From the Streets to the Citadels of Power: The Feminist Approach to Sexual Harassment

Not an isolated phenomenon, [sexual harassment] belongs on a continuum of mutually reinforcing behaviors and messages that permeate women’s lives…

Sexual  harassment will abate when women forbid its trivialization and minimization as “misconduct,” or “inappropriate workplace behavior” and  when women refuse to tolerate the impunity afforded Clarence Thomas, A Supreme Court Justice(!) and  President Donald Trump.

Sexual harassment happens within and because of its context: a society whose psycho-sociological, cultural, political, and economic structures function to subordinate women and simultaneously to connect male power with sexual domination, and system-wide domination based on sex.

 Written by rena Grasso   Reader Supported News  Writing for Godot
November 16, 2017

By ignoring history and rational analysis, media coverage of sexual harassment obscures its sources and obstructs change. Without removing its causes, sexual harassment will continue to victimize women.  Its pervasiveness is not new. Feminists exposed this decades ago.  The present “epidemic” is an outbreak of visibility, rather than of occurrence, a symptom of chronic malignant sexism that periodically comes to light.

‘Sexual harassment’, the phrase and its exposure, was born in the radicalizing crucibles of second wave consciousness-raising groups. In women-only spaces: living rooms, meeting halls, classrooms, they identified personal experiences, discovered that other women shared them, and realized that “the personal is the political.”  Such was Cornell’s Women and Work class, formatted to elicit students’ real work experiences, facilitated by sociologist Lyn Farley in the 1970s.

Numerous stories emerged of being touched, harangued for sexual favors, bargained with and coerced by men. Like today, this exposure was explosive.  Unlike today, women’s gatherings were erupting across the country, lifting into the light of consciousness a ubiquitous, wide range of violating and violent behavior inflicted on women: rape, wife battering and murder, sexual harassment, childhood molestation, and emotional abuse.

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Connecting the dots, feminists developed the intellectual framework for understanding sexual harassment. Not an isolated phenomenon, it belongs on a continuum of mutually reinforcing behaviors and messages that permeate women’s lives from street cat calls, to calling women “girls”, to a steady diet of objectifying advertisement, to sexist jokes and pornography, to daily reports of rape (often belittled and denied), to domestic violence and murder.

Sexual harassment happens within and because of its context: a society whose psycho-sociological, cultural, political, and economic structures function to subordinate women and simultaneously to connect male power with sexual domination, and system-wide domination based on sex.

For example, the present cast of high profile perpetrators, i.e. rich and powerful men, underscores how economics and politics keep women in dependent, low status roles that render them vulnerable to male power. Of course it’s the wealthy men, the ones with the rank, the ones in positions to influence salary, grades, and promotion. But that’s the problem. Men dominate every institution: education, the arts, the media, government, business and corporations, the military, and, of course, Hollywood,

BlackWomenMatterThe problem of male power isn’t confined to the top echelons.  Male wealth and power cut across class stratifications and racial divides. Not all men are top dogs.  But women are at the bottom of all respective race and class divisions that they share with their male entitled peers. Hence, the diversity of sexual harassers and workplaces, from the double-breasted silk-suited dapper charmers to sleazy bullies, from media studios to factories.

Examining hitherto invisible female experiences, feminists identified the politics of the 3500 years old system, Patriarchy, the social organization that weaves female subordination throughout its structures. Hence, the majority of women experience double whammy oppression, class and sexism, racism and sexism in an air tight system that promotes divisiveness amongst women, and male bonding.  “ Me subject, her object,” “me superior, her inferior” is the compensatory consciousness/ privilege that adjusts men to systematic inequality, and provides a (female) scapegoat for whatever resentments and frustrations the system breeds in egos conditioned to entitlement.

First Nation Women at DC Climate Change Rally_2.17.13

Non top-dog men are oppressed by class and race elaborations of the sexist domination/subjugation paradigm. However, filtering out for class and race, that spectrum of sexist violence functions exclusively to diminish women: by intimidation and fear that restrict female experience, by the denial of females’ humanness, by the propagation of denigrating images and messages, and by the creation of subjugating dynamics that ensnare women in abusive relationships.

The damage to women is incalculable. The numbers, so large, they numb. In this country, daily, 26 women are murdered by intimate partners; one of four women has experienced rape and sexual assault; every woman has been subjected to some form of sexual harassment on the long highway between the street and the citadels of power.

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What’s truly stunning is how tacit acceptance, knowing enablers,  and failure to exact justice render this evil invisible, as if it was an inexorable fact of life, like breathing — unexamined, unconscious background noise except when something extreme thrusts it into the public eye.

The invisibility of the scope of violence guided radical feminists to the poisonous roots of Patriarchy. They examined the irrational depths of consciousness distorted by the myth of male superiority, and its predicate, female inferiority.

This oppressive duality powerfully molds human character and culture because, through the processes of socialization, it is intimately tied up with feelings, ego needs, and identities. Sexism is imprinted in the primordial layers of pre-verbal and unconscious development in the cradle, in acquired sexist language structures, in the lessons of rewarded and punished behaviors. Politically, not sex “difference” but sex hierarchy structures the way we think (consciousness) and is correspondingly materialized in the social and political structures that realize/actualize male power and privilege.  A powerful feedback loop is created.  The proposition of male superiority embedded in consciousness is “confirmed” by the reality of male power and privilege in all patriarchal institutions.

Everyone who grows up in Patriarchy constantly inhales, digests, practices, and reflects sexist behaviors, beliefs, ideas, images and stories. No one’s consciousness (male or female) is uncontaminated. So, too, with racism, only sexism is deeper, more pervasive, more denied, and more invisible

Today, media pundits are saturating the communication waves with clichés and ready-made phrases, gasping at new revelations, and broadcasting prophetic catchwords, “sea change,” a “watershed,” “a game changer.” Like, this time, sexual harassment is done for.

That’s not going to happen!  What can effect meaningful change is indicated in the history that has been buried and distorted in the great backlash against feminism. For this history lesson, back one half century to 1975, to Cornell: knowledge of workplace abuse/violence spread from Farley’s class, encouraging an administrative assistant in the Physics Department to ask the feminist group for help. After years of harassment from a physicist professor, she had sought redress from the Cornell Administration. Her claim was dismissed.

The feminist group acted. They organized a Speak-out, calling it Women United for Work. In May, 1975, the NY Times covered the action, introduced the group’s term, ‘sexual harassment’, and quoted Farley‘s, “It’s a virtual epidemic.”

Feminists spread leaflets and posters across campus, and in local factories and businesses. Activism generated books, articles, presentations (i.e. gave attention to), entered workplace policy manuals, produced legislation, and funded sexual harassment education and training (before funding was cut in the 90s).

The absence of this history befogs collective discourse and hampers women from doing what needs to be done. It permits the popular self-defeating clichés from women conditioned to give power to men: “This isn’t going to stop until men take responsibility.”

Nothing could be more misleading.  Accountability, not responsibility, is the issue. Sexual harassment, rape, wife battering are not going to stop until violent men are made justly accountable, go to prison and experience searing public disgrace and shame.

Sexual  harassment  will abate  when women forbid its trivialization and minimization as “misconduct,” or “inappropriate workplace behavior” and  when women refuse to tolerate the impunity afforded Clarence Thomas, A Supreme Court Justice(!) and  President Donald Trump.

For many reasons, men cannot lead this political transformation. Few men understand the effects of sexual harassment. They haven’t experienced the feelings of being human prey: how it shames and humiliates, undermines confidence, and causes debilitating stress. Hence, as recent polls show, many men just don’t get what the big deal is.

Many more men resist, deny, or become hostile when confronted with power and violence. Guilt provokes defensive anger. For it’s the same system that bequeaths them male privilege. History teaches that those in power don’t meekly turn it over.

A few men do have the insight and the courage of conscience to acknowledge sexual politics. And it is vital that men develop this awareness and become responsible agents of dissent and change.

But only women can mobilize a political movement to transform the deep, far-reaching tentacles of sexism. Women must brave the challenges of leadership. This is a precondition of success for its shatters the myth of female subordination in themselves and others, interrupting the feedback loop of patriarchal false consciousness. No people, group, or individual breaks the grip of oppression without fighting to break the shackles.  Women have to stand up and fight for ourselves. We are responsible for exacting accountability. Herstory shows that, true for all the oppressed, women have had to fight as long (if not longer) and as hard for every right. So has it always been…so it must be!


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  1. […] via From the Streets to the Citadels of Power: The Feminist Approach to Sexual Harassment | Rise Up Time… […]

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