Also published as "Working Women Unite!" Feminist Alliance Against Rape Newsletter, September-October 1976, p. 7.
This document was an early position paper issued by members of the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion and published in both the feminist newspaper Sister Courage and the newsletter of the Feminist Alliance Against Rape, a Washington D.C.-based anti-rape group. In the article, Klein and Wehrli characterized activism against sexual harassment as a "way to extend the women's movement" because neither feminist nor workplace organizations had yet dealt adequately with the issue. The issue, the writers contended, "stands at the crossroads of two important women's organizing trends--workplace and antirape organizing." This article was one of the earliest publications to articulate the link between sexual and economic coercion.
Sexual coercion on the job?
This paper marks the beginning of a regular column in Sister Courage, focusing on Violence Against Women. We welcome your response to this paper, as well as continued feedback and suggestions for the column. We want to share this space with all other women concerned with the issue of violence against women.
By Freada Klein and Lynn Wehrli
Employers have considerable economic power over their employees—the power to hire, fire, determine benefit levels and give or withhold raises and promotions. This economic power underlies relationships established at the workplace. When male employers make sexual demands upon women employees, women cannot freely choose to say yes or no, since they are economically dependent upon their employers. To refuse sexual demands from those who control one's livelihood is to endanger that livelihood. Thus, sexual demands become coercive in this context, because they are supported by and can be enforced through the use of economic power. Sexual coercion takes the forms of verbal harassment or abuse, subtle forms of pressure for sexual activity, as well as rape and attempted rape. It is not just employers who exercise power over working women in this way. Coworkers and clients also wield this power, since they too can threaten women's jobs. As a result of these dynamics, women are coerced into sexual activity with their employers, coworkers and clients in order to keep jobs or to obtain benefits, promotions or raises.
When placed in this position, women workers have little recourse. The risks of informing others are enormous. Other people may ignore them, discredit them, or accuse them of fabricating the story or bringing the situation upon themselves. Employers, coworkers and clients can retaliate by making working conditions intolerable. Furthermore, employers may fire them and clients may withdraw business.
If women choose to remain silent instead, they might suffer the trauma without support or assistance. Research on rape documents this silence as the most destructive emotional response to sexual assault. In addition, few women have the option of simply quitting their jobs, in order to avoid the situation. When jobs are scarce and employment discrimination against women is a well-documented reality, women cannot leave the jobs they have.
There are few laws or legal precedents to protect women from sexual coercion at the workplace. Rape laws cover rape wherever it happens, but they are biased against women, and they do not encompass the more subtle forms of forced sexual activity or sexual harassment.
Our experience as antirape organizers indicates that the issue of sexual coercion at the workplace has not been dealt with adequately, either by feminist or workplace organizations. We feel that it deserves attention because it occurs often, and because it has the serious economic implications described above, which are not common to all other forms of sexual assault. In addition, working on this issue provides us a way to extend the women's movement. The issue of sexual coercion at the workplace stands at the crossroads of two important women's organizing trends—workplace and antirape organizing. Consequently, it holds potential for merging those trends, bringing the experience of women workplace organizers to women active in antirape organizing and vice versa, and extending the women's movement to women who have not been previously involved.
Selecting this issue to work on requires limitations on the kinds of sexual assaults we will focus on. Our focus will cover all cases in which women are sexually endangered by their jobs: this is, cases in which women are assaulted by their employers, coworkers or clients.
By assault, we refer not only to rape as it is legally defined (i.e., "forced vaginal penetration"), but also to all forms of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual activity; this flows from the feminist definition of rape. The place in which the assault occurs is less important, since it is the economic power relationships that distinguish sexual coercion from other kinds of sexual assault. The cases we will focus upon may happen at the workplace itself and other places a woman must go in order to fulfill her job requirements, or wherever she meets her employer, coworkers or clients.
Current conditions of high unemployment and of women entering previously all-male jobs can generate threatened feelings on the part of men. Research on rape suggests that such tensions can lead to sexual aggression; it therefore seems plausible that sexual coercion at the workplace may actually be increasing.
back to top