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What Is Sexual Harassment? A Different Perspective

Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.

Think about this story for a moment:

In November [2009], … the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain agreed to pay $345,000 to six male employees who claimed they were repeatedly sexually assaulted by a group of male kitchen staffers at a Phoenix-area restaurant.

Okay, now let me share another story with you:

…but one thing I noticed about him was that he feels up every woman he meets.

The first story came from an MSNBC article about the rising number of men filing formal claims of sexual harassment in the workplace.  The second story is a critique of a character on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”, who is a gay man: can gay men sexually harass straight women?  I bet that there is a good chance that after reading the first story, you thought to yourself, “oh, the male perpetrators must be gay!”  And, after reading the second, you might have caught yourself questioning how a gay man could sexually harass a woman – why would he want to?

The point of this exercise is to highlight that many of us assume, even subconsciously, that sexual harassment entails some unwanted and harassing behaviors motivated by sexual desire.  So, some might find it confusing that a heterosexual person would harass someone of their same gender, or that a gay man might harass a woman.  But, what underlies sexual harassment is an expression of power – not desire.

The Traditional Definition Of Sexual Harassment

Beginning with the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, the dominant, legal definition of sexual harassment that has evolved overtime is one of harassing behaviors or differential treatment that are sexual in nature.  This includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and creating a hostile environment.  While it is understood that men can also be the victims of sexual harassment, men as harassers and women as targets of harassment is central to our common understanding of sexual harassment.  In fact, sexual harassment is commonly defined as a form of gender-based discrimination (against women).

Sexual Harassment As A Gendered Expression Of Power

There is a great deal of work, particularly in the social sciences, women and gender studies, and sexuality studies that demonstrates that sexual harassment is an expression of power, especially along the lines of gender.  For example, three sociologists recently published a study in which they found that women who hold supervisor-level positions are more likely than women who do not to experience sexual harassment.  These experiences for women supervisors largely serve to put them “in their place,” signaling that they are unwelcome in a position of power as women.  Unfortunately, factors beyond interactions among individuals appear to place women at greater risk for harassment: working in male-dominated fields, and being physical and socially isolated from other women.

Sexual Harassment Is Not (Only) About Gender

Indeed, women are not alone in being targets of sexual harassment.  Though less common, some men are victims of these experiences, as well.  In another sociological study on sexual harassment, a number of men reported experiencing sexually harassing behaviors; however, men are much more apprehensive to define these experiences as sexual harassment, probably because the common understanding limits these experiences to women.  This study also pointed out two interesting dynamics: adolescent males and men who are financially vulnerable (i.e., feel they do not have control over their financial situation) are more frequently targets of sexual harassment.

Indeed, sexual harassment is not merely a gendered phenomenon.  For example, there has been a great deal of attention in research to racial differences in women’s experiences of sexual harassment.  This work has explored whether women of color are more often targeted than white women, there are racial differences in defining one’s experiences as harassment, and whether women of color experience sexual harassment differently than white women.  Some Black feminist scholars like Drs. Patricia Hill Collins and Angela Y. Davis have noted that sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence are manifestations of sexism, as well as racism and classism.

But, I wish to push this perspective one step further — sexual harassment is the sexual-based expression of any system of oppression, be it sexism, racism, homophobia or heterosexism, transphobia, classism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, or xenophobia.  A few examples come to mind:

  • A white heterosexual man jokes with his Black heterosexual male coworker that he must have large penis (because he’s Black).
  • A heterosexual woman doctor asks a lesbian patient about the particular sexual activities in which she engages with her female sexual partners to make sense of why the patient does not regularly use (male) condoms or other forms of birth control.
  • A girl from a working-class background is teased frequently by boys at her school that she provides oral sex in the school bathroom to make money.
  • A cisgender man repeatedly asks his neighbor, a trans man, about parts of his body and his sex life.

A Different Perspective

So, two related points come from this perspective on sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is not limited to the unwanted and harassing behaviors that are sexual in nature by (heterosexual) men targeted toward (heterosexual).  To focus just on gender and, specifically on men as harassers and women as victims, forces us to overlook the other various ways in which sexual harassment occurs.  As a consequence, many people whose experiences fall outside of this traditional view may fail to define their experiences as sexual harassment, leading them to forgo seeking legal recourse or protection, or any actions to end the harassment in general.

The other related point is that this male-harasser-female-victim perspective is somewhat heterosexist; that is, it presumes that all parties involved are heterosexual.  By extension, this means that heterosexual desire must be present — one that entails a sexually aggressive heterosexual man and a sexually-disinterested heterosexual woman.  I must state this clearly, here: sexual harassment is not an expression of desire.  As such, one individual may repeatedly sexually harass another individual whom they do not find sexually desirable.  (In the case of sexual harassment between men, for example, it is probably the case that that heterosexual men sexual harass gay men much more frequently than the reverse.)

