The Torture of Women:
Sexual Harassment at the Workplace
© Roberta Spark, MA
One can always be excited about ideas without changing at all. One can think about ideas, talk about ideas, without changing at all, people are willing to think about many things. What people refuse to do, or resist doing, is change the way they think.
Andrea Dworkin; in
This paper explores the phenomenon of work-related sexual harassment of women,
attempting to explain why women do not take more aggressive action against such
It argues that all harassment of women is innately sexual, since it is derived
from the same masculinist value system that drives physical abuse against
Therefore, all work-related abuse of women is sexually motivated.
The paper compares sexual harassment to the trauma of physical abuse. It
equates sexual harassment of women to terrorism by arguing that it meets the
international definition of terrorism and should be accorded the same status.
The paper concludes with some process suggestions and some legal requirements
that lead to sexual equality for women in the public and private work places
Women have always faced subtle and blatant sexual harassment and
discrimination at the work place.
Sexual discrimination refers to actions that result in the denial of
privileges, opportunities, or basic human rights on the basis of sex.
Sexual discrimination is a form of harassment.
Sexual harassment is any sexual advance that threatens a worker's job or well
being, and often features coercion.
It is usually an expression of power made by someone in authority.
Since men hold authority, most harassers are men and most victims are women.
Much of what women experience in the workplace as sexual harassment is
particular to male workplace culture, in part because men do most of the
performance appraisals, make recommendations for developmental training and
promotion, and negotiate contracts. In our culture, men consciously and
subconsciously put women down, turn them into sex objects, and joke about
women's bodies, brains or sexuality
Sexual harassment can be experienced in a number of ways: unnecessary touching
or patting, suggestive remarks or verbal abuse, leering, demands for sexual
favours, compromising invitations, or physical assaults. Sexual harassment may
be humour, pornography, or unwanted and sexually oriented attention.
Workplace sexual harassment may be anything that creates personal discomfort,
or threatens one's well being or functioning at work.
There are two patterns of sexual harassment, with a few cases falling between
First, there is employer related harassment, which like other forms of
employer behaviour, is coercive and directly threatens a woman's job.
Secondly, there is co-worker-initiated harassment, which is rarely coercive
and is connected to the sexist nature of the workplace.
Sexual harassment can be experienced in a number of ways: unnecessary touching
or patting, suggestive remarks or verbal abuse, leering, demands for sexual
favours, compromising invitations, or physical assaults.
Sexual harassment may present as humour, pornography, or unwanted and sexually
oriented attention. Harassment creates personal discomfort, or threatens one's
well-being and ability to function
. There are two patterns of sexual harassment, with a few cases falling
between the cracks.
First, there is employer related harassment, which is coercive and directly
threatens a woman's job.
Secondly, there is co-worker harassment, which is rarely coercive but is
connected to the sexist nature of workplace culture supported, or at least
often unchallenged, by employers.
Sexual harassment in the workplace, unknown to Canadian jurisprudence prior to
1980, leads to unjust dismissal, emotional disabilities, or stress related
It obliges women to work in intolerable situations, to grieve through a union,
to complain to Human Rights, to take legal action under tort law, to ask for a
transfer, or to quit their jobs.
In every situation, the burden of proof rests with the harassed woman.
When we consider the fear of publicity, family and societal responses, and the
cost of litigation, it explains a low reporting rate.
Sexual harassment is a tactic where little is know about its extent and
manifestation, except its quirk of respecting hierarchy. This results in
managerial-level women receiving
"compliments" bordering on gross insults, but secretaries have
advances made on them directly
Harassment takes the form of indirect discrimination and systemic
Indirect discrimination refers to employment policies and practices that
appear neutral but have discriminatory effects on women's opportunities. For
example, job descriptions or advertisements may confuse the content and
responsibilities of a job with stereotypical sexist notions about the
jobholders. Therefore, job qualifications may exclude women from applying.
Systemic discrimination against women is predicated on patriarchal norms and
binary thinking such as men belonging in the public sphere and women belonging
Women in the public sphere are viewed as inappropriate and suspect.
Systemic discrimination involves policies, practices, or laws, which have a
discriminatory or adverse effect on a particular group, even where
discrimination was not intended
Wage discrimination is the difference in average earnings between men and
women doing the same work.
Discrimination may affect every component of the overall wage gap.
For example, differences in hours worked may reflect an inequitable division
of labour within the household.
Differences due to productivity-related factors such as relevant education and
training may reflect screening prior to entry into the labour force.
The nature of work also comes into play, with childcare, nursing, food
service, and sewing viewed as "women's work" similar to
un-remunerated domestic work done by women in the home and so occupy low
economic and social status positions.
