Document 14: Dierdre Silverman, "Sexual Harassment: Working Women's Dilemma," Quest, 3, no. 3 (Winter 1976-77): 15-24.


   Dierdre Silverman, a social scientist at Ithaca College and one of the founders of Working Women United, helped Susan Meyer to develop a survey asking women about their experiences with sexual harassment. The survey was distributed at the original May 1975 speak-out. In this article. Silverman reported on the results of the survey and argued that sexual harassment forced women into the role of prostitute, which she described as "the paradigm for interactions between men and women in our society." Silverman explained. "By extending to the workplace the general pattern of male sexual initiative, and by reinforcing this with the man's superior power to enact job penalties, women's attempt at independence is thwarted."

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Sexual Harassment Working Women's Dilemma


   In May of 1975 Working Women United, an organization in Ithaca, New York, held a Speak-Out on Sexual Harassment. We defined sexual harassment as the treatment of women workers as sexual objects. This problem permeates all aspects of women's work.

   Sexual harassment begins with hiring procedures, in which women applicants are judged not only for their work skills but also for their physical attractiveness (and, in some instances, sexual receptivity). It continues when job retention, raises or promotions depend on tolerating, or submitting to, unwanted sexual advances from co-workers, customers or supervisors. The form of these advances varies from clearly suggestive looks and/or remarks, to mild physical encounters (pinching, kissing, etc.) to outright sexual assault. In all instances, the message is clear: A women's existence as a sexual being is more important than her work.

   The speak-out attracted a great deal of support in the Ithaca area with the realization that this was a collective, and not an individual, problem. Sexual harassment has received considerable coverage in the establishment media as a result of the speak-out. An article in the New York Times was picked up by papers around the country, and Redbook made sexual harassment the subject of its January, 1976 reader survey.

   In examining coverage of the issue in the liberal media, two trends emerge clearly. The first is that media focus is on upper-middle-class, mostly professional and business-women, although it is clear that sexual harassment effects women workers at all occupational levels.1 Second is the lack of analysis; an unwillingness or inability to understand the meaning of sexual harassment in our (capitalist, patriarchal) society, and to see why it has only recently emerged as a feminist issue. Such analysis is the task of feminist theory, and a beginning is attempted below.

The Prostitute as Paradigm

   It is my contention that the paradigm for interactions between men and women in our society is that of the prostitute and her customer. In this exchange, the man provides money (in various forms: cash, commodities, lifetime economic support, employment) and the woman

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provides sexual services (literal or symbolic).2

   In the same way that conventional prostitution is an economic answer for the hooker, other prostitution exchanges provide economic solutions for most women. Women's economic position demonstrates the need for such solutions. Overall women's income is 57% of that of men.3 This percentage has declined steadily since 1955.4 In addition the unemployment rate for women is consistently higher than that for men,5 even though many women retreat to housewife status and are less likely to be counted among the unemployed.

   The picture is even worse for women who try to make it on their own. In 1969, 47% of families living in poverty were headed by women. Only 38% of female-headed families had incomes over $5,000.6 The economic security women do establish depends on men. For it is men, as husbands, employers, supervisors and customers, who provide women with the opportunity to work and advance as paid workers, or to live and work in economic security as housewives.

This trade of money for sex is fairly clear in some forms of interaction. Our patterns of dating, courtship and marriage are examples of this. On dates, men pay, and women are expected to repay with sexual favors.7 In marriage, men are legally required to provide economic support, while women are required to provide sexual services. Currently, only in Michigan is rape within marriage recognized as a crime.8 The wife is legally seen as the husband's sexual property. He does not break the law by demanding or taking what is his. (The wife

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who refuses her husband's sexual approaches may be seen, in legal terms, as violating her marriage contract.)

Even those women who are the most traditional in values and behavior recognize this relationship. For women who follow the Total Woman and Fascinating Woman-hood guidelines, the payoff is not only in greater marital (and thereby economic) security, but in presents. Students come to Total Woman classes with glowing reports of the refrigerators, mink coats or other rewards their husbands have given them in return for their sexually submissive games.9

   Teaching girls how to hustle is one of the functions of the nuclear family. James Bryan, in a 1965 study, "Apprenticeships in Prostitution," describes the work of the pimp and the older prostitute in teaching the novice girl how to perform.10 This apprenticeship system differs only in label from the more conventional socialization within. the family, in which the daughter learns, by watching her parents'interactions, how to hustle men. In Working, Studs Terkel's hooker respondent describes the ease with which she turned her first trick: "I wonder why I was so willing…It wasn't traumatic because my training had been in how to be a hustler anyway. I learned it from the society around me, just as a woman. We're taught how to hustle, to attract, to hold a man and give sexual favors in return.…It's a market place transaction."11

   In our society, women have little choice about hustling, whether they do it as professionals or as amateurs, for one lifetime trick or for a series of customers.