Now that US laws have shifted to reflect the reality that some men are survivors of sexual violence, it may be time to broaden how we define sexual harassment.  Indeed, we are beginning to acknowledge that men, too, are targets of sexual harassment.  But, it may be necessary that we recognize that sexual harassment may be an expression of racism, heterosexism, sexism, transphobia, classism, or any other form of oppression – as well as the intersections among them.

The Concept of Double Jeopardy: A Look At The Lives Of Multiply Disadvantaged Individuals

Black Feminism Symbol

To my surprise, I came across an article posted on Huffington Post yesterday that mentions “double jeopardy” — here, in the academic sense.  The article reviews a study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found that leaders of unsuccessful companies in a fictitious news story were more harshly criticized when they were Black women.  That is, Black women faced more penalties (in this case, criticism) than Black men, white women, and white men:

In a study conducted by Rosette and Livingston, 228 participants read fictitious news articles about a company’s performance, including permutations in which the leader was black or white, male or female and successful or unsuccessful. What they found was that black women who failed were viewed more critically than their underperforming white or male counterparts — even those of the same race.

What Is “Double Jeopardy”?

I say, “to my surprise,” because a quick search for “double jeopardy” on Google yields site after site about the movie, Double Jeopardy, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd; a search on Wikipedia also yields a page about the film, as well as a few pages about the legal concept of double jeopardy.  Ironically, the legal meaning of double jeopardy, in which a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, somewhat counters the academic meaning of the term.  In this sense, double jeopardy refers to the additional barriers and burdens faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses (e.g., Black women) compared to their singly disadvantaged (e.g., white women and Black men) and privileged counterparts (e.g., white men).

As early as the late 1960s, the term double jeopardy came into use to highlight the unique experiences of Black women, particularly their simultaneous exposure to racism and sexism (and classism). As the second wave feminist movement made progress through the 1960s and 1970s for women’s rights, calls from Black, Chicana, and multicultural feminists, lesbian feminists, and other women who faced other forms of oppression other than sexism to attend to the diverse needs and experiences among women grew louder.  Various feminist activists and scholars worked intensely to draw attention to the fact that the category of “woman” and all of its associated experiences and obstacles is not universal; many advocated for a perspective that considers the intersections among sexism, racism, and classism.

Double Jeopardy Versus Intersectionality

Over time, awareness of the full array of systems of oppression that operate simultaneously has evolved to include heterosexism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, xenophobia, and so forth.  Obviously, one can be disadvantaged in multiple ways or face “multiple jeopardy,” for example, as a lesbian, woman, Latina, and working-class person.   In fact, in my own research, I have found just that: among 15-25 year olds, the more disadvantaged statuses an adolescent or young adult holds (among race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class), the more forms of discrimination one faces (e.g., race and gender and sexual orientation discrimination).  And, as a result, these multiply disadvantaged individuals face double or multiple jeopardy in mental and physical health; that is, partially because of their disproportionate exposure to discrimination, they face even more depressive symptoms and worse physical health than more privileged youth.

While the notion of multiple jeopardies — almost easily counted based on the number of disadvantaged statuses one holds — is still used in some research, especially in sociological work on health, it has fallen out of favor among scholars who study the intersections among race, gender, and class.  This is, in part, because the idea of adding up one’s statuses, essentially adding one’s exposure to sexism to one’s exposure to racism and so on, misses the ways in which these identities and systems of oppression intersect.  Or, said another way, racism + sexism + classism misses how one experiences the world as a working-class Black woman, an experience that is not merely the sum of working-class experiences + Black experiences + woman experiences.  These systems of oppression intersect and mutually reinforce one another in such a way, for example, that homophobic policies like the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy harm Black women more than any other group.

Should We Do Away With Double Jeopardy?

Well, if we meant the literal experience of multiple systems of oppression — yes, we should do away with it.  But, what I mean here is, if it seems the notion of “double jeopardy” misses the ways in which systems of oppression intersect, should we stop using it in the way that we understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals?  Having used the concept in past and current research, it might seem I have a vested interest in calling for the continued use of the concept.

Like any good researcher, I would say the appropriateness, relevance, and usefulness of the concept depends on your research question.  In health research, documenting whether multiply disadvantaged groups are at elevated risk for illness and disease necessarily calls for a comparison with singly disadvantaged and privileged groups.  For example, lesbian and bisexual women’s elevated risk for obesity is identified by comparing them to heterosexual women, gay and bisexual men, and heterosexual men.  But, what causes that elevated risk — factors brought on or exacerbated by sexism and heterosexism — can be said to be evidence of double jeopardy (sexism + heterosexism) and intersectionality (the intersection of sexism and heterosexism).

As such, in general, I would recommend that we need both perspectives — multiple jeopardy and intersectionality — to fully understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals and their more privileged counterparts.  Even if you use only one of these two perspectives, you are contributing to what little we know about the lives and experiences of, and challenges faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses.

