Sexual Harassment Losing Sight of Sex Discrimination

By Thornton, Margaret | Melbourne University Law Review, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment Losing Sight of Sex Discrimination


Thornton, Margaret, Melbourne University Law Review


[In this article, the author argues that the separation of sexual harassment from sex discrimination within legal and popular discourses deflects attention from systemic discrimination. The article examines a range of conduct to support the view that the closer to heterosex the harassing conduct is, the more likely it is to be accepted as sexual harassment. This corporealised focus not only individualises the conduct and detracts from the idea of women as rational knowers in authoritative positions, it also legitimises other forms of harassing conduct in the workplace. The unremitting focus on the sexual in sexual harassment therefore serves a convenient political and ideological purpose within a neo-liberal climate that privileges employer prerogative over workers' rights.]

I INTRODUCTION: EMBODIMENT AT WORK

Legal proscriptions against sexual harassment in the workplace, accompanied by avenues of redress, have existed in Australia for approximately two decades. The legal and popular discourses around sexual harassment have caused women to think about the way the phenomenon detracts from their personhood. They not only have the right to say `no' to a boss or a colleague, but to complain formally, either in-house or to a government agency, if they are sexually harassed. The evidence suggests that corporations are paying much more attention to internal grievance mechanisms than was once the case. (1)

While the recognition of sexual harassment as a legal wrong is an important step in securing human rights for women and non-dominant men, my support for the action is by no means unequivocal. I suggest that the disproportionate attention paid to the sexual in sexual harassment, as illustrated by the high profile media cases of the 1990s, (2) has deflected attention away from the sex-based discrimination that informs it. (3) The erection of a line of demarcation between sexual harassment and sex discrimination has been legitimated in Australia through legislation, despite the fact that the proscriptions against harassing and discriminatory conduct are contained in the same legislative instruments. (4) The construction of women workers as primarily sexed can have the effect of affirming the misogynistic subtext of the social script that the feminine is a dangerous and disorderly force within a sphere of rationality. It allows women to continue to be constituted as `Others' to `Benchmark Men'--that is, those who are Anglo-Celtic, heterosexual and able-bodied, and who are the normative inhabitants of the world of paid work. (5) The corporealisation of women in positions where they are expected to display reason is a very effective mechanism for impugning the authority of the feminine. Such practices help to explain the phenomenon of the glass ceiling that operates to exclude women from authoritative positions. (6)

Typically, men are the respondents in sexual harassment complaints and women are the targets. This accentuates a heterosexed paradigm with its connotations of sexual desire which lies at the basis of popular understandings of sexual harassment. However, in accordance with the glass ceiling theory, harassment is frequently perpetrated against women, irrespective of their sexual orientation, because they are not wanted in certain sectors of the workplace. This harassment may be more appropriately characterised as discrimination at work; it has nothing to do with desire. (7) Similarly, non-dominant men may be the targets of harassment at work because they do not fit into prevailing masculinist cultures. While this phenomenon is familiar in Australia, the essentialised understanding of sexual harassment has precluded the lodgment of complaints under this head to date. (8)

This heterosexed understanding of sexual harassment also needs to be placed in its broader sociopolitical context. Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed a swing away from the ideal of justice for women, as well as for Aboriginal people and classes of Others generally, to a focus on the individual. …

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