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Sexual Harassment — A Social Work Definition
By Linda S. Freedman, PhD, MSW, LCSW

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
Social philosopher Margaret Crouch, PhD, wrote that the intention of all sexual harassment is to keep women in their place, subordinate in society, in public spaces—male domains (2009). Pinching, pawing, staring, whistling, remarks, sexual assault (some even add murder), are ways of communicating: "My street, my bus station, my train—I have power. You don't."

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.

Psychological Definitions
Psychologists have studied the topic tirelessly. There are many studies measuring the scope of the problem, reasons, consequences, the impact upon different minority persons, age, and social class, the ways the court views it, the impact of pursuing justice, and more—including ways to define it.

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
that posters of women be taken down. Thus it is likely there will be some backlash to the definition, perhaps even changes in the law.

What Is the Law?
The original intention of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to end discrimination in the workplace, is clarified in Titles VII and Title IX, a 1972 amendment for schools. Congress appointed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to interpret and adjudicate cases and develop guidelines. State departments of health and human services also hear discrimination complaints from the protected classes, originally sex, race, ethnicity, religion, and national origin, that have burgeoned to many more, including but not limited to aging, pregnancy, veteran status, disabilities, gender identity, even political affiliations. Discrimination is manifested in the following two ways:

• Quid Pro Quo
The first case to reach a U.S. District Court was Williams v. Saxbe. A federal employee, Diane Williams, claimed her supervisor, Harvey Brinson, fired her from her job for rejecting him sexually. Because she refused his advances, he punished her by withholding important work-related information, then dismissed her for not satisfying job requirements. In 1976, the Court ruled that had she been a man, she would have been treated differently; Brinson discriminated against her because of sex.

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
A second case, that of Mechelle Vinson, expanded the scope of Civil Rights by adding unwelcome sexual behavior, or hostile environment as discrimination. Vinson held that Richard L. Taylor, her supervisor at Meritor Savings Bank, had fondled and humiliated her in front of others, followed her to the restroom to expose or rape her, and that he had raped her more than 40 times on and off the job. Leaving voluntarily, she filed suit claiming she had submitted to his demands, but always unwillingly, fearful of dismissal for refusal.

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
Social work is the profession that defends human rights and advocates for social justice. It is the action profession. The protection of individuals from persecution, assault, abuse, and discrimination of every kind is a social work prerogative, a value, and an ethic. Thus, social workers naturally identify with the spirit of the Civil Rights Act, as well as the definitions of social philosophers, feminists, and psychologists. Yet, if asked, "What is the social work definition of sexual harassment?" social workers might be hard pressed to respond.

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
As first responders to crises and as treatment professionals, social workers not only hear of daily challenges, but also all types of abuse of their clients, including sexual violence. They are likely to have been educated in the continuum model, that sexual violence is behavior that ranges from molestation, thought to be mild, to rape, severe. Handling, grabbing, and attempted rape or assault lie somewhere in between (Kelly, 1988).

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.

Undoing That
Could we change that? If we were to define sexual harassment more clearly, give it more universality, disseminate our definition, own it—even if it does borrow from others—would it change anything? It might.

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
We could add the social work definition to all educational venues, author op-ed pieces. Helping professionals could absorb it in continuing education ethics classes. New NASW members could get copies with their cancelled checks or as e-mail. In class, social work students could hear the war cry more clearly.

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.


Crosthwaith, J. & Priest, G. (2001). The definition of sexual harassment. In L. Lemoncheck & J. P. Sterba (Eds.), Sexual Harassment: Issues & Answers. (pp. 62-77). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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.