Document 11: Alliance Against Sexual Coercion, "Sexual Harassment and Coercion: Violence Against Women," Aegis (July/August 1978): 28-29.

Introduction

   This document is an example of the early feminist argument that sexual harassment was a form of violence against women. Reflecting their roots in the rape crisis movement. AASC members often drew upon the feminist analysis of rape in developing their critique of sexual harassment, regularly making parallels between the two forms of abuse.

Sexual Harassment and Coercion:
Violence Against Women

   In this society violence against women occurs systematically with a frequency that is both revealing and alarming. Statistics indicate that on the average, one out of three women will be raped during her lifetime, and that every 18 seconds a woman is beaten by her husband. In addition, nearly 9 out of 10 working women, responding to a survey, report some form of undesired sexual attentions on the job. (Redbook Magazine, November 1976) These facts have forced us to examine our society in an effort to develop an analysis of sexism in its most reactive and punitive form. Rape, wife abuse, sexual harassment at the workplace, unwanted sterilization, abusive advertising and pornography, institutionalization of women are all forms of violence against women. All reflect and reinforce the oppression of women in our society.

   Women do not need to be actual victims of violence to feel its effects. Even an awareness of the rates of physical violence force women to perceive the potential for it in their own lives. A consciousness in women is created — we must be aware, afraid and on guard most of the time. For women, this can be experienced as psychological violence.

   The process of female socialization, with the routine absence of self-defense skills and the inward channeling of anger, fall within the definition of violence against women. For example, the incredible frustration a woman feels when she has not developed skills to defend herself makes her more vulnerable to the possibility of violence in her life. The social role itself acts to increase the likelihood of violence in women's lives as it fosters a sense of passivity and powerlessness. The role defines women as

p. 29

passive; it acts to enforce female powerlessness toward the assertion of male power. It is only through the complexity and interdependency of these social values, which become individual psychic realities, that a gender hierarchy — and consequently violence against women as a method of enforcing it — become possible.

   To assert independence, a woman must directly confront this fear. In other words, violence against women is a highly effective tool for social control. It is the threat of violence itself which helps to enforce the social role.*

   Sexual harassment at the workplace must be understood within the context of capitalism. In this society, at least two patterns exist which create the climate for all violence against women. One is our country's history of relying on violence as a method for problem-solving. Another is that men possess a social/gender position of power over women. A man's sense of masculinity/power is defined by economic success and sexual prowess. In a society based on class relations, where people do not have control over their lives, it is not possible for most men to attain any measure of economic success. They are socialized to see themselves as powerful and possess this social power by nature of their gender alone. These two dynamics — 1) that a man has power by virtue of his gender, and 2) that he is powerless because he is a wage laborer — converge to create a conflict which forms the basis of male consciousness.

   The majority of men have little opportunity in this society for economic success. If they have only a sense of powerlessness from their economic situation and from their inability to control their lives in this society, then they must find an expedient way to regain their sense of power. Men come from a social position of gender as men; which dictates that men have rights over women. The most expedient way for a man to regain what he feels is his power (social power via his role) is his assertion of superiority over women. A man humiliated by his employer for example, has society's permission to beat his wife or have an affair. He can offset the threat to one aspect of his maleness with a 'manly' performance in another.

   There appear to be a set of specific conditions which currently cause threatened feelings in men. These include: the high rate of unemployment; women's entrance into previously all male occupations; increasing numbers of women dependent solely on their own earning power; and the need in families for two paychecks just to make ends meet. All are trends which give us reason to believe that sexual harassment at the workplace, and all forms of violence against women, may be increasing.

   More than a reversal of these trends, however, will be needed to eliminate the problem. Violence as a way to solve problems and definitions of manhood are too ingrained in our culture. They are byproducts of patriarchy and are routinely advocated and reinforced by sexism. The unequal relations of workers and employers, and the unequal relations of men and women are two power structures which reinforce one another in cases of workplace harassment.

   Sexual harassment is pervasive yet is widely unrecognized as a social problem. In raising the issue and selecting strategies for its elimination, we are guided by the successes and failures of efforts against other forms of violence against women. We can analyze anti-rape group priorities — legislative reform, direct service and public education. This analysis can be applied, then, to designing an effective program focused on sexual harassment at work.

   The first step is to bring women together in a non-threatening environment to share experiences. Speaking out — and documenting the incidence and forms of sexual coercion — is a major part of defining it as a social problem. When issues become social problems, the responsibility is shifted from the victim to the aggressor. Resources then become available to explore and eliminate the problem. Important changes within the individuals raising the issue also take place. A sense of being able to affect one's own life replaces the sense of isolation. An understanding of the interconnections of conditions in one's life replaces confusion. Many specific organizational skills are learned as well. Both the process of enabling women to see their similar relationship to problems of violence — and achieving concrete results — contribute to empowering women, individually and as a group.

__________

*Ironically women have historically organized against violence and have sought what they determined as the best methods of coping. This rich history contradicts the ideology of female passivity; we have learned that we need not be passive victims to survive.

   


back to top