Nonetheless, all employers have a legal obligation to provide a harassment
free work site; and federal government employers or contract holders are bound
by the Canada Labour Code and so are obliged to have a sexual harassment policy
There are compelling reasons for the employer to address harassment, because
while it affects the well-being and livelihood of the women employees, it also
affects the morale, productivity and integrity of the workplace.
Moreover, an employer losing a sexual harassment suit has economic
In addition, the number of women in the marketplace, and the increasing number
of women in executive and professional ranks necessitate action on the issue of
Employers or supervisors do not initiate all harassment, male co-workers also
harass women through sexist language, sexual remarks, jokes, pin-ups, or an
offensive work environment.
For a myriad of reasons, men tend to be more explicitly sexist among
themselves. Women are relative newcomers to public employment. Unfortunately,
largely male led trade unions are lukewarm, indifferent, and insensitive
concerning the issue of sexual harassment
Two possible explanations for union attitudes toward sexual harassment are
that male-dominated unions hold stereotypical notions of women themselves, as
well as the difficulty in dealing with the complex issues of representing both
a union member harasser and a union member harassee
Catharine MacKinnon describes women's lives as deeply enmeshed in violence.
She suggests that there is no bright line between flirtation and sexual
According to her, sexual discrimination, harassment and sexual assault on
women are routine:
Intimate violation of women by men is sufficiently pervasive in American
society as to be nearly invisible.
Contained by internalised and structural forms of power, it has been nearly
Conjoined with men's control over women's material survival, as in the home or
at the job, or over women's learning and educational advancement in school, it
has become institutionalized.
MacKinnon posits the reality that sexual harassment, for women, is a
necessary, job-related "term, work condition, and privilege"
According to MacKinnon, women cannot win.
On the one hand, if the women resist and refuse to act sexy or to perform
sexual services, they lose their jobs, or alternatively, are engaged in
lengthy, expensive conflict from a position of disadvantage.
On the other hand, if women comply, they reduced themselves to submissive
sexual objects with precarious employment goals; unworthy of legal concern
because of their "sexual compliance".
Moreover, if women have successful careers, on the one hand they are mocked,
their success is deemed to flow from their sexiness or sexuality; but
nonetheless, these women careerists are a net benefit to "equality"
goals of their particular corporate organization.
MacKinnon differentiates between two kinds of harassment.
The first she labels "quid pro quo", a form of harassment lawyers
may be coaxed to take up, wherein an employer has concocted a working situation
where a subordinate woman worker's sexual compliance is the prerequisite for
employment, benefits, advancement or status.
An example of this type of case might be a secretary’s sexual compliance
necessarily precedes career advances. The second kind of harassment is the more
subtle "condition of work" harassment whereby a woman must tolerate
sexism, surreptitious pinches or kisses, as a matter of course.
An example of this might be a mini-tee-shirted bar maid in a Hooter’s
Restaurant who must endure sexist remarks and inappropriate behaviours to work
and to elicit tips. MacKinnon posits that reluctance to participate in these
games is seen by men –and often employers- as a lack of humour, or an inability
to compete in "a man's world".
These sexist behaviours may escalate to grabbing, hugging, touching,
containment, and even to rape.
While the distinction in types of harassment is valuable in terms of
analytical discussion, it is clear that courts and tribunals are more apt to
support a "quid pro quo" case than they do viewing harassment as a
"condition of work".
This reality might stem from legal circles that fail to fully appreciate that
the sexual harassment
constitutes the aggravated injury, and not just a job-related reprisal to a
victim’s harassment. In other words, legal representatives want to deal with
the process and specifics following a harassment charge, but are loath to deal
with a flawed gender society and social order that allows and arguably even
Andrea Dworkin goes even further than MacKinnon in saying that our whole
society is organized on the premise of male access to female sexuality.
It becomes nearly impossible, then, to separate the abuses of women from the
so-called "normal" uses of women.
In effect, Dworkin argues that harassment is based not on accident, but on
historical male domination and female compliance. She says women must stop
playing "lets make a deal" and fight for their freedom.
She concludes that we have studied and debated long enough, claiming that it
is time for action and resistance
According to Dworkin, we need resistance aboveground, under-ground, in
governments, in professions, and in organizations since social change starts by
My own experiences as a president of a thirteen hundred-member trade union
have given me a view of sexual harassment at a military workplace.
I have seen and heard first-hand both the excuses and the realities of
Frequently it was suggested that men, frustrated and angry about their
economic and political powerlessness scapegoat women; and that men harass women
to elevate themselves at the expense of women.
