Black Men, Black Women and Sexual Harassment

By Norment, Lynn | Ebony, January 1992 | Go to article overview
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Black Men, Black Women and Sexual Harassment

Norment, Lynn, Ebony

REGARDLESS of job or income, status or profession, sexual harassment is a problem that affects the best and brightest among Black women and White women--be they secretaries, factory workers, journalists or attorneys.

In the weeks and months since American were riveted to their television screens as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill debacle unfolded, sexual harassment has continued to be among the hottest topics on the minds and tongues of millions of Black males and females. Grandmothers and schoolteachers, ministers and farmers, professionals and laborers all seem to have an opinion on this explosive, sometimes divisive, subject. And thousands of Black women across the country are speaking up for the first time and telling their personal stories of sexual harassment.

"Have I ever been sexually harassed?" asks Chicago Election Commissioner Arnette Hubbard, a former president of the National Bar Association, as she repeats the question that thas been put to her. "There has not been a time in my life since prepuberty when I have not beem sexually harassed," she say emphatically. "Regardless of whether you are a Ph.D., an M.D., an attorney or a secretary, women in all fields have been, and are being, sexually harassed."

There is no question that the problem exists. Study after study indicates that sexual harassment occurs frequently in the work place. in some surveys, as many as 90 percent of women asked say they have been sexually harassed, while in other studies, 50 percent, 40 percent and 20 percent of women say they have been sexually harassed in their places of employment. In a 1990 U.S. Defense Department study, 64 percent of military women say they have experienced such abuse.

The discrepancy in statistics is so pronounced, experts say, because women--and men as well--were confused as to exactly what is meant by "sexual harassment." A clearer understanding has emerged in recent months. In guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency states that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In a fact sheet available to the public, the EEOC states: "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicity or implicity affects an indivudual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

In a 1986 landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Washington, D.C., bank employe--a Black woman--was indeed a victim of sexual harassment; she claimed that her supervisor fondled her in front of other employes, followed her into the ladies' room, and even raped her on several occasions. That same year, an Ohio woman won a $3.1 million judgement against an employer who asked her to perform oral sex or lose her job.

Earlier this year a Florida court sided with a female shipyard worker when it ruled that photographs of nude women in the work place constituted illegal harassment. It is this particular part of the law that confuses both men and women, including Black men and women who work together. What exactly constitutes an "intimidating, hostile or offensive" working environment? Is it sexual harassment when a supervisor asks his secretary out to dinner? (Experts say that lunch is OK, but dinner is a no-no). Is it against the law for a male employe to tell a dirty joke in the presence of female co-workers? (Only if the women object.) Can a female supervisor pat a male employe on the shoulder? (The shoulder, yes; the butt, no.)

Dr. Robert Staples, a San Francisco-based sociologist who has done extensive research on male-female relationships, says that much of what is now defined as sexual harassment would not be viewed as such by some Black women.

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