Sexual Harassment — A Social Work Definition
A social worker sits on the board of a condominium association. While the board argues about rules for the upcoming pool season, including the types of clothing allowed in the pool, she jokingly suggests a "swimsuit edition" of the condo newsletter. One of the group members mumbles, loudly enough for everyone to hear, "And I hope, my dear, that you'll model for it."
Is this sexual harassment? Or is it just a joke? It might even be argued that the social worker invited the comment, jesting about the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, a publication that has for decades objectified women. Even the Miss America pageant no longer hosts the swimsuit competition.
But the comment made this ordinarily confident person cringe. Did he think about her like that, a mental snapshot?
Whether or not a person defines what happens on a given day as sexual harassment, harmless banter, or mere insensitivity will depend upon many factors. Unwelcome comments, even touch, can be dismissed by some as nothing, but to others, are a grievous disrespect. Social workers will be of service to their clients knowing how the law and academics define it. They might even consider a definition of their own.
Philosophical and Feminist Definitions
Crouch credits Erving Goffman, PhD, a mid-20th century sociologist, for the concept of civic inattention, a covert rule that in public we shouldn't stare or engage in conversation with strangers. But there's an exception to the rule: Women are open persons. Goffman says they're open game for gazing, speaking, touching—they are powerless to stop it.
That feeling of powerlessness is amplified when the behavior is anonymous—no name, no face, to accuse. It is labeled "sexual bullying," and it is thriving online due to the anonymity the internet affords (Siebler, Sabelus, & Bohner, 2008).
Feminists Jan Crosthwaite and Graham Priest (2001, p. 66) take sexual harassment definition a step further, calling it behavior that "limits the prospects of self-development, realization of goals, and material success." Their definition points to dominant gender behavior "whose typical effect is to cause the subordinate group to experience their powerlessness." Gender class subjugation is fundamental.
The first exclusive definition isolated five types of sexual harassment (Till, 1980); that quickly ballooned to 11 (Gruber, 1992) before shrinking to the following tri-partite model that mirrors today's legal definition in the workplace, although it can be witnessed everywhere (Fitzgerald, Gelfand, & Drasgow, 1995):
(1) Gender harassment, insults based upon sex, jokes, sexist comments, sexting, pornography, dehumanizing epithets (dog, whore, bitch, fag, fairy, etc.), even grabbing, most prevalent by far, according to scholarly consensus in the United States (Q, 2016).
(2) Unwanted sexual attention, attraction, sexual pursuit, pressure for dates, unwanted compliments, the sharing of sexual fantasies—a show of sexual interest that is unwelcome. It doesn't stop with "No thanks, not interested."
(3) Sexual coercion makes sexual compliance a condition of a relationship. For young people it might be as simple as "Give in, or we break up." In schools, grades, tenure, or associate faculty status hinge upon it. In employment, it can be whether one remains unemployed or gets hired, promoted or demoted, fired, or transferred to another city.
The three can be condensed into two. Unwanted sexual attention and cases of coercion fall under the umbrella of aggressive sexual advance behavior (Pina, Gannon, & Saunders, 2009). The insults, the deliberate persecution because of sex, constitute a hostile environment.
The definition is still a topic of debate, sometimes considered overkill to critics who tend to be academics (Roiphe, 2001, p. 253). Professors no longer feel comfortable socializing or talking with female students; they even wish they didn't have to be in the decision-making role regarding tenure, fearing that if the position is tenured to a male, they will be accused of discrimination. And most are not predators. Having to edit what they say, forbidden from joking or flirting, losing the right to lunch with students just to talk about projects, their intentions scrutinized—it all feels unnecessarily restrictive.
These critics of the new vigilance also object to workplace demands, for example
What Is the Law?
• Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo, this for that, refined the definition of sexual harassment: favors in exchange for sex—hiring, promotions, pay hikes, the better office; or punishment for refusal—lost opportunities, demotions, dismissal. All became civil rights violations.
• Unwelcome Sexual Behavior, the Hostile Environment
Quid pro quo did not apply to the argument because her promotions were indisputably based upon merit and Brinson had not fired her. The Court ruled for her on other grounds, with the opinion that the hostile environment imposed upon her at work was sexual harassment. Taylor's unwelcome sexual behavior interfered with her capacity to perform her job.
Enter Social Work
This could be because the profession is sometimes bifurcated into the following:
• direct service providers, who concentrate on treatment and the distribution of resources; and
• policy makers, political advocates, and administrators.
Ostensibly, more identify as helping professionals within agencies or private practice, with insufficient time or know-how to pursue advocacy.