It was insinuated that male workers intentionally used sexist behaviour to
drive women out of the workplace. Moreover, they pointed out “past practices’,
where historically, women were the objects of biological and psychological
attacks on their person and their gender. Military members rationalized the
historical and apparently continuing subordination of women on a belief that
women were genetically inferior to men and therefore incapable of doing hard
work or making decisions.
Since women were now challenging this obvious sexism, it was men devised
newer, more sophisticated methods of controlling and subordinating women in the
In spite of some advances, too often women tolerate harassment to survive, to
get what they need, want or deserve, or to avoid being punished or humiliated.
Men, conversely, seem to harass for sexual benefits, attention, for
entertainment or humour, or to avoid harassment himself for breaking male macho
Resistance to changing this comes from individuals, workplaces and
When affirmative action and contemporary change at work collides with old
boy's "meritocracy", simply put, women lose.
Moreover, resistance disadvantages many women.
Their issues are stonewalled, trivialized, or appropriated, sometimes even by
their unions. At lower levels of the work hierarchy, men continue manipulate,
neutralize, and intimidate women.
Women are given tedious jobs, impossible supervisors, jobs no one else wants.
Too often, women are intimidated, ostracised, isolated, and punished.
They are excluded from gendered cliques, subject to rumours and speculations,
particularly about their sexuality, appearance, personal life, or alleged
addictions. Women are made apprehensive through threats of punishment, physical
and intellectual intimidation.
Women who have been battered and women who have been harassed share the same
demoralizing and humiliating feelings and trauma, as do female harassment
victims. The battered women moves from guilt, shame, fear and despair to anger,
confusion, and ultimately and hopefully, to exhilaration
The emotional experiences and phases of harassed women mirror those of
battered women. Women who are battered seldom challenge the batterer; they make
excuses for batterers and deny their actions.
Harassed women infrequently challenge or charge their harasser.
Battered women frequently diminish or trivialize the damage to them.
Battered women find little public, peer, family, or institutional acceptance
for their truths.
So too, harassed women tend to diminish or dismiss the damage to their psyches
and careers, but when they do respond seeking corrective action and damages,
they rarely enjoy the support of their unions, or their colleagues or
fellow-workers, let alone management. When women reject traditional excuses and
rationalizations for battering, they begin to see batterers as perpetrators of
violence against women
When harassed women reject the standard excuses for harassment, including the
claim that she acted in ways that encouraged or elicited inappropriate
behaviours, she embarks on a an exercise in deconstruction of a misogynist
society that not only tolerates bur replicates the wilful subordination of
Moreover, sexual harassment, like wife battering, is a social problem that
gets telescoped into a personal problem.
Sexually harassed women, as do battered women, feel guilty, powerless, angry
Some women become desensitised to their harassment, but if it persists, it
results in character changes to the women. They experience poor self-esteem.
Victims wonder if indeed, however inadvertently, "they asked for
Their mental health is affected.
They suffer lethargy, pain, insomnia, and may turn to alcohol or drugs.
Sexually harassed women become isolated.
In summary, sexual harassment, like wife battering, causes severe stress to
It robs them of their self-esteem.
It betrays their professionalism and it ridicules their abilities.
If unresolved, harassment transforms a secure committed worker into a
guilt-ridden and isolated victim who is often unable to function properly.
Sexual harassment and wife battering in Canada could be viewed as acts of
terrorism against women. Sexual harassment and wife battering are both clearly
physical and psychological ways of inflicting pain and suffering on women.
These acts of degradation are intentionally inflicted on women for the purpose
of intimidating and coercing them.
The pervasiveness of the abuse of women and the state's impotence in dealing
with it are tantamount state sanctioned torture.
In 1987 Canada signed the United Nation's Convention against torture.
For the purposes of this Convention, torture meant any act by which severe
pain or suffering is caused, whether physical or mental, or is intentionally
inflicted on a person for the purpose of obtaining a confession, or
intimidating or coercing him or third a third person, for any reason based on
discrimination of any kind when such pain and suffering is inflicted.
The Convention adds the proviso that the torture must be at the instigation,
or with the consent of, or acquiescence of, a state official or person acting
in an official capacity
The preamble states that it was not the intent of the United Nations to deal
with cases of ill treatment that occurs in a non-governmental setting.
It does say, however, that it only relates to practices that occur under some
sort of responsibility of public officials or other persons acting in an
The Convention claims that it is imperative that particular attention be paid
to influencing the behaviour of persons who may be in situations where torture
or other forms of cruel and unusual punishment occur
The Canadian Mental Health Task Force says that victims of catastrophic stress
including man-made assaults such as harassment, threats, rape or torture- bear
wounds that require special compassion and understanding. The Task force
explicitly notes that a psychologically traumatic event is re-experienced
through painful dreams or nightmares, intrusive recollection, detachment or
estrangement from others, and disinterest in previous pastimes.
