Sexual Harassment

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Sexual Harassment

Organized by: LuLu Géza, George Mason University
Updated by: Seth A. Behrends, University of Illinois – Chicago

Studies on sexual assault in Gender & Society over the past ten years have been few in number, but still manage to cover a range of methodologies, to uncover and reframe the diverse ways people understand sexual harassment, and to investigate and reconceptualize the variety of settings in which sexual harassment occurs. Class, race, and citizenship status and their intersectionality have been shown in many these studies to affect the way both women and men define and react to sexual harassment, indicating that while the anti-sexual harassment law is held up as the rule for action, it is often disconnected from the many experiences of victims of sexual harassment, especially for women of color.

Crowley, Jocelyn Elise. 2021. “Sexual Harassment in Display Work: The Case of the Modeling Industry.” Gender & Society 35 (5): 719-745.
This feminist analysis focuses on sexual harassment within a specific category of jobs known as display work, where primarily women’s bodies are commodified and sold to consumers, and often through the conduits of powerful male industry leaders. Using qualitative content analysis methods to analyze 88 subjective, first-person narratives of harassment from 70 models working within the fashion business, I describe how the commodification of bodies interacts with the particular features of the modeling industry—the premium placed on youth, ambiguous industry demands, and the presence of kingmakers—to produce an environment in which opportunities for sexual harassment can proliferate. All these factors impose extreme worker vulnerability costs on predominantly women and ultimately contribute to maintaining gender-based, hierarchical power differentials between men wielding authority within the industry and these models over time.

Johnstonbaugh, Morgan. 2021. “Men Find Trophies Where Women Find Insults: Sharing Nude Images of Others as Collective Rituals of Sexual Pursuit and Rejection.” Gender & Society 35 (5): 665-690.
As sexting has become more common, so has the sharing of nude and semi-nude images of others. While women and men may both engage in this practice, when they do so they often participate in distinct gendered rituals. Drawing on 55 in-depth interviews with college students, I examine how the symbolic meanings attached to men and women’s nude images in the context of intimate heterosexual interactions shape collective rituals of sexual pursuit and sexual rejection. I find that men share images of women with their peers to demonstrate sexual prowess and receive praise, whereas women share images of men with their peers to cope with unwelcome sexual advances and receive support. These gendered rituals are linked to the perceived desirability of men’s and women’s nude images. While rituals of domination appear among men and reproduce unequal gender relations, rituals of commiseration appear among women to resist unequal gender relations.

Hart, Chloe G. 2019. “The Penalties For Self-Reporting Sexual Harassment.” Gender & Society 33 (4): 534-559.
Although sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal, it often goes unreported. This study employs causal evidence to evaluate one deterrent to reporting: bias against women known to be sexual harassment targets. I theorize about the form this bias takes and test the argument with a national survey experiment run in five waves from October 2017 to February 2018, where participants were asked to propose employment outcomes for an employee with one of four harassment experiences. Participants were less likely to recommend a woman for promotion if she self-reported sexual harassment relative to otherwise identical women who experienced nonsexual harassment or whose sexual harassment was reported by a coworker. The woman who self-reported sexual harassment experienced normative discrimination: that is, the promotion bias was significantly mediated by perceptions that she was less moral, warm, and socially skilled than the woman whose coworker reported her sexual harassment. These results indicate that women may hesitate to report sexual harassment because they rightly perceive that doing so could cause them to experience bias. Yet they also suggest that bias can be avoided if a bystander reports the harassment. Finally, exploratory analyses suggest that in the wake of #MeToo this bias may be fading.

