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Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual attention a woman experiences. It includes leering, pinching, patting, repeated comments, subtle suggestions of a sexual nature, and pressure for dates. Sexual harassment can occur in any situation where men have power over women: welfare workers with clients, doctors with patients, police officers with women members of a police force, or teachers with students. In the workplace, the harasser may be an employer, a supervisor, a co-worker, a client, or a customer. Sexual harassment can escalate; women who are being sexually harassed are at risk of being physically abused or raped. Consider these facts:

  • According to the U.S. Department of Labor, some 50 to 80% of women in the U.S. experience some form of sexual harassment during their academic or work lives. 9

  • In a survey of girls in middle schools and high schools that was distributed in Seventeen, 83% of the girls who responded reported instances of sexual harassment in school. 10



Toward an Understanding of Male Violence Against Women

Race, Class, and Violence Against Women

Blaming the Victim

Sexual Harassment

Domestic Violence

Sexual Assault

Incest and Sexual Abuse of Children

The Sex Industry

Defending Ourselves Against Violence

Ending Violence Against Women



Joan is a 43-year-old black woman who works as a waitress in a bar and restaurant. She often feels isolated, as many of her co-workers are white and have racist attitudes. A customer who comes in every day begins to flirt with Joan, making suggestive comments about her clothing and physical appearance. Unnerved by his comments, she tries not to show it because she doesn't want to lose any tip money. Often he grabs at her and touches her when she walks by. She feels so anxious at work that her stomach hurts, and she starts to call in sick more and more. She knows she needs to figure something out or she'll eventually lose her job.

One 16-year-old girl described her experience:

It came to the point where I was skipping almost all of my classes, therefore getting me kicked out of the honors program. I dreaded school each morning, I started to wear clothes that wouldn't flatter my figure, and I kept to myself. I'd cry every night when I got home, and I thought I was a loser....Sometimes the teachers were right there when it was going on. They did nothing....I felt very angry that these arrogant, narrow-minded people never took the time to see who really was inside.11

Sexual harassment is a powerful way for men to undermine and control us. Attitudes of race and class superiority can result in a feeling by white men that they are entitled to sexually harass women of color or employees from a "lower" class or different background. There is an implicit (and sometimes explicit) message that our refusal to comply with the harasser's demands will lead to work-related reprisals. These can include escalation of harassment; poor work assignments; sabotaging of projects; denial of raises, benefits, or promotion; and sometimes the loss of the job with only a poor reference to show for it. Harassment can drive women out of a particular job or out of the workplace altogether.

Socializing at work too often includes flirting or joking about sex. Although it may be a pleasant relief from routine or a way to communicate with someone we are interested in, this banter can become insulting or demeaning. It becomes sexual harassment when it creates a hostile, intimidating, or pressured working environment.

There is such a taboo in many workplaces and schools against identifying sexual harassment for what it is that many of us who experience it are at first aware only of feeling stressed. We may experience headaches, anxieties, or resistance to going to work in the morning. It may take us a while to realize that these symptoms come from our being sexually harassed. We often respond by feeling isolated and powerless, afraid to say no or to speak out because we fear either that we somehow are responsible or that we won't receive help in facing possible retaliation. But when we take the risk and talk with other women, we often find that they are being harassed, too (or have been), and have similar responses to ours.

What You Can Do If You Are Sexually Harassed*

Every instance of sexual harassment is different. The strategy you choose will depend on many factors, including how much you can afford to risk losing your job and whether you feel you can get support from your co-workers. Race and class differences may also affect how you respond, partly because these differences in a workplace can isolate workers from one another. As you think about whether and how you might respond to sexual harassment, here are some things to consider:

  • Remember that you are not to blame. Sexual harassment is imposed sexual attention. No matter how complicated the situation is, the harasser is responsible for the abuse.

  • Document what happens. Keep a detailed diary including dates, times, and places. Save any notes or pictures from the harasser--don't throw them away in anger. Keep a record of anyone who witnessed the harassment.

  • Investigate your workplace or school policy and grievance procedure for sexual harassment cases. Know its overall records before you act.

  • Generate support for yourself before you take action: Break the silence, talk with others, and ask for help in working out a response.

  • Look for others who have been harassed who can act with you. Collective action and joint complaints strengthen your position. Try to use organizations that already exist, such as your union or employee organization, or an advocacy organization for your particular racial or ethnic group.

  • Let the harasser know as directly and explicitly as possible that you are not interested in his attentions. If you do this in writing, keep a copy of your letter.


Copyright 1984, 1992, 1998 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective. All rights reserved. Published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

To order Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century


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