Women at Work

   Women can try to opt out of the hustling role by working outside the home. In spite of low wages and poor promotion possibilities, outside employment offers women a chance at independence. However, sexual stratification in our society assures that most working women will be trading one form of independence on men for another. Sexual harassment at work is one manifestation of this dependence.

   In a recent survey conducted by Working Women United, 70% of the respondents had experienced at least one instance of sexual harassment on the job. Ninety-one percent of the respondents saw such harassment as a "serious problem for working women." Those who had personally experienced sexual harassment were asked how many times it had happened. The median figure was three instances, with over half the respondents reporting "a lot," "often," or "more than ten times." The respondents' median age was 26, and they had been working on the average, only seven years.

   Respondents were asked to describe the most recent instance of sexual harassment they had experienced. The statistics presented refer to the description each woman gave of that one instance. In more than half of the incidents described the man or men doing the harassing were in work positions superior to

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the respondent. Another 18% were customers or clients. Thus, about two thirds of the men were in a position to exert some economic pressure on the respondent. In addition 41% of the respondents described harassment involving more than one man.

   Sexual harassment happens to women of all ages and all occupational groups. One respondent mentioned an incident that occurred when she was 10 and working as a child model; another's experience occurred at age 55. In this survey, clerical employees and waitresses were most frequently harassed; our respondents'occupations covered a wide range. Working-class women, especially those in service occupations, were more likely to receive physical as well as verbal advances, while for middle-class and/or professional women, harassment was more often verbal. Middle-class women were some-what more likely to ignore the situation, or attempt to change jobs, in order to avoid confrontation. In spite of these class differences, both in the ways women are approached and in the ways they respond, sexual harassment is a problem that cuts across class lines and affects all women in their capacity as workers.

   In popular literature, sexual harassment is treated as a joke of little consequence. The actress who "succeeds" by means of the casting couch, the "Fly Me" airline stewardess and other stereotypes permeate American/male humor. Are women laughing along?

   Respondents were asked to describe how they felt after being harassed. Table 1 shows their responses.

   Many respondents indicated multiple reactions, so the percentage totals is more than 100%. When asked, "Did this experience have any emotional or physical effect on you?", 78% answered yes. Consider the following comments:

   "As I remember all the sexual abuse and negative work experiences I am left feeling sick and helpless and upset instead of angry."

   "Reinforced feelings of no control -- sense of doom."

   "I have difficulty dropping the emotion barrier I work behind when I come home from work. My husband turns into just another man."

   "Kept me in a constant state of

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emotional agitation and frustration …I drank a lot."

Table 1. Percent of Respondents Mentioning Each Reaction
Angry 78%
Upset 48%
Frightened 23%
Guilty 22%
Flattered 10%
Indifferent 7%
Other (alienated, alone, helpless) 27%

   "Soured the essential delight in the work."

   "Stomach ache, migraines, cried every night, no appetite."

   Many women commented on how the harassment, or their reactions to it, interfered with their job performance. The economic consequences of impaired performance are difficult to measure.

   What actions do women take in response to sexual harassment? Respondents' descriptions of their most recent experience are summarized in Table 2.

   Ignoring the harassment is an ineffective response. For 76% of the respondents who tried this tactic the behavior continued, and sometimes got worse. In fact, almost one-third of these women were penalized on the job for not responding positively to the harassment. When asked why they didn't "complain through channels," women's responses indicated their weaknesses in the work situation. Forty-two percent felt that nothing would be done; 33% feared some negative consequences for themselves, varying from blame and ridicule to concrete penalties at work. For about 20% of the respondents, either there were no channels, or the harassing man was a part of them.

   When respondents did officially complain, no action was taken in one third of the cases. One third of the respondents who complained were themselves penalized at work. In a small number of cases, action was taken against the man. The most severe of these was transfer to another work place or ejection of a customer.

   Sexual harassment is a common problem for, women workers. It has serious emotional repercussions and interferes with women's work performance. More importantly, as individuals, women have no effective way to deal with the problem. Whatever their response, women pay.

   In our attempt to understand why sexual harassment is so widespread and why women are so unable, emotionally and practically, to handle it, the model of prostitution provides some answers.

   Women who earn money may be seen as less dependent on men then women who are not paid for their work. By extending to the workplace

Table 2. Percent of Respondents Taking Each Action
Complain to the man harassing you 25%
Ignore it 23%
Pretend not to notice 13%
Complain through channels 12%
Quit the job 9%
Ask for transfer 2%
Other (most verbal responses, to the man or co-workers) 16%

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the general pattern of male sexual initiative, and by reinforcing this with the man's superior power to enact job penalties, women's attempt at independence is thwarted. The implicit prostitution-exchange in work situations is that men provide the jobs through hiring and promotion, set salary levels and work conditions, and can terminate employment by firing. Women are employed when, and because, men choose to employ them. In return for these economic favors, women provide sexual services, as well as work skills. These sexual services range from providing an attractive female presence, to actual sexual encounters. We all know that this arrangement exists, although we may not choose to acknowledge it as a conscious or consistent pattern. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan counsel a strategy of passive manipulation, and advise women to use this technique for their own advantage.

   When women are unwilling to play the game, the presumed understanding is violated and the situation becomes emotionally loaded. A woman who refuses sexual advances at work is breaking her end of the bargain by attempting to establish her independent existence as a worker. It is this act which provokes anger and reprisals from men. And the meaning of this act has created guilt, ambivalence and uncertainty in the refusing women; they know they are breaking an agreement that they have been raised to honor.

   When asked why they did not lodge formal complaints, respondents replied:

   "I thought it was my problem."

   "The importance I have been

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trained to place on what other people think of me -- trying to please other people rather than finding my own rewards, fulfillment, etc."

   "HoJo's pride themselves on their friendly, pretty girls -- in a sense, they promote my sexual harassment."

   "I did not want to get him (the harasser) in trouble."

   "No one would believe me."

   "I felt I couldn't make a scene by telling anyone in authority over him. I felt powerless and, oddly, honor-bound not to publicly embarrass him."

   "I would be seen as cruel and unprofessional."

   These women express an inability to deal with the possible repercussions of their complaint. This inability is the result, not just of female socialization, but also of an accurate assessment of the power distribution at work. It is a result, not of individual weakness, but of women's disadvantaged position.

   When women enter fields that are traditionally male, or occupy positions of authority over male workers, sexual harassment becomes a tool to thwart their efforts at economic independence. Frequent reminders that, no matter what work a woman is doing, she is still a woman and therefore a sex object, are designed to dampen her identification with her work, and limit her success at it. Respondents reported harassment when they were employed as carpenters, filmmakers, auto mechanics, college teachers, social workers, probation officers, or accountants as well as in other male-dominated fields. Often accompanying these incidents is a shared jocularity among men witnessing them, perhaps in affirmation of their triumph over the" uppity woman."

Sexual Harassment and Feminism

   Because sexual harassment is so widespread, and because its consequences for women are substantial, it is necessary for feminists to develop theoretical analysis and practical strategies for dealing with this issue. We must try to understand women's reactions to sexual harassment, as well as how the issue can be used to help develop feminist consciousness.

   When the sexual harassment issue surfaced in Ithaca last year, women's reactions were dramatically divided. Many expressed strong support along with relief that what had been seen as a personal problem was in fact a public issue. There was also, even from feminists, a certain amount of resistance. This was expressed in comments like:

   "Any woman who has it together can handle something like that."

   "That sort of thing only happens to women who are asking for it." (Often accompanied by, "It's never happened to me, because I know how to present myself.")

   "Just because one weird guy does something that doesn't mean it's a real problem."

   (These comments are all direct quotes from women I spoke with. Any resemblance to discussions of rape five years ago is not at all a coincidence.)

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   Why were some women denying the relevance of sexual harassment to women's oppression? It was clear that women with class and/or educational privilege were most likely to feel this way. These women, who are the most successful and highly skilled, may be the most threatened by the idea that even they will still be judged as sexual objects. The fact that sexual harassment of these women is more often purely verbal and more subtle than that directed at working-class women may lead to their willingness to deny its relevency.

   It is also important to recognize that middle-class women have far greater job mobility than working-class women. If a problem such as sexual harassment arises, the privileged woman may just find another job, perhaps denying that there ever was such a problem. (I did that myself, at least once.) These women are also more likely to be able to leave the job market entirely. Therefore, for many reasons, sexual harassment is not as harsh an issue for them.

   The more male-identified a woman is, the less likely she is to respond to sexual harassment as a serious problem. The fact that experiences with sexual harassment are so common for women suggests that the act of harassing is quite normal for men. When women begin to think of their fathers, husbands, lovers, etc. as the people doing the harassing, resistance stiffens. Defenses that place the blame on women are developed.

   To combat this resistance, it is necessary to break through people's tendency to view themselves and those around them personally, outside of structural, political context. This type of consciousness-raising, which has been so basic to feminism, can mobilize a great amount of energy around the sexual harassment issue. It should focus on the use of sexual standards and sexual demands on women workers by male superiors as an instrument to divide women and to maintain male superiority. When standards of physical attractiveness are used as hiring and promotion criteria, women are set against one another in competitive and self-destructive ways. None of us is ever young enough, or beautiful enough, to work without insecurity about being replaced by someone more attractive. The energy women devote to maintaining or enhancing their physical appearance may very well cause their actual work performance to suffer.

   At the Working Women United speak-out, women spoke about the "other side" of sexual harassment: being rejected as a worker because one is "unattractive." They felt resentment of the men in power who made those judgments, but they also felt resentment of the women who were hired because of the way they look. This jealousy and competition keeps women fighting among themselves, and not questioning the standards men are using or their right to use them.

   Feminists should also regard sexual harassment as a workplace organizing issue. We should push for its recognition as a serious grievance, an intolerable working condition.

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We should make it clear that sexual exploitation of workers is not a joke.

   Recognition and discussion of the issue in workplaces is important, so that women do not feel guilt or fear when they complain about sexual harassment. And it is important to provide organized support for individual cases, to follow up complaints and to insure the development of workplace policies that make sexual harassment unacceptable.

   Beyond the workplace, public education campaigns are necessary. If public harassment is continually presented as a joke, or an acceptable part of women's lives, or something for which women are to blame, individual women will remain silent. Those who do object to sexual harassment will not receive necessary social support. Feminists should use available media to publicize and explain the issue, to let women know that they are not alone and that they are not at fault.

   It is important that such publicity does not focus on blaming or attacking individuals. The frequency of sexual harassment suggests that virtually all men are actual or potential harassers. What is necessary, instead, is an approach that analyzes the power situation at work, exposes and destroys the stereotypes about women workers, and suggests collective efforts at changing the work situation.

   Sexual harassment is an extremely powerful issue; it clarifies men's definition of women, as well as the power relationship between the sexes. Because it deals with women's economic existence, it is an issue that can tie together our experience as workers and as women.

   Sexual harassment has been present as a problem, but invisible as an issue. This is because men and women have accepted the idea that men are entitled to take the sexual initiative, especially when they are "paying." Women have not mobilized around the sexual harassment issue because it has been seen as an individual difficulty, and its consequences, even to individuals, have not been acknowledged. By making the consequences clear, and by linking this issue to the basic power relationships between the sexes, feminist analysis and action around the issue can develop.

   The issue of sexual harassment was developed by the Working Women United Institute and by Lin Farley, Susan Meyer, Karen Sauvigne and Carmita Wood. These women and others helped found the institute, put on the first Speak-Out on Sexual Harassment, gathered the data discussed in this article, and first brought the issue to public attention. Lorraine Hodgson did the computer analysis of the data, and was a great help in interpreting the results.

   The Working Women United Institute will be doing further research in the area of sexual harassment as well as education and litigation necessary to bring the problem to public consciousness. The WWUI hopes to serve as a national resource/action center to provide support for women interested in organizing in the workplace. The institute will be fully operational by the fall of 1977. Project ideas are welcome and money is needed. For more information, contact:

Working Women United Institute P.O. Box 732 Ithaca, New York 14850

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1 Data used in this paper come-from two surveys conducted by the Working Women United Institute. The questionnaire was completed by 50 food-service workers at SUNY Binghamton, and by 100 women who attended the Speak-Out on Sexual Harassment.

2 This is hardly a new idea. See writings by Emma Goldman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as many more recent feminist theorists. In a capitalist society, where relations between people occur in the context of commodity exchanges, the prostitution exchange is only a specific example. It is based on the assumption that women in our society most often have sexuality (including reproduction) as their most "marketable" commodity.

3 Blau, Francine, "Women in the Labor Force: An Overview," in Freeman, Jo, Women: A Feminist Perspective (Palo Alto: Mayfield, 1975), p. 222.

4 Hill, Monica, The Woman Worker, (Radical Women) p. 4.

5 Shortridge, Kathleen, "Working Poor Women," in Freeman, op. cit., p. 248.

6 Stein, Robert, "The Economic Status of Families Headed by Women," Monthly Labor Review, 93 (December, 1970). p.7.

7 Obviously, these customs are related to our conceptions of male and female sexuality. It is naive to think, however, that changing ideas about women's sexual needs and capacities will be sufficient to alter these behavior patterns, without an accompanying change concerning women's economic dependence on men.

8 Changes in rape laws are being considered in Florida, California, and the District of Columbia. Rape in marriage is also a crime in South Australia.

9 Maynard, Joyce, "The Liberation of Total Women," New York Times Magazine, September 28, 1975, pp. 45-46.

10 Bryan, James, "Apprenticeships in Prostitution," Social Problems, (Winter 1965).

11 "Robert Victor" in Terkel, Studs, Working, (New York: Pantheon Books 1972), p. 58.

   Dierdre Silverman teaches sociology and feminist studies at Ithaca College. She was a founding member of Working Women United.


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