by Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman

What Is Sexual Harassment? A Different Perspective


Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.

Think about this story for a moment:

In November [2009], … the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain agreed to pay $345,000 to six male employees who claimed they were repeatedly sexually assaulted by a group of male kitchen staffers at a Phoenix-area restaurant.

Okay, now let me share another story with you:

…but one thing I noticed about him was that he feels up every woman he meets.

The first story came from an MSNBC article about the rising number of men filing formal claims of sexual harassment in the workplace.  The second story is a critique of a character on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”, who is a gay man: can gay men sexually harass straight women?  I bet that there is a good chance that after reading the first story, you thought to yourself, “oh, the male perpetrators must be gay!”  And, after reading the second, you might have caught yourself questioning how a gay man could sexually harass a woman – why would he want to?

The point of this exercise is to highlight that many of us assume, even subconsciously, that sexual harassment entails some unwanted and harassing behaviors motivated by sexual desire.  So, some might find it confusing that a heterosexual person would harass someone of their same gender, or that a gay man might harass a woman.  But, what underlies sexual harassment is an expression of power – not desire.

The Traditional Definition Of Sexual Harassment

Beginning with the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, the dominant, legal definition of sexual harassment that has evolved overtime is one of harassing behaviors or differential treatment that are sexual in nature.  This includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and creating a hostile environment.  While it is understood that men can also be the victims of sexual harassment, men as harassers and women as targets of harassment is central to our common understanding of sexual harassment.  In fact, sexual harassment is commonly defined as a form of gender-based discrimination (against women).

Sexual Harassment As A Gendered Expression Of Power

There is a great deal of work, particularly in the social sciences, women and gender studies, and sexuality studies that demonstrates that sexual harassment is an expression of power, especially along the lines of gender.  For example, three sociologists recently published a study in which they found that women who hold supervisor-level positions are more likely than women who do not to experience sexual harassment.  These experiences for women supervisors largely serve to put them “in their place,” signaling that they are unwelcome in a position of power as women.  Unfortunately, factors beyond interactions among individuals appear to place women at greater risk for harassment: working in male-dominated fields, and being physical and socially isolated from other women.

Sexual Harassment Is Not (Only) About Gender

Indeed, women are not alone in being targets of sexual harassment.  Though less common, some men are victims of these experiences, as well.  In another sociological study on sexual harassment, a number of men reported experiencing sexually harassing behaviors; however, men are much more apprehensive to define these experiences as sexual harassment, probably because the common understanding limits these experiences to women.  This study also pointed out two interesting dynamics: adolescent males and men who are financially vulnerable (i.e., feel they do not have control over their financial situation) are more frequently targets of sexual harassment.

Indeed, sexual harassment is not merely a gendered phenomenon.  For example, there has been a great deal of attention in research to racial differences in women’s experiences of sexual harassment.  This work has explored whether women of color are more often targeted than white women, there are racial differences in defining one’s experiences as harassment, and whether women of color experience sexual harassment differently than white women.  Some Black feminist scholars like Drs. and have noted that sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence are manifestations of sexism, as well as racism and classism.

But, I wish to push this perspective one step further — sexual harassment is the sexual-based expression of any system of oppression, be it sexism, racism, homophobia or heterosexism, transphobia, classism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, or xenophobia.  A few examples come to mind:

  • A white heterosexual man jokes with his Black heterosexual male coworker that he must have large penis (because he’s Black).
  • A heterosexual woman doctor asks a lesbian patient about the particular sexual activities in which she engages with her female sexual partners to make sense of why the patient does not regularly use (male) condoms or other forms of birth control.
  • A girl from a working-class background is teased frequently by boys at her school that she provides oral sex in the school bathroom to make money.
  • A cisgender man repeatedly asks his neighbor, a trans man, about parts of his body and his sex life.

A Different Perspective

So, two related points come from this perspective on sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is not limited to the unwanted and harassing behaviors that are sexual in nature by (heterosexual) men targeted toward (heterosexual).  To focus just on gender and, specifically on men as harassers and women as victims, forces us to overlook the other various ways in which sexual harassment occurs.  As a consequence, many people whose experiences fall outside of this traditional view may fail to define their experiences as sexual harassment, leading them to forgo seeking legal recourse or protection, or any actions to end the harassment in general.

The other related point is that this male-harasser-female-victim perspective is somewhat heterosexist; that is, it presumes that all parties involved are heterosexual.  By extension, this means that heterosexual desire must be present — one that entails a sexually aggressive heterosexual man and a sexually-disinterested heterosexual woman.  I must state this clearly, here: sexual harassment is not an expression of desire.  As such, one individual may repeatedly sexually harass another individual whom they do not find sexually desirable.  (In the case of sexual harassment between men, for example, it is probably the case that that heterosexual men sexual harass gay men much more frequently than the reverse.)

Now that US laws have shifted to reflect the reality that some men are survivors of sexual violence, it may be time to broaden how we define sexual harassment.  Indeed, we are beginning to acknowledge that men, too, are targets of sexual harassment.  But, it may be necessary that we recognize that sexual harassment may be an expression of racism, heterosexism, sexism, transphobia, classism, or any other form of oppression – as well as the intersections among them.

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