SUZANNE B. KURTH, BETHANY B. SPILLER,

AND CHERYL BROWN TRAVIS

We argue, along with other authors in this section, that women’s sexuality is one of the arenas in which cultural beliefs about women and mandates for women’s behavior permit men to exercise power over them without their consent.1 An interesting feature of one form of this misuse of power, sexual harassment, is that it is may be both so reflective of nor­mative gender behavior and so embedded in the activities of certain types of organizations that at least on the surface it may appear that nothing unusual is happening. Deconstructing sexual harassment is about making what is sometimes invisible visible; it involves creating labels, highlighting scripts that foster harassing behavior, and examining organizational con­texts.

Identifying sexual harassment is in some ways similar to the discovery of a black hole in space. It is not so much the direct measurements that give it away as the indirect evidence of the distortion of orbits in surround-

‘Although wc acknowledge that men may sexually harass other men and women may harass other women and men, we focus here on the most prevalent form of men harassing women.

ing bodies. Frameworks that disguise or that make sexual harassment in­visible are part of the underlying fabric of society, especially gender rela­tions, that we hope to make more tangible in this chapter.

In American culture, those who have had the most influence in con­structing the meaning and significance of such behaviors have been men whose interests are served by defining sexually harassing behavior as friend­liness, humor, playful flirtation, innocent misunderstanding, or a sincere expression of sexual attraction. Men are thus able to claim, often effec­tively, that the sexual harassment never occurred (i. e., something else hap­pened, perhaps a joke). They also are able to promote the idea that al­though something may have occurred, it was nothing of significance and no harm was done; perhaps it was a harmless flirtation. Finally, if a problem is acknowledged, it can be discounted as a problem created by the woman; that is, it is her problem because she lacks a sense of humor, misinterpreted friendly interest, or was overly sensitive and anxious about her own sexu­ality. The man, on the other hand, was only engaging in socially normative behavior, perhaps as an indication of his legitimate attraction.

Level of intimacy, meaning, and significance are aspects of social re­lations that are negotiated. But the playing field is not level for all parties. To the extent that women’s own consciousness and understanding are shaped and colored by the dominant discourse of society, women are likely to have difficulty in identifying harassment as it occurs, and are likely to experience feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and helplessness in the face of it.

The shifting nature of these negotiations about meaning is under­scored by the fact that the term sexual harassment was virtually nonexistent in print media until the mid-1970s. Even now, on the verge of a new century, what constitutes sexual harassment is being debated. Yet, as sexual harassment, rape, and pornography are subjected to increased scrutiny, “their continuity with accepted social norms has also become more obvi­ous. Boundaries between flirtation and harassment, seduction and rape, erotica and exploitation” are fuzzy because of the links between dominant sexual scripts and the subordination of women (Rhode, 1989, pp. 230­231). As a society, Americans are relying increasingly on legal proceedings to clarify these boundaries. For example, through interpretation of Title VII, two types of sexual harassment, quid pro quo (an outright proposition for sex) and hostile work environment, are identified as employment dis­crimination. Through the adjudication of cases, the legal definition of sex­ual harassment is gradually evolving; however, we will not detail this ev­olution. Instead, in this chapter we focus on issues of power that underlie these social negotiations and on the interpersonal and organizational con­texts that form a framework for these negotiations.

The power issues of sexual harassment may be fleshed out (as it were) in the details of gender roles and sexual scripts or as they are embedded in the structural context of larger organizations. For this reason, in this chapter we move from personal and interpersonal contexts to structural and organizational contexts. Throughout, we rely on the concepts of power, gender, and context as a means of integrating the discussion.

In the following sections we review key elements of social negotia­tion, including power and consent. We then discuss the ways in which interpersonal sexual scripts provide a context whereby harassment is fos­tered, examining both traditional male and traditional female sexual scripts. In the third section we explore organizational contexts for acade­mia, business, and the military. We discuss organizational characteristics that foster sexual harassment in each of the three types of organizations, and how reliance on hierarchical structures is a major contextual basis for harassment in all. In particular, we argue that the preferences of men who control organizations are embedded in the organizational contexts that al­low for and simultaneously ignore sexual harassment.