Violence and Power

last updated April 30, 2007

"According to a 1992 study conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO), 'Sexual harassment is inextricably linked with power and takes place in societies which often treat women as sex objects and second-class citizens.'"

"A particular incident of harassment may or may not include any explicitly sexual behavior, but it always involves some form of abuse of power. For example, when a harasser sabotages a woman's work, he is not engaging in any kind of romantic sexual action. He is engaging in aggression. This situation is no different from that of the street harasser who comments on a woman's body as she walks by, the coworker who won't stop touching her or the landlord who won't repair the sink because she hasn't been "nice enough" to him. While not one of these actions is "sexual" in an affectionate or friendly sense, all are forms of sexual harassment."

"It is very important to closely examine the "sexual" aspect of sexual harassment, because sexuality is often used as a justification for this social practice. Confusion about the difference between sexual invitation and sexual harassment is common."

"Many men and women around the world believe that sexual harassment is a practice based on simple sexual attraction. It is often seen as an expression of male interest and a form of flattering sexual attention for women - a sometimes vulgar but essentially harmless romantic game, well within the range of normal, acceptable behavior between men and women."

"However, the difference between invitation and harassment is the use of power. Harassment is not a form of courtship and it is not meant to appeal to women. It is designed to coerce women, not to attract them. When the recipient of sexual harassment has no choice in the encounter, or has reason to fear the repercussions if she declines, the interaction has moved out of the realm of invitation and courtship into the arena of intimidation and aggression."

"Confusion about the dynamics of sexuality and power in sexual harassment prevents recipients from reacting to harassers with strong, effective countermeasures."

From Martha Langelan, Back Off! How To Confront And Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers (July 1993).

Catherine MacKinnon and Kathryn Abrams are two scholars who are known for their contribution to the discussion of sexual harassment, power and sexual coercion in the United States. Their observations are nevertheless central to understanding sexual harassment in all parts of the world. The following are brief excerpts from their work:

Intimate violation of women by men is sufficiently pervasive in American society as to be nearly invisible. Contained by internalized and structural forms of power, it has been nearly inaudible. Conjoined with men's control over women's material survival, as in the home or on the job, or over women's learning and educational advancement in school, it has become institutionalized… Sexual harassment, most broadly defined, refers to the unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in the context of a relationship of unequal power. Central to the concept is the use of power derived from one social sphere to level benefits or impose deprivations in another. The major dynamic is best expressed as the reciprocal enforcement of two inequalities. When one is sexual, the other material, the cumulative sanction is particularly potent. American society legitimizes male sexual dominance of women and employer's control of workers…. [T]he sexual harassment of women can occur largely because women occupy inferior job positions and job roles; at the same time, sexual harassment works to keep women in such positions. Sexual harassment, then, uses and helps create women's structurally inferior status. . . .

From Catherine A. MacKinnon, The Sexual Harassment of Working Women 1, 9-10 (1979).

[S]exually oriented behavior in the workplace produces at least two responses among women that contribute to their subordination. … One response is a fear of sexual coercion. Sexually oriented behavior brings into the workplace echoes of a context in which men and women often are radically unequal. A woman struggling to establish credibility in a setting in which she may not be, or may not feel, welcome, can be swept off balance by a reminder that she can be raped, fondled, or subjected to repeated sexual demands. Her employment setting, already precarious, can be transformed instantly into an unwanted sexual encounter in which she is likely to feel even less control, a transformation that can cast shadows even when demands are not being made. The feelings of anxiety, fear, or vulnerability produced by the spectre of sexual coercion prevent women from feeling, or being viewed as, the equals of their male counterparts in the workplace.

From Kathryn Abrams, Gender Discrimination and the Transformation of Workplace Norms, Vanderbilt Law Review, vol. 42, 1183, 1207-1209 (1989).

The relationship between sexual harassment and power has been recognized in Europe as well. For example, the European Union Code of Practice on Measures to Combat Sexual Harassment adopted in 1992 recognizes that because "sexual harassment is often a function of women's status in the employment hierarchy, policies to deal with sexual harassment are likely to be most effective where they are linked to a broader policy to promote equal opportunities and to improve the position of women."