Tactics against Sexual Harassment: The Role of Backfire

By Scott, Greg; Martin, Brian | Journal of International Women's Studies, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Tactics against Sexual Harassment: The Role of Backfire


Scott, Greg, Martin, Brian, Journal of International Women's Studies


To oppose sexual harassment, it is useful to understand tactics commonly used by perpetrators. A useful approach to tactics is through the concept of backfire: if an action is perceived as unjust and information about it is communicated to receptive audiences, it has the capacity to cause outrage and consequently backfire on the perpetrator. Perpetrators regularly use five types of tactics to inhibit outrage: (1) cover-up of the action; (2) devaluation of the target; (3) reinterpretation of the events; (4) use of official channels to give the appearance of justice; and (5) intimidation and bribery of targets, witnesses and others. These tactics are regularly used against targets of sexual harassment. The deployment of these tactics is illustrated through the case of Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. An analysis using the backfire framework offers guidance on effective ways of deterring and countering sexual harassment.

Keywords: sexual harassment, backfire, Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas

Introduction (3)

Responses to the problem of sexual harassment have been dominated by procedural approaches, with priority given to laws, regulations and grievance committees. There has been considerable effort put into education about the problem, usually accompanied by emphasis on using formal procedures. Consequently, there has been a relative neglect of tactics used by perpetrators and targets of sexual harassment. Wise and Stanley. (1987) argue that sexual harassment has been defined in a narrow fashion that leaves out the harassment of women in everyday life and also their practical means of resistance. Tactics used in practice can be gleaned from the numerous available accounts of sexual harassment. However, there is relatively little study of how to conceptualise tactics and to use such a conceptualisation to formulate anti-harassment strategies.

One of the few systematic treatments of tactics is by Langelan (1993), who draws on women's self-defence theory and nonviolent action theory to develop a framework for how individuals and groups can respond. Key insights from her analysis are that simply standing up and opposing harassment is remarkably effective, that group actions are immensely powerful, and that collecting information and building support are important. Langelan emphasises direct personal confrontation with harassers, relegating legal means to back-up at most.

In this paper, we present a different theoretical framework for analysing and developing tactics concerning sexual harassment, though one that is entirely compatible with Langelan's approach. Our framework builds on the phenomenon that attacks sometimes can backfire on perpetrators by generating greater support for the target. The classic form of backfire is when troops or police use heavy violence against peaceful protesters (Sharp 1973, 2005). Examples include the beating of nonviolent protesters as part of the salt satyagraha in India in 1930, which greatly increased support for independence in India and other countries, the shooting of black protesters at Sharpeville, South Africa, by white police in 1960, an event that punctured the international credibility of apartheid, and the shooting of protesters at a funeral procession in Dili, East Timor, by Indonesian troops in 1991, an atrocity that galvanised international support for East Timor's independence. Backfires can also occur during wartime; the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by US troops at My Lai is a dramatic example.

A closer examination of these and other examples shows that there are two key requirements for attacks to backfire: they must be perceived as unjust or otherwise inappropriate, namely violating social norms; and information about the attacks must be communicated to receptive audiences. In practice, there are many attacks that do not backfire; for example, there were other major massacres in East Timor before the 1991 Dili massacre.

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