Document 19: Margaret Mead, "A Proposal: We Need Taboos on Sex at Work," Redbook, 150 (April 1978): 31, 33, 38.


   This document is an interesting analysis of sexual harassment by leading anthropologist Margaret Mead from the spring 1978 issue of Redbook Magazine. In it, Mead argued that the law is not enough to change behavior, but that we must create a taboo against sex at work, similar to incest taboos, in order to root out sexual harassment in the workplace.

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What should we -- what can we -- do about sexual harassment on the job?

   During the century since the first "type writer" -- that is, the first young woman clerk who had mastered the operation of the mechanical writing machine -- entered a business office and initiated a whole new female-male work relationship, women have had to struggle with the problem of sexual harassment at work. And we still are at a loss as to how to cope with it successfully.

   Certainly no one of us -- young or old, single or married, attractive or homely, naive or socially skilled -- has escaped entirely unscathed. True, actual sexual assaults -- rape and seduction -- have been less common in almost any work situation than fathers and brothers once feared and predicted. But who among us hasn't met the male kiss-and-tell office flirt, the pinching prankster, the man in search of party girls or the man who makes sex a condition for job promotion? Who has not known the man who thinks no task is too tedious, unpleasant or demeaning for his "girl" to do in or out of office hours, the gossipmonger and -- perhaps most dangerous -- the apparently friendly man who subtly undercuts every direction given by a woman, depreciates every plan she offers and devalues her every accomplishment? Some women get discouraged and give up; most women learn to be wary. But as long as so many men use sex in so many ways as a weapon to keep down the women with whom they work, how can we develop mature, give-and-take working relationships?

   As I see it, it isn't more laws that we need now, but new taboos.

   Not every woman -- and certainly not every man -- realizes and acknowledges that the mid-1960s marked a watershed in the legal treatment of women in the working world. Beginning with the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (especially Title VII), legislation has been passed, executive orders have been issued, official guidelines have been established and decisions in a great many court cases have set forth a woman's right to be a firstclass working citizen. Slowly but surely, using the new laws, women are making progress in their fight to gain what the law now so clearly defines as the right of every working person. And today almost half of all adult women are working persons.

   But there are serious discrepancies. At home and at school we still bring up boys to respond to the presence of women in outmoded ways -- to become men who cannot be trusted alone with a woman, who are angry and frustrated by having to treat a woman as an equal -- either as a female with power who must be cajoled or as a female without power who can be coerced. But at the same time we are teaching our daughters to expect a very different working world, one in which both women and men are full participants.

   In keeping with this we are insistent that the rights women have gained must be spelled out and that women use every legal device to ensure that new rules are formulated and translated into practice: Why, then, do I think that the new laws will not be sufficient to protect women -- and men too, for that matter -- from the problems of sexual harassment on the job? Why do I think we need new taboos?

   I realize that this must sound strange to a generation of young women who have felt the need to break and abandon taboos of many kinds -- from taboos against the inappropriate use of four-letter words to taboos against petty pilfering; from taboos against the use of addictive drugs to taboos against the public display of the naked human body; from the taboo against the frank enjoyment of sex to the taboos against full sexual honesty.

   In some circles it has even become fashionable to call incest taboos -- the taboo against sex with close family members other than husband and wife -- out of date and unimportant. Yet incest taboos remain a vital part of any society. They insure that most children can grow up safe in the household, learn to trust, to be loved and to be sexually safe, unexploited and unmolested within the family.

   When we examine how any society works, it becomes clear that it is precisely the basic taboos -- the deeply and intensely felt prohibitions against "unthinkable" behavior -- that keep the social system in balance. Laws are an expression of principles concerning things we can and do think about, and they can be changed as our perception of the world changes. But a taboo, even against taking a human life, may or may not be formulated in legal terms in some societies; the taboo lies much deeper in our consciousness, and by prohibiting certain forms of behavior also affirms what we hold most precious in our human relationships. Taboos break down in periods of profound change and are re-created in new forms during periods of transition.

   We are in such a period now. And like the family, the modern business and the modern profession must develop incest taboos. If women are to work on an equal basis with men, with men supervising women in some cases and women supervising men in others, we have to develop decent sex mores in the whole working world.

   In the past, when women entered the working world as factory workers or clerks in shops, as typists or chorus girls, they entered at the bottom; their poverty and their need for the job were part of their helplessness. Like women in domestic service, they were very vulnerable to sexual advances and seduction by men in positions of power over them. But sex also presented a precarious ladder by which a girl just might climb to become the pampered mistress or even the wife of the boss, the producer, the important politician.

   For a long time after women began to work away from home, people made a sharp distinction between women who virtuously lived at home and limited "work" to voluntary efforts and other women who, lacking the support and protection of a father, brother, husband or son, were constrained to work for money. Wage-earning women were sexually vulnerable, and it was generally believed that the woman who was raped probably deserved it and that the woman who was seduced probably had tempted the man. By leaving home a woman did not merely move beyond the range of the laws that protected her there, but beyond the areas of living made safe by the force of taboos.