Bonnes, Stephanie. 2017. “The Bureaucratic Harassment of U.S. Servicewomen.” Gender & Society 31 (6): 804-829.
Focusing on the U.S. military as a gendered and raced institution and using 33 in-depth interviews with U.S. servicewomen, this study identifies tactics and consequences of workplace harassment that occur through administrative channels, a phenomenon I label bureaucratic harassment. I identify bureaucratic harassment as a force by which some servicemen harass, intimidate, and control individual, as well as groups of, servicewomen through bureaucratic channels. Examples include issuing minor infractions with the intention of delaying or stopping promotions, threatening to withhold military benefits for reporting sexual abuse/harassment, and revoking servicewomen’s qualifications in order to remove them from positions or units. The manipulation of administrative rules and regulations is made possible by the interplay between a gendered and raced organizational climate and bureaucratic features such as discretion, hierarchy, and the blending of work and personal life. I show that bureaucratic harassment has both raced and gendered implications. Ultimately, harassment that is enacted through bureaucratic means is often overlooked but carries distinct consequences for the professional careers and workplace experiences of the victims.

Hlavka, Heather R. 2014. “Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse.” Gender & Society 28 (3): 337-358.
Despite high rates of gendered violence among youth, very few young women report these incidents to authority figures. This study moves the discussion from the question of why young women do not report them toward how violence is produced, maintained, and normalized among youth. The girls in this study often did not name what law, researchers, and educators commonly identify as sexual harassment and abuse. How then, do girls name and make sense of victimization? Exploring violence via the lens of compulsory heterosexuality highlights the relational dynamics at play in this naming process. Forensic interviews with youth revealed patterns of heteronormative scripts appropriated to make sense of everyday harassment, violence, coercion, and consent. Findings inform discussions about the links between dominant discourses and sexual subjectivities as we try to better understand why many regard violence a normal part of life.

Tester, Griff. 2008. “An Intersectional Analysis of Sexual Harassment in Housing.” Gender & Society 22 (3): 349-366.
The researcher specifically focuses on class and race in women’s experiences of sexual harassment in housing in an effort to look more in-depth at the intersections of gender, class, and race. Tester collected data from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which is mandated to enforce civil rights laws pertaining to employment, housing, credit, and places of public accommodation, limiting his analysis to charges the sixty charges of discrimination in rental housing that involved sexual harassment cases that had resulted in an investigative finding of “probable cause” or where the complainant received benefits between 1990 and 2003. Relying on qualitative accounts from the case files, Tester noted that landlords have a unique place in their tenants lives, with access to their private lives, often stipulating unrealistic conditions for the space (like not having male visitors) in an effort to control, and even looking for tenants who may have bad credit or trouble keeping up with payments so as to set up quid pro quo relationship.

Welsh, Sandy, Jacquie Carr, Barbara MacQuarrie, and Audrey Huntley. 2006. “‘I’m Not Thinking of It as Sexual Harassment’: Understanding Harassment across Race and Citizenship.” Gender & Society 20 (1): 87-107.
The major concern in this study is the way in which women define and talk about sexual and/or workplace harassment. Not only gender, but also citizenship and race emerge as factors affecting women’s definitions of sexual harassment. Using data from focus groups collected as part of a participatory action research project in the province of Ontario, Canada, the researchers selected participants and constructed groups of Black women, Filipinas, white women in unionized male-dominated manufacturing settings, mixed-race women employed by the federal government, and a mixed-race sexual harassment support group to clarify and compare how race/ ethnicity, class, and citizenship status shaped how sexual harassment was considered and defined. By using a grounded theory approach, the researchers found that not only were definitions and criteria of sexual harassment different across groups (with variables of class, citizenship status, and race), but that the legal definition of sexual harassment in Canada did not necessarily serve diverse groups of women as well as white women with full citizenship rights.

