According to Freada Klein, Lin Farley's book focused mainly on patriarchy as the cause of sexual harassment, ignoring other important causes. Klein argued that patriarchy and capitalism reinforced each other in the phenomenon of workplace harassment and that racism had a major role in the origins of working women's problems. This review, as well as Farley's response (see Document 17), illuminate the theoretical differences between the two views.
by Freada Klein
Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the job by Lin Farley. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.
Feminists who have been organizing for some time against violence against women experience deja vu regularly these days. One of my housemates, commenting on her feminist work on a bad day, said, "I feel like I flunked a course and someone's making me take it over!" And that's how I feel as part of a group that's attempting to shake sexual harassment at the workplace from its present status of hidden/acceptable/inevitable, behavior, and identify it instead as the economic, psychological and often physical abuse that it really is. The responses to this issue in 1978 are the same as those to rape in 1972 -- "How do you know it's a problem?" or "women only file complaints when an affair has gone bad" or "women make false charges of sexual harassment." The repetition of these old myths reflects the depths of sexism's stronghold on our culture and the inability of most people to extend the information that challenges rape myths to myths about sexual harassment.
An encouraging exception, however, is Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the job by Lin Farley. Farley gives credit to the anti-rape movement's effectiveness in public education by drawing numerous analogies between these two forms of violence against women. Comparisons are offered between the effect of the threat of rape on all women and the effect of the threat of sexual harassment on working women; between the emotional reactions of victims of each act; between the legal system's response; and between the importance of women organizing as women to combat both abuses.
Farley presents a coherent feminist analysis of sexual harassment throughout her book, the first to
appear on the subject. Her definition of sexual harassment is inclusive and relies implicitly on women's own assessment of the situation:
Sexual harassment is best described as unsolicited nonreciprocal male behavior that asserts a woman's sex role over her function as worker. It can be any or all of the following: staring at, commenting upon, or touching a woman's body; requests for acquiescence in sexual behavior; repeated nonreciprocated propositions for dates; demands for sexual intercourse; and rape. (pp. 14-15)
Farley approaches the issue from many angles. Some indication of the book's diversity is given by the titles of her chapters: Sexual Harassment: a Profile; The Historical Imperative; The Contemporary Economic Influence; Sexual Harassment in Nontraditional Jobs; Sexual Harassment in Unions; Men; Social Coercion I: The Casting Couch; Social Coercion II: The Washington Sex Scandals; and The Future.
Sexual Shakedown is quite readable; Farley's ideas and writing style are clear and forthright. In these days when the bookstore shelves marked "Women" resemble too closely those marked "Self-Improvement," it is refreshing to find a book that explores a new topic by taking a stand on systemic forces and collective solutions. Farley, for one, does not hesitate to link the conditions of women as workers with societal acceptance of sexual harassment at the workplace.
Upon closer examination, though, this strength turns into the book's greatest flaw -- an overstating of sexual harassment at the workplace as the root of many conditions of women's work. Farley portrays sexual harassment as the cause of job segregation by sex, the source of women's high rate of job turnover. She states in the introduction that
there is no aspect of women's deplorable situation at work today, be it economic or otherwise that has not either been created or maintained by this behavior (sexual harassment at the workplace). (p. xv)
Instead of offering us an analysis which incorporates the complexities her historical research, contemporary investigations, and rich case examples provide, Farley too often resorts to this sweeping summary statement which is powerful but presently impossible to support. Sexual harassment is pervasive and, yes, it is a serious hindrance to many women's job mobility, security and performance. However, it merits exploration and activism whether or not it is the cause of other oppressive aspects of women's working conditions.
I would have found it far more interesting if Farley had taken some of women's other roles -- homemaker, mother, sexual servicer -- and examined the interplay between these roles and that of woman as wage earner. Without first examining the relationship of these other roles to the conditions of women who do paid work, it is inaccurate for Farley to assert that sexual harassment -- not the demands of caring for children -- is the ‘real’ explanation for women's labor force absentee rates, for instance.
Looking further, Farley's identification of patriarchy as the ultimate source of sexual harassment is also simplistic. Understanding sexual harassment -- which can result from the wealth of factual information contained in Sexual Shakedown -- could significantly contribute to a refinement of feminist theory by helping to sort out under what conditions sex, race or class each become the most conspicuous form of oppression. Farley ignores the complexities of sexual harassment, however, by setting up a dichotomy between patriarchy (where the basis of power is the control of women by men) and capitalism (where the basis of power is ownership of the means of production -- and profits -- by a particular class) as the source of sexual harassment. She then declares the source to be exclusively
patriarchy. Early in the introduction she says,
patriarchal relations, not capitalism, are at the root of working women's problems (p. xv)
A discussion here of the ways in which patriarchy and capitalism reinforce each other in the phenomenon of workplace harassment would have been more useful to feminist organizers and theorists alike.
Case examples cited by Farley reveal that race also plays a significant part in women's vulnerability to harassment, an analysis of racism as having a major role in the origins of working women's problems is noticeably absent. Very little attention is paid to the process by which a woman sorts out whether her abuse at work is attributable to her status as a woman, as a Third World person or Native American, or as a low level worker.
Once I get beyond annoyance at Farley's overly simplistic analysis, I can appreciate her laudable pioneering efforts. Sexual Shakedown is a sophisticated introduction to a complex issue. Within its pages is an impressive amount of material that moves one from uninformed to outraged at the extent and pernicious character of sexual harassment. Of particular interest to anti-rape organizers seeking to begin service provision and education on sexual harassment are the sections on historical evidence, the distinctions between harassment in traditional and non-traditional jobs, and her clarification of the court's evolution in applying Title VII -- which prohibits sex discrimination in employment -- to cases of workplace harassment.
Unfortunately, there are no resource listings, no suggested options for women currently facing sexual harassment, no focused discussions on how to handle it through personnel managers or unions, and no strategies for group action. However, such information (available from other sources) will undoubtedly emerge as more efforts will be greatly aided by Sexual Shakedown.
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