On The Importance Of Intersectionality: Multiple Forms Of Discrimination And Health

Black Gays for Justice and Respect

Over thirty years ago, Black feminist scholars and activists began emphasizing the importance of recognizing every identity and status of which each individual is comprised.  We are not merely a particular gender, nor race, nor class.  In fact, the crux of the perspective known as intersectionality is that we must account for the intersecting nature of our identities and statuses.  For example, a full understanding of the lives of Black women cannot come from considering their lives as Black people only, as women only, nor as the sum of these two sets of experiences.

Fortunately, sociologists like myself are beginning to recognize that it is crucial to examine intersectionality in our research.  But, it seems one key component of the theoretical framework of intersectionality is often overlooked.  Black feminist scholars, like Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw, called not only to examine the intersections among race, gender, class, and sexual identity, but, more importantly, to focus on the intersecting and mutually reinforcing relationships among systems of oppression: racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity.

In my own research on the health consequences of discrimination, I have noticed that almost every one of the hundreds of studies on discrimination and health focus exclusively on one form of discrimination – especially racial discrimination.  There is solid evidence demonstrating that one’s experiences with discrimination are consequential for one’s mental and physical health; however, these studies have not examined whether the relationship between discrimination and health depends upon the number of forms of discrimination individuals experience.  Could it be the case that individuals who face sexist and racist discrimination fare worse in terms of health than those who experience sexist discrimination or racist discrimination only?

In a study I published in the June 2012 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, I find that the answer is yes, at least among youth.   Using a sample of 1,052 Black, Latina/o, and white youth aged 15-25 from the Black Youth Culture Survey of the Black Youth Project, I found five important patterns.

  1. First, disadvantaged youth report more frequent exposure to their status-specific form of discrimination.  Black and Latina/o youth report more frequent race discrimination than white youth.  Girls and young women report more frequent gender discrimination than boys and young men.  Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth report more frequent sexual orientation discrimination than heterosexual youth.  And, youth whose families have been on welfare or state assistance report more class discrimination than youth from wealthier families.

    Reports of Each Form of Discrimination

  2. Generally, more frequent exposure to each form of discrimination is associated with worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms in the past month.
  3. Multiply disadvantaged youth (e.g., Black working-class boys, Latina lesbian and bisexual girls) report facing more forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination overall (i.e., the sum of the frequency of exposure to the four forms of discrimination).

    Number of Forms of Discrimination Reported by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

    Overall Frequency of Discrimination by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

  4. Youth who face multiple forms of discrimination and more frequent discrimination report worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms than youth who face fewer forms and less frequent discrimination.

    Self-Rated Health by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

    Depressive Symptoms by Number of Disadvantaged Statuses

  5. Multiply disadvantaged youth experience worse self-rated physical health and more depressive symptoms compared to their more privileged counterparts.  This is due, in part, to their disproportionate exposure to multiple forms of and chronic discrimination.  That is, exposure to multiple forms of discrimination contributes to these documented health disparities.

These findings reiterate the importance of examining the intersections among systems of oppression.  In the case of this article, only examining racial discrimination or gender discrimination, for example, would miss that youth who are disadvantaged in more than one way face the greatest amount of discrimination.  Unfortunately, scholarship and popular discussions of racism, or sexism, or homophobia in isolation from other forms of oppression continue to gloss over the experiences of individuals whose lives are constrained by multiple systems of oppression.

Is There A Double Standard For Homophobia?

Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people exist.  Black same-gender couples exist.  Black heterosexual and cisgender allies to the LGBT community exist.  However, the way that race and sexual orientation, race and gender identity, race and bi/homophobia, and race and transphobia are talked about, it almost seems as if LGBT and Black are mutually exclusive.  And, to be more specific, they are at odds with one another.

Black people who are homo/bi/transphobic exist, too.  But, somehow, the US seems fixated on the anti-LGBT prejudice harbored by Black communities as if such sentiments exist in a vacuum.  That is, we discuss “black homophobia” as a social problem, while, of course, acknowledging “homophobia” as a social problem.  Notice here that we do not hear of explicit concern about “white homophobia.”  Why?

An Example: Prop 8 In California, 2008

Let’s take an example.  Prop 8.  In 2008, the state of California successfully passed an amendment to ban the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.  While the entire nation witnessed history with the election of the first (half-)Black president, the US also took one step back by stripping one of the few states with marriage equality of legal same-sex marriage.  Now, over three years later, legal challenges to Prop 8 are working their way up the judicial branch.

Immediately following the passage of Prop 8, many in LGBT communities, the media, politicians, and others engaged in a blame-game, pointing a finger squarely at Black Californians for the amendment’s success.  Initially, results from the California exist polls suggested that a larger proportion of Black voters voted in favor of banning same-sex marriage relