Women as Minorities: Sexual Harassment

Men and women nowadays are regarded as equals. There were a lot of changes that happened in the past that affected our perception of women. It was not long ago that they were not able to enjoy the same rights that men have, because they are treated as minorities in our society. But as we move towards equality, there are several concepts which were developed regarding the way women are treated. What was tolerated in the past may not be tolerated in the present. This is manifested by our concept of sexual harassment. Through the course of history, the meaning of sexual harassment has been changed, and this is in relation to the changes happening in the society.

Sexual harassment first became a political issue when the Congress passed the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act prohibits discrimination at work, on the grounds of race, color, religion, national and cultural origin, and sex. The primary purpose of this was to help African Americans, but this bill also paved the way to protect women in courts. This also gave way to the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After that, there more laws passed regarding the promotion of equality for both sexes. Some of these include a Human Goals Charter, is about establishing equal respect for both sexes drafted by the U.S. Department of Defense, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 which prohibits gender bias in educational institutions which received federal funding. In 1978, sexual discrimination in federal employment is barred because of the Civil Service Reform Act. The Congress in 1979 held special hearings in for them to investigate sexual harassment in the federal government, while the White House Office of Personal gave a command regarding the prohibition of sexual harassment (Wyatt, 2000).

Also in 1979, Catharine MacKinnon published her work The Sexual Harassment of Working Women, which gives an argument regarding this form of harassment as a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights act (Patai, 1998). In 1986, the Supreme Court took its first harassment case, wherein it initially defined sexual harassment by stating that the key issue is whether the conduct or deed done is unwelcome, rather than whether it appears that the victim has consented to the conduct. It clearly states that as long as the deed was unwelcomed by the victim, the perpetrator could be charged with sexual harassment.

There were two events which changed how the society viewed sexual harassment. These events led to and increase in the people’s awareness about the matter. One of these events was the amendment of the Civil Rights act, allowing jury trials for the cases and increased damages for the complaint (EIU.edu, 2005b). The other event was when a Supreme Court nominee was charged with sexual harassment by Anita Hill, stating that this happened when they worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This case was highly publicized as the hearings were televised and became the talk of the nation for quiet some time. Some senators believed her, while some did not, but the important thing is that sexual harassment gained national prominence, and it also became an important issue in the workplace (EIU.edu, 2005a).

As the concept of sexual harassment gained national recognition, more and more women stood up and stated their case. As the cases of sexual harassment piled up as time passes by, our understanding about sexual harassment also changes. Prior to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights act, we are unaware of this matter, even though we know it existed. We know that deeds against women happened, but we don’t know how to address this matter. All we know is that it usually happens.

A quoted statement from Medea and Thompson, 1974 states that “You lose a little when you are shaken out of your daydreams by whistles and comments of construction workers you have to pass…when a junior executive looks down your blouse or gives you a familiar pat at work…to the obnoxious drunk at the next table, to the man on the subway, to the guys in the drive-in” (Belknap & Erez, 1997). This means that before the term sexual harassment was coined, there was really no right term to describe men’s unjust behaviors toward women. There was really no label attached to it, come the mid-1970s. This term was coined by the Working Women United, and this is related to their survey of working women about the sexual attention that they receive in the workplace. During that time, sexual harassment’s definition was “any repeated and unwanted sexual comments, looks, suggestions or physical contact that you find objectionable or offensive and that causes you discomfort on your job”. We should note how it was well associated with work during that time, as if it was the only grounds for sexual harassment. This is partly because women during that time were perceived as sexually accessible, having no means of masculine support and protection.

