Sexual Harassment: Where We Were, Where We Are and Prospects for the New Millennium Introduction to the Special Issue

By Sev'er, Aysan | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment: Where We Were, Where We Are and Prospects for the New Millennium Introduction to the Special Issue


Sev'er, Aysan, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


While the North American continent is engulfed in a celebratory mood at the dawn of the new millennium, there are numerous genderized problems that continue to taint the relationship of women and men in what can be seen as a continuum of mistrust and misogyny. This special issue of the Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology is dedicated to shedding light onto a particular problem in this continuum: gender harassment (GH) and sexual harassment (SH). The papers in this collection sometimes pursue conceptual aspects of SH, sometimes challenge methodological problems or theoretical voids, and sometimes provide new data and analyses. In its own way of inquiry, each paper paves the way for a new awareness, knowledge and positive change.

Conceptualizations of Sexual Harassment

Although SH has a long history as a problem for women (Weeks et al., 1986), it only recently acquired a label to make it visible. Moreover, only within the past few decades has it been transformed from' a mostly unexplored private iii to a public and social problem. Weeks and her colleagues (1986) trace the history of this transformation, first as an attempt to call the practice to public attention, then in labelling it as "sexual harassment," and finally in defining it as detrimental to work life. In the early 1970s, U.S. legislation linked SH to civil rights violations, elevating the issue to social problem status (Weeks et al., 1986).

Early feminist scholars who identified the problem saw SH as a means for men to subordinate women in the workplace and education (Backhouse and Cohen, 1978; 1981; Collins and Blodgett, 1981; Crull, 1982; Glass, 1988; Grahame, 1985; Kadar, 1982; MacKinnon, 1979; Schneider, 1985). Others see it as a form of sexual discrimination (Hemming, 1985; Landrine and Klonoff, 1997; Murrell, Olson and Frieze, 1995). In 1978, the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) recognized SH to be a particular form of discrimination prohibited under the Canadian Human Rights Act. In Canada, other early attempts include the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASH) definition as:

any unwanted sexually based or sexually oriented practice which creates discomfort and/or threatens a woman's personal well-being or functioning (mental, physical or emotional). Sexual harassment includes verbal abuse, jokes, leering, touching or any unnecessary contact, the display of pornographic material, the invasion of personal space, sexual assault and rape, or any threat of retaliation or actual retaliation for any of the above (cited in Kadar, 1982).

Grahame's (1985) comprehensive definition states:

persistent or abusive unwanted sexual attention made by a person who knows or ought reasonably to know that such attention is unwanted. Sexual harassment includes all sexually oriented practices and actions which may create a negative psychological or emotional environment for work, study, or the buying or selling of services. It may include an implicit or explicit promise of reward or compliance. Threats may take the form of actual reprisals or denial of opportunity for work, study, the purchase or sale of services (Grahame, 1985: 112).

In 1989, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled sexual harassment to be:

the gamut from overt gender based activity, such as coerced intercourse, to unsolicited physical contact, to persistent propositions, to more subtle conduct such as gender based insults and taunting, which may reasonably be perceived to create a negative psychological and emotional work environment (Canadian Human Rights Commission, 1991: 39).

The scope of the above definitions are wide enough to include all acts and pressures women(1) may experience, from those in managerial or supervisory positions, to peers, to those who are under their supervision. Most of the literature is focussed on conduct of men towards women, but increasingly subsumes issues of racism (Murrell, 1996) and the harassment of gays and lesbians (Berrill, 1992; Epstein, 1997). …

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