this about sexual harassment in her powerful Ted Talk: “At its core, sexual harassment is about the unequal power relations between men and women. It happens in companies, universities, on factory floors and movie sets, in congressional offices and restaurant kitchens, and what this means, is that we will never have full equality. Women will never be equal to men, as long as this behaviour continues.”


That’s a sobering thought.



Marianne Cooper, TED Talk


Several studies have shown that between 52 – 60% of women have experienced sexual harassment. This is a pervasive disease that has continued to grow despite the efforts of so many women to hold harassers to account, going back to Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was a catalyst for women to understand that what they were experiencing in the workplace was no longer acceptable. That thirty years later, we are still reading stories like the Tesla case every day is shocking and depressing.


You can easily find thousands of stories of women who were fired from their jobs or were passed up for promotions for not providing sexual favours and who are being harassed daily in toxic and degrading work environments. Just search #metoo, #timesup, #everydaysexism. It doesn’t take much searching to find the most famous examples: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Andrew Cuomo, Bill O’Reilly and of course, Donald Trump.


A friend of mine recently shared with me her horrific experience with sexual harassment in the workplace, a situation that shook her to the core and destabilised her sense of well-being and personal safety. Hearing her story jolted me back to my own experiences on the receiving end of sexual harassment. It stung me to remember back to that time and realise I hadn’t registered what I was experiencing as sexual harassment. I just saw it as part of life. My role was to be as sharp-witted as I could be to keep ahead of the banter, not let it get away from me and prove that I was a tough guy. But I did leave a job once because I was exhausted from dealing with it every day. Being talked to and treated this way is demeaning. It creates deep feelings of shame and it certainly made me feel as if I could never rise. Well, I couldn’t.


Being completely vulnerable, believing that work is not a safe place to be and being subjected to constant intimidation is demoralizing and makes one question one’s self-worth.

It makes one think, “why do people want others to feel like that?”












Why do perps do it?

Studies have revealed that the perpetrators ‘receive sadistic pleasure as they watch you squirm in response to their dirty comments’. Their ultimate goal is to make you uncomfortable to make themselves feel better.


Ellen Hendriksen, PhD wrote in Psychology Today about the psychological traits of sexual harassers. She asserted that the underlying current of sexual harassment, just the same as it is for any other form of violence and discrimination, is tied to power structures. The perpetrator has control over the victim’s career and potential for advancement, or scheduling, raises or references, etc., which creates a terrible dilemma for her: “submit and be exploited or resist and be punished.”


Hendriksen wrote that all harassers have similar characteristics, narcissism being one of them: “narcissists don’t care if you like them, but they do need to think they’re powerful and worthy of admiration.” She says they justify sexual harassment as retribution for not receiving a sexual experience they think they deserve.


Hendriksen also discussed how perpetrators excuse and justify their behaviour, outside of moral principles. For example, Harvey Weinstein’s claim that “I came of age in the ’60s and ‘70s when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different.” Or Bill Cosby re-labelling his scores of sexual assaults as “rendezvous.” They also diminish their roles in the events, believing that their behaviour “could have been worse.” And finally, and I believe this to be the most important, is the dehumanization and blame-casting the victims. Hendrickson cites Bill O’Reilly’s case when he commented that his victim was ‘moronic’ because she was wearing a mini skirt and halter top, and that was enough invitation to lead to an assault. This is also the language used by the legal team of the men who gang-raped Jyoti Singh in India, who said in an interview with Leslee Udwin in her documentary India's Daughter (2015) “in our culture, there is no place for a woman.”


There is a deep-seated connection between male beliefs about their role in society, which has been developed over generations, and the continued occurrence and acceptance of sexual harassment and the demeaning of women. Historically, men have been raised to perceive their roles in life as providers. This tradition may make them feel intimidated if the rise of women in the workplace threatens that role. The result is degrading treatment, normalising male domination, sexism and reinforcing the idea that women are of little value in the workplace. In the cases where women who work in fields traditionally considered ‘blue jobs’ often suffer from intense harassment clearly aimed at forcing them to leave.


In short, the harassment isn’t about the sexual desire of the perpetrator, it’s about putting women “in their place,” or “knocking them down a peg.” It attempts to make women feel they don’t belong. Sexual harassment doesn’t consider the victim’s feelings. It is one person exerting power over another.


What should you do if you are being harassed?

Acting against sexual harassment takes courage, but it is the only way to ‘un-normalize’ this type of behaviour is to call it out, to speak up and speak out.


The reason sexual harassment is so destructive is that it can be dismissed as being benign, playing around, or ‘having a bit of fun.’ With no cuts to band-aid or bruises to show, it might easily mask as everyday living and conversation.


But this is where we go desperately wrong. It should not be part of everyday life. To stop it, we need to call it out and make it unacceptable.


If you are being harassed, do this:

1. document everything – emails, texts, photos, discussions with colleagues

2. know your rights – employers are required by law to take your complaints seriously and address them

3. get support – talk to someone


Why ending this is Important

Being able to live your best life, free from the threat of violence or intimidation is a fundamental human right. A female employee who works in an environment where this kind of behaviour is accepted, either because it is ignored or condoned, experiences stress and hostility that her male colleagues do not have to endure, making it that much harder for her to compete effectively for advancement. She is likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, sleep and eating disorders, panic attacks, PTSD, substance addiction and suicide ideation because of sexual harassment. It is time to call this out and say enough is enough. This is just not acceptable.


Gloria Steinem defines feminism as “someone who believes in the full humanity of all people, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation.”


That seems a worthy goal to me. I think that a society that is fully reflective of this type of equality could be nothing but healthy and prosperous.


Sources and further reading:

Why men sexually harass women - The Washington Post

Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards – Equality Now

Failure to Protect: How Discriminatory Sexual Violence Laws and Practices are Hurting Women, Girls, and Adolescents in the Americas – Equality Now

Gravitas: Tesla accused of 'rampant sexual harassment by woman employee | Trouble for Elon Musk? - Bing video

Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment | UNOPS

Sexual Harassment | RAINN

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