Sexual Harassment

Why are we shocked?


Not since Anita Hill's testimony before the Senate have we heard so much in the news about sexual harassment.

    There are the charges against Army trainers at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. In Minnesota, women coal miners were terrorized by men with whom they worked to the point that some kept loaded guns in their homes and cars. At Mitsubishi Motors, more than 300 women employees have filed a suit claiming they were sexually harassed by male coworkers.

    And we all remember U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood, who resigned after 29 women claimed he sexually harassed them. All's forgiven, apparently, and he's back on Capitol Hill -- this time as a highly paid lobbyist.

    With each news report of sexual harassment, people are shocked. But should they be? These cases reflect more than an occasional problem; rather, they are symptomatic of a long-standing, pervasive problem in our culture as a whole. We should be outraged. But when the country is surprised that women are sexually harassed and abused, it is in serious denial of a national epidemic.

    In a survey sent to 90,000 female soldiers by the Pentagon last year, nearly one in 10 Army women reported being sexually assaulted. According to a 1995 Department of Defense study, 78 percent of women in the military had been sexually harassed by military personnel while on or off duty.

    So, one in five military women have not been sexually harassed. It follows that we should be more shocked when a servicewoman tells us she hasn't been sexually abused than when she says she has.

    More than half of all women who work outside the home report they have been sexually harassed. While conducting research for a book on sexual harassment, I found it depressingly easy to find women to be interviewed as case studies. Everyone I mentioned the project to told me that she or someone she knew had been sexually harassed on the job.

    After placing a small ad in the local newspaper, my phone rang nonstop with women who wanted to talk about their experiences. Not only did women call me with complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace, but they called to report teachers, attorneys, doctors and clergy.

    A 1993 survey of more than 1,600 public school students in grades eight through 11 found that 85 percent of girls had been sexually harassed by classmates. But instead of being outraged that students were sexually harassed in his community, one man gathered petition signatures stating, "An 11- or 12-year-old cannot deliberately and or intentionally commit acts of sexual harassment."

    He said that his own daughter had endured taunts in the same school district. "This is a way of life," he said. "It is not sexual harassment."

    A friend of mine recently argued that sexual harassment only occurs in male-dominated fields. I agreed. But when pressed to name a female-dominated field, she could not.

    Sexual harassers are as comfortable at a construction site as they are in a diner, hospital or office. Sexual harassment is more frequent when women enter traditionally male fields, but it occurs in every occupation.

    Sexual harassment is about keeping women in their place by creating a hostile environment. It is a turf war where the winner gets the high-paying jobs and the power.

    Former Pentagon personnel director Lawrence Korb says, "This is still a man's profession, with a lot of men who intellectually and emotionally have not accepted that the military could be women's work."

    When a work site moves toward gender equity, sexual harassment reminds women not to get too uppity. Society may be shocked, but we are not.


    Jennifer Coburn, former San Diego NOW president, is the author of Take Back Your Power: A Working Woman's Response to Sexual Harassment, which received the Outstanding Book Award from Las Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America.

    This article appeared in the NOW Times.

We should be more shocked when a servicewoman tells us she hasn't been sexually abused than when she says she has.

© Copyright by POINT, 1997
Last modified 5/13/97