The Unintentional Obstacle
On such a continuum, gender harassment, those jokes about sex, and unwelcome remarks, suggestions, flirtation, might be mild. Physically invasive and persistent advances, graphic pictures, even attempted but incomplete rape, slightly to very moderate. The suffering of the Mechelle Vinsons of the world, humiliation, rape—severe and egregious.
Being in helping mode, social workers may or may not pursue matters legally with their clients, according to legal counsel, which can be secondarily traumatizing, the "second rape" (Lawson, Vaile Wright, & Fitzgerald, 2013). Their concern is not countering the grand scheme of discrimination, but client health and survival. The realities of power and subjugation are in their wheelhouse, but the pursuit of societal justice is the goal for someone else, on a different type of social worker's agenda, a feminist or human rights activist.
Harassment, we could teach, is more than an infraction of workplace rules—more than the one, two, three, five, or 11 subsets of the psychological or legal definition. It is the other way around; sexual abuse is on a sexual harassment continuum, if anything, even according to law. What makes it illegal is that it is discriminatory. Take this new definition to the streets, apply it universally. Even direct helpers can tell their clients with confidence—this is sexual harassment.
We might word it like this:
Sexual harassment is a type of discrimination, an abuse of power in relationships, whether at work or in the community, that uses sex as a way to limit a target's prospects of self-development, realization of personal and professional goals, and material success, whether or not these consequences are deliberate. It can be a means of devaluing persons by making them feel subordinate, or a way to deny them opportunities. All types of sexual violence are types of sexual harassment, all are harmful, immoral, and unethical, if not necessarily illegal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its amendments protect against this abuse of power in the workplace.
Harassment has always been what we know it to be—bullying, abuse, and discrimination, based on needs to demean people or to coerce them into something they don't want, either by persistence, persuasion, or blackmail. Add those words to the definition, too.
A Profession That Calls It Like It Is
Faculty could discuss it in meetings, host bag lunch chats. Agencies hold inservice education. There is a demand for more social work research about contributing factors—for it is not all about power, not everyone in power wields it this way—social learning, genetics, and personality add in. There will be papers written for classes, doctoral theses about the scope, the costs, the consequences of reporting, retaliation, and more. So much has been studied, but it bears repeating.
From there, on to communities and the corporate world, higher education, public institutions; adding the missing ingredient—empathy (Diehl, Glaser, & Bohner, 2012); encouraging whistle-blowers and protection of the oppressed to the prevention workshop; elementary school workshops about dating etiquette, the power of speech. Social workers are equipped with the skills to do it, even in their offices, even as clinicians, working with individuals, groups, teaching empathy and assertiveness. They are the perfect presenters.
— Linda S. Freedman, PhD, MSW, LCSW, vets research for the protection of human subjects at the Institute for Clinical Social Work Institutional Review Board, where she serves as associate faculty. She is in private practice and the founder of Relationship-Wise, LLC, a social justice initiative, and provides workshops and continuing education on sexual harassment.
Crouch, M. A. (2009). Sexual harassment in public places. Social Philosophy Today, 25, 137-148.
Diehl, C., Glaser, T., & Bohner, G. (2014). Face the consequences: Learning about victims' suffering reduces sexual harassment myth acceptance and men's likelihood to sexually harass. Aggressive Behavior, 40(6), 489-503.
Fitzgerald, L. F., Gelfand, M., & Drasgow, F. (1995). Measuring sexual harassment: Theoretical and psychometric advances. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 17, 425-445.
Gruber, J. E. (1992). A typology of personal and environmental sexual harassment: Research and policy implications for the 1990s. Sex Roles, 26(11/12), 447-464.
Kelly, L. (1988). Surviving Sexual Violence. Polity Press: Cambridge.
Lawson, A. K., Vaile Wright, C., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (2013). The evaluation of sexual harassment litigants: Reducing discrepancies in the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Law and Human Behavior, 37(5), 337-347.
Pina, A., Gannon, T. A., & Saunders, B. (2009). An overview of the literature on sexual harassment: Perpetrator, theory, and treatment issues. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(2), 126-138.
Quick, J. C., & McFadyen, M. A. (2016). Sexual harassment: Have we made any progress? Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(3), 286-298.
Roiphe, K. (2001). Reckless eyeballing: Sexual harassment on campus. In L. Lemoncheck & J. P. Sterba (Eds.), Sexual Harassment: Issues & Answers. (pp. 249-260). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Siebler, F., Sabelus, S., & Bohner, G. (2008). A refined computer harassment paradigm: Validation and test of hypotheses about target characteristics. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(1), 22-35.
Till, F. (1980). Sexual harassment: A report on the sexual harassment of students. National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs: Washington, DC.