Sexual Harassment in Public Places: Experiences of Canadian Women

By Lenton, Rhonda; Smith, Michael D. et al. | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment in Public Places: Experiences of Canadian Women


Lenton, Rhonda, Smith, Michael D., Fox, John, Morra, Norman, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


Sexual harassment of women existed long before the Industrial Revolution (Fitzgerald and Shullman, 1993: 5) but it has been defined as a social problem only since the 1960s. Both academics and legal experts have focussed mainly on harassment in the workplace and universities (see Welsh, 1999 for a recent review of the literature). Similarly, federal guidelines in both Canada and the U.S. construe sexual harassment as sexual discrimination in employment - that is, a civil rights violation, not a criminal offense (Canadian Human Rights Commission, 1983; U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, 1988; see also Gruber and Smith, 1995: 550; Canadian Human Rights Commission, 1994).

Studies on the sexual harassment of women in public places are few. This neglect seems to be related to two factors. First, unless public harassment rises to the level of assault, it is not illegal. Some men and women dismiss the behaviour as trivial or even construe it as flattery. Second, public places are viewed as incidental routes that people use on their way to someplace else. Consequently, rules of conduct in streets and other public and semipublic places have not received the same scrutiny as behaviour in private places (Goffman, 1963; Gardner, 1995).

We augment the limited store of existing information on the sexual harassment of women in public places and make comparisons with behaviour in work settings. We first discuss promising theoretical explanations for public harassment. We then summarize extant research. Finally, we report new findings on public harassment based on data from a telephone survey of Canadian women. Despite limitations, our study provides the most systematic evidence available on the prevalence, nature, and effects of sexual harassment in public places. In addition, it allows for preliminary testing of theoretical arguments about the etiology of this behaviour.

Theory and Research

Theoretical Arguments

One of the first sociologists to discuss social interaction in public and semipublic places was Erving Goffman (1963; 1971). He argued that the basic expectation among the unacquainted in public is civil inattention. This aspect of public order insures that people can move about freely without threat to "self." Some conditions may remove the threat and therefore permit breaches of this norm. For example, people who act "out of role" are more likely to be "open" to comment by others. Mutual openness among strangers who have something in common or the need for public assistance constitute other grounds for breaching civil inattention; and certain groups of people, such as children, are considered to have such low status they are thought to have nothing to lose through face-to-face engagement. Goffman thus views street remarks as requiring legitimate causes. He explains remarks of a sexual nature made by men toward women as a way for men in some Western communities to communicate regard for the attractiveness of a passing woman. What happens is then up to the woman. She can choose to ratify the comment with a smile or remark, or to ignore it. In any event, the breach of etiquette is slight since the participants are engaged for only a short period of time (Goffman, 1963: 144-45). Goffman does not see these remarks as potentially problematic for women nor does he consider the implications of gendered etiquette patterns for situationally disadvantaging women in terms of their ability to respond.

Gardner (1989) criticizes Goffman's work for not adequately appreciating the gendered nature of public places and the systematic ill treatment of women by men. She argues that public harassment includes "a group of abuses, harryings, and annoyances characteristic of public places and uniquely facilitated by communication in public, including pinching, slapping, hitting, shouted remarks, vulgarity, insults, sly innuendo, ogling and stalking [that] occurs on a continuum of possible events, beginning when customary civility among strangers is abrogated and ending with the transition to violent crime: assault, rape or murder" (Gardner, 1995: 4). …

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