   In the primitive societies in which I worked and lived as a young woman and as an older one, women who obeyed the accepted rules of behavior were not molested. But a woman who broke the rules -- went out in the bush at night, worked alone in a distant garden or followed a lonely path without even a child companion -- was asking for trouble. In general, women and men knew what was expected of them -- until their lives were shaken up by change through the coming of strangers and the introduction of new kinds of work and new expectations. Then, along with other sorts of confusion, there was confusion about the

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sex relations of men and women. Cases of sex molestation, attack and rape reflected the breakdown of traditional security.

   Everywhere and at all times, societies have developed ways of stylizing relations between women and men. Though the rules might be cruel and exploitative, they defined with clarity the posture and gait, the costume and the conversation, that signaled a woman's compliance with the rules as well as the circumstances in which a woman defined herself as a whore. In our own society, when omen first became nurses their costume, reminiscent of the dress of nuns, at once announced the virtue of their calling. When a young American woman went away from home to teach children in one of the thousands of one-room schoolhouses that abounded in the countryside, the local community took charge of her virtue. Sometimes the rules were broken -- on purpose. But the rules that protected men as well as women were known and agreed upon.

   Today, with our huge and restless mobility from country to city, from one city to another, from class to class and from one country to another, most of the subtle ways in which women and men related to each other in a more limited setting have broken down. And now a new element has entered into their working relations with the demands that women must be employed in unfamiliar occupations and at higher executive and professional levels. Almost without warning, and certainly without considering the necessity for working out new forms of acceptable behavior, men and women are confronting each other as colleagues with equal rights.

   And suddenly there is an outburst of complaints from women who find themselves mistreated in ways to which they are quite unaccustomed, as well as complaints from women who have suddenly discovered that sexual harassment on the job no longer is part of the expected life of a working woman. By banding together, organizing themselves and counseling one another, women are beginning to feel their strength and are making themselves heard, loud and clear, on the job, in the media and in the courts. Harassment on the job and wife beating at home have become part of our public consciousness.

Now, how to deal with the problems, the social discord and dissonance, in the relations between women and men? The complaints, the legal remedies and the support institutions developed by women all are part of the response to the new conception of women's rights. But I believe we need something much more pervasive, a climate of opinion that includes men as well as women, and that will affect not only adult relations and behavior on the job but also the expectations about the adult world that guide our children's progress into that world.

   What we need, in fact, are new taboos that are appropriate to the new society we are struggling to create -- taboos that will operate within the work setting as once they operated within the household. Neither men nor women should expect that sex can be used either to victimize women who need to keep their jobs or to keep women from advancement or to help men advance their own careers. A taboo enjoins. We need one that saves clearly and unequivocally, "You don't make passes at or sleep with the people you work with."

   This means that girls and boys will have to grow up together expecting and respecting a continuous relationship, in season and out, alone together or in a mixed group, that can withstand tension and relaxation, stimulation and frustration, frankness and reserve, without breaking down. It will have something of the relationship of brothers and sisters who have grown up together safely within a household, but it also will be different. For where brother and sister have a lifelong relationship, women and men who work together may share many years or only a few weeks or days or even hours.

   In the way in which societies do develop new ways of meeting new problems, I believe we are beginning to develop new ways of working together that carry with them appropriate taboos -- new ways that allow women and men to work together effortlessly and to respect each other as persons.

   The beginning was made not at work but in our insistence on coeducation in the earliest grades of school, and gradually at all levels. This has made it possible for women to have much greater freedom wherever they go -- so much so that we take this almost wholly for granted. We know it is not always wholehearted, but it is a beginning we know well.

   And now, in line with new attitudes toward sex and equality, many students have demanded, and obtained, coeducational dormitories. Their elders mistook this as a demand for freer sexual access; but student advocates said firmly that,

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as young men and women, they wanted to meet under more natural circumstances and get to know one another as friends.

   Today, wherever there is coeducation with a fairly even ratio between the sexes and several years' experience of living in coeducational dormitories, a quiet taboo is developing without the support of formal rules and regulations, fines or public exposure, praise or censure -- a taboo against serious dating within the dormitory. Young women and young men who later will have to work side by side, in superordinate and subordinate relations as well as equals and members of a team, are finding their way toward a kind of harmony in which exploitative sex is set aside in favor of mutual concern, shared interests and, it seems to me, a new sense of friendship.

   This is just a beginning, and one that is far from perfect. But one of the very good things is that women are discovering they can be frank and outspoken without being shrill, just as men are discovering there are pleasures in friendships without domination.

   It is just a beginning, but students can set a style that will carry over into working relations in which skill, ability and experience are the criteria by which persons are judged, and appreciation of a woman or a man as a whole person will deeply modify the exploitation and the anguish of sexual inequality. Laws and formal regulations and the protection given by the courts are necessary to establish and maintain institutional arrangements. But the commitment and acceptance that are implied by taboos are critical in the formation and protection of the most meaningful human relations.


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