Quinn, Beth A. 2002. “Sexual Harassment and Masculinity: The Power and Meaning of ‘Girl Watching.'” Gender & Society 16 (3): 386-402.
Investigating how workplace events are framed as sexual harassment the researcher interviewed forty three men and women drawn from an electronic design company, an evening community college class, as well as three individuals the rest referred, completing the interviews in 1994 and 1995. The type of sexual harassment known as “girl watching” emerged as a central theme in the interviews with men, especially when confronted with a gender reversal question. Quinn defines “girl watching” as the act of men sexually evaluating women, most often in the company of other men. The target woman, group of women, or even picture of a woman may or may not be a stranger, coworker, supervisor, or client. Men may partake in “girl watching” in any number of ways; calling attention to the presence of a woman (perhaps in a more subtle gestural/verbal manner), boasting of sexual prowess, or explicitly commenting on a woman’s body or imagined sexual acts. Quinn also talks about the disputed nature of such behavior as sexual harassment and is most interested, with her research here grounded in masculinity work, in instances where men engage in “girl watching” as a way to interact and build camaraderie with other men.

Texeira, Mary Thierry. 2002. “‘Who Protects and Serves Me?’: A Case Study of Sexual Harassment of African American Women in One U.S. Law Enforcement Agency.” Gender & Society 16 (4): 524-545.
Texeira, having served as a deputy sheriff for over a decade, noticed the lack of research on black women in police forces once she came to academia. Interviewing sixty-five women from one U.S. Sheriff’s department, the researcher sought to show the ways in which race, gender, and class interact to determine the experiences of African American women in policing, focusing on the specific experience of sexual harassment in this article. Relying at first on a sample of officers she knew personally, Texeira had to consider how to make the officers feel safe and free to talk, despite the tradition of silence in policing that prevents many officers from speaking negatively about their department or colleagues. While most interviewees initially stated conservative political views and did not identify with the word feminist, many reconsidered how race and gender bias had affected their lives during the interview. Although fifty-nine percent of the officers interviewed could recall no incidents of sexual harassment, time and the varying definition of sexual harassment may have skewed this finding, with officers perhaps seeing acts that fall under the legal definition simply as something they had to put up with as women in a traditionally male occupation.

Kalof, Linda, Kimberly K. Eby, Jennifer L. Matheson, and Rob J. Kroska. 2001. “The Influence of Race and Gender on Student Self-Reports of Sexual Harassment by College Professors.” Gender & Society 15 (2): 282-302.
In looking at sexual harassment in academia, Kalof, Eby, Matheson, and Kroska conducted a survey to explore variables such as race, class, and gender in the experiences of sexual harassment of students attending a diverse commuter university.  They tested three hypotheses; that there will be differences in the overall incidence of sexual harassment with women reporting more than men, that the percentage of students who report sexually harassing behaviors will be higher than the percentage of students who identify such behaviors as sexual harassment, and that there will be differences based on race, with minority students reporting more sexual harassment than white students. Incorporating the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ) developed by Fitzgerald, Shullman, et al. (1988) and their ideas of five different levels of sexual harassment, the researchers worked with three types of harassment, gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion, and modified the instrument to use inclusive language so that male students could identify with the questions.

Hand, Jeanne Z., and Laura Sanchez. 2000. “’Badgering or Bantering?’: Gender Differences in Experience of, and Reactions to, Sexual Harassment among U.S. High School Students.” Gender & Society 14 (6): 718-746.
Using a feminist theoretical framework the researchers investigate past findings in the literature of greater impact of sexual harassment on girls than boys to show that the qualitatively different experiences for boys and girls have contributed to this difference. This study uses national-level data from the AAUW (1993) Educational Foundation on adolescent sexual harassment to examine girls’ and boys’ experience of sexual harassment in four domains; perceptions of harmfulness, commission of acts, personal experience as a target, and emotional, behavioral, and educational consequences. The only consistently significant interaction across the three outcomes was for gender by physical harassment experience- indicating that physical harassment not only mediates the effect of being female, but also that girls react more negatively than boys to physical harassment. Their findings support the feminist theoretical suggestion that gender differences in reactions to sexual harassment may originate in girls’ and boys’ socialization experiences as younger children and thus differing styles of interaction.