When sexual harassment is about power, not sex

businesswomanOne in three women report being sexually harassed on the job in America. People started taking sexual harassment seriously when Anita Hill accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment a little more than two decades ago, but only 3% of women who are sexually harassed file a formal complaint because although they want to leave, they need the income from their jobs.

Many people assume that sexual harassment is a result of a man’s sexual interest in a female employee. It’s often assumed that the man is inept or awkward or that the woman is lying or exaggerating. However, most sexual harassment is actually about power, rather than sex. Only about a quarter of sexual harassment cases are simply seductions gone awry, and very few are quid pro quo harassment cases, in which the man asks for a sexual favor in exchange for a promotion or for not firing the woman.

Sexual harassment is a way to keep women in their place and devalue a woman’s contribution in the workplace. Calling attention to a female worker’s sexuality is a way for someone with greater power to make her vulnerable. Often, women who are sexually harassed blame themselves. Most of the time, the people doing the harassing are men, but sometimes women in positions of power are accused of sexual harassment as well.

Women are most often harassed in workplaces in which women are in the minority, and the jobs have traditionally been held by men. For example, women who worked for a factory as machinists reported they were harassed much more than people on the assembly line, where there were more women working, even though they both encountered about the same number of men. Similarly, investment bankers and surgeons who were women were often subject to sexual harassment.

The common thread in sexual harassment claims is that they involve an objectification of the victim and emphasize the victim’s helplessness as a subordinate. While sex is the means by which it’s done, the goal isn’t necessarily for the perpetrator to have sex with the victim, but for the perpetrator to make the victim feel a certain way—humiliated, unworthy, inferior, and controlled.

Sexual harassment committed by women is not as well studied, but allegations in this area also suggest that the purpose of the harassment is to subordinate and exert power over the victim, rather than to have sex with the victim.

Recently, the cofounder of an underwear company denied claims that she sexually harassed her former employee and created a hostile work environment. The former employee was the head of PR and filed a complaint with the New York Commission on Human Rights, claiming that the cofounder touched her breasts and asked her to expose them, and she also spoke in detail about her sex life. She claimed she was fired for complaining about this behavior.

The company is known for manufacturing underwear that serves as an alternative to tampons and was previously praised for its feminism. The cofounder who was accused stepped down as CEO and became its “Chief Vision Officer.”

It can be important to obtain representation from an experienced Dallas employment lawyer when you have a dispute with your employer regarding sexual harassment or other matters in Texas. Contact us at (214) 528-6500 or via our online intake form.

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