According to Belknap and Erez, 1997, there were different levels of sexual harassment, ranging from a co-worker’s staring, or a serious sexual physical assault (Belknap & Erez, 1997). As characterized by the National Advisory Council on Women’s Education Program, sexual harassment categories were divided in to five levels, from the least serious to the most serious of all cases. The first level is the gender harassment, which are mainly the sexual remarks directed at a person because of his or her gender. This category also includes the off-color jokes, crude or suggestive remarks, and ogling and staring. The second level is the seductive behavior, which includes instances where sexual advances are made, as well as suggestions or requests to discuss the victim’s personal or sexual life. They are not necessarily sexually offensive, but the matter about being inappropriate still remains. This could be related to the possibility of threat or sanction in the case of women as subordinates to man, especially of the sexual advances were not met. The third level is sexual bribery, where it involves a solicitation for sex with the promise of reward. The fourth level is the sexual coercion, where there is a corresponding punishment if the sexual demand is not met by a victim. This could include losing opportunity for promotion, a failing grade for a course and more. The last level of sexual harassment is the most extreme one, which include outright sexual assaults, gross sexual imposition, and indecent exposure. This is the least common type, but is definitely the most devastating to the victim of the harassment (Belknap & Erez, 1997).

In a research study conducted by Dougherty and Smythe, 2004 it was found out that women’s perceptions of sexual harassment nowadays are those which are unexpected and outside of the interaction cues being used by organizational members (Dougherty & Smythe, 2004). This is because women nowadays have deeper understanding or tolerance of sexual harassment, as it could be associated with humor and such. It depends on how the victim of a sexual harassment situation makes sense of what they had just experienced, and not quickly jumping into conclusions of being sexually harassed.

After receiving wide recognition in the early 1970s, the meanings of sexual harassment have continually been changed in order to accommodate the changes in the society. What was previously an undisclosed, unexplored private matter became a public and social concern. What was meant to be an attempt to call the practice to public attention, sexual harassment was finally labeled as such, and then later defined as a detrimental factor to the workplace. We can see that the position of women in the society during these times were that of slaves and the working class, that’s why the definition of sexual harassment would really be work related. When the issue was linked to civil rights violations, the concern was then raised to the level of societal problem. Afterwards, sexual harassment was considered as a means for men to subordinate women at work and even in the aspect of education. This was during the time of the early feminists scholars standing up to defend their rights and gain recognition. Afterwards, it was then defined as any unwanted sexually based or sexually oriented practice which creates discomfort and/or threaten a woman’s personal well-being or functioning. This is the time when sexual harassment’s scope reached the levels of verbal abuse, jokes, leering, touching or any unnecessary contact, display of pornographic material, invasion of personal space, sexual assault and rape, as well as any threat of retaliation or actual retaliation for any of the previously mentioned matters. Other definitions that came into the scene during this times was on persistent or abusive unwanted sexual attention made by a person who knows or ought reasonably to know that t is unwanted. This involves sexually oriented practices and actions which create negative environment for work, study, or marketing of products (Sev’er, 2000).

As the definitions of sexual harassment change as the years pass, we notice that there are also changes happening on the society. The society is an important factor that dictates the meaning of sexual harassment, because it is highly dependent on the current social situation it is being define in. As we accept the changes in our society, we are also open to the changes in the definition of sexual harassment. One common aspect in the different definitions is that they are all looking out for the welfare of women.


Belknap, J., ; Erez, E. (1997). Redefining Sexual Harassment: Confronting Sexism in the 21st Century. Justice Professional, Vol. 10(Issue 2), 18p.

Dougherty, D. S., ; Smythe, M. J. (2004). Sensemaking, Organizational Culture, and Sexual Harassment. Journal of Applied Communication Research, Vol. 32(Issue 4), 25p.

EIU.edu. (2005a). Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.   Retrieved April 11, 2008, from http://www.eiu.edu/~training/sh/employee/no_narration/Page6-Legal/Legal%20page1-Clarence%20Thomas%20answer.htm

EIU.edu. (2005b). Sexual Harassment History.   Retrieved April 11, 2008, from http://www.eiu.edu/~training/sh/employee/no_narration/Page6-Legal/Legal%20page1.htm

Patai, D. (1998). Sexual Harassment: It’s History and Contradictions.   Retrieved April 11, 2008, from http://daphne.palomar.edu/psycsoc125/HSClass/research/resrch04.html

Sev’er, A. (2000). Sexual Harassment: Where We Were, Where We Are and Prospects for the New Millennium. Canadian Review of Sociology ; Anthropology, Vol. 36(Issue 4), 29p.

Wyatt, N. (2000). Information on Sexual Harassment.   Retrieved April 11, 2008, from http://www.de2.psu.edu/harassment/generalinfo/