It may manifest as hyper-alertness, difficulty falling asleep, or problems
with intimacy. It notes that the effects may be felt immediately, or months or
even many years later
The Task Force concludes asking continued resources and support for delineate
the psychological consequences of torture, and to develop effective treatment
modalities for survivors of torture and their families.
During the sexual harassment hearings of Bonnie Robichaud, expert witness
Paula Caplan of OISE detailed to the Human Rights Tribunal the effects of
long-term stress, equating it to the conditions suffered by returning American
veterans of the Vietnam War.
The symptoms were disorientation, inability to make decisions, depression,
lack of judgment, and a host of debilitating physical ailments. Caplan
successfully argued that the strain and emotional costs of sexual harassment
resulted in Robichaud's deteriorating mental and physical condition
It is time for women to commit themselves to zero tolerance of harassment.
All women should stop denying what goes on all the time.
Women must name, confront, and challenge harassment at every level of their
Only women’s massive and equal power in public institutions, politics and
public dialogue will make a difference.
Sexual harassment is dependant upon power imbalances that must be targeted and
eradicated one at a time.
Women's collective efforts must be directed toward political and power
structures that foster the harassment.
Women must attempt to make incremental changes from whatever position they
occupy within the hierarchy, and they must link across class and race.
Individual women must support their sisters-in-struggle.
Unions must be pressured to educate themselves and to support workingwomen.
As employers, women must establish harassment policies and follow them.
As employees, women must demand harassment policies.
Legal systems must emphasize prevention and education.
Time limitations should be dropped, damages awarded should be higher, and
judges, lawyers, and tribunals should be specifically trained on sexual
Just a little over a decade ago, women had no name for their work-related harassment. Now, systems, though imperfect, are in place to address it. It is for the working women of to-day to advance our cause just a little further to ensure that our daughters will no longer be tortured in their own land.
Aggarwal, Arjun P
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
. Toronto: Buttersworth, 1987.
Burgers, J. Herman, and Hans Danelius
The United Nations Convention Against Torture: A Handbook on the Convention
Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1988.
Canadian Task Force on Mental Health Issues Affecting immigrants and Refugees
After The Door has Been Opened: Mental Health Issues Affecting Immigrants and
Refugees In Canada
`Terror, Torture and Resistance'.
Canadian Women Studies
, Vol 12, Number 1. Toronto: York University Publishing, Fall; 1991.
Kathleen J Ferraro and John M. Johnson
`How Women Experience Battering: The Process of Victimization'.
, Vol 30, No 3, February 1983.
The Sexual Harassment of Working Women
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.
MacKinnon, Catharine A
Towards a Feminist Theory of the State
London England: Harvard University Press, 1989.
The Equality Game: Women in the Federal Public Service (1908-1987)
Ottawa: The Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1988.
This paper owns a western industrial bias.
It does not reflect the discriminatory labour-related sexual exploitation
found in developing countries.
The paper does not deal with the diminished ability of the majority of
non-unionised, often minimum wage, women employees to take action against
This study does not link incest, marital rape, stranger, date, and
acquaintance rapes to harassment at the workplace although it is necessary to
do so in future research.
The study does not address the infrequent, but still devastating, workplace
harassment of a man.
The specificity of the sexual discrimination of gays and lesbians at the
workplace is not commented upon.
This paper reflects my own white, heterosexual, and unionised experiences.
2 Women on the military base in Kingston, for example, are referred to as a `split ass' or `beaver'
13 MacKinnon, Catherine. Ibid. pp 193-5.
14 MacKinnon, Catherine. Ibid. pp 195-6.
16 Andrea Dworkin. Canadian Women Studies . Vol. 12, Number 1. Fall 1991.
18 Kathleen J Ferraro and John M. Johnson. Social Problems , Vol. 30, No 3, February 1983.
19 Ferraro & Johnson. Ibid.
21 J. Herman Burgers and Hans Danelius. The United Nations Convention Against Torture: A Handbook on the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment . Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1988. p 177-8. Part 1, Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as adopted by both Canada and the United Nations Assembly on December 10th, 1984.
11 J. Herman Burgers and Hans Danelius. The United Nations Convention Against Torture: A Handbook on the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1988. p 1.
21 Report of the Canadian Task Force on Mental Health Issues Affecting immigrants and Refugees. After The Door has Been Opened: Mental Health Issues Affecting Immigrants and Refugees In Canada . 1988. pp 85-7
22 Transcripts, Human Rights Tribunal. Bonnie Robichaud VS Brennan and the Department of National Defence. Ottawa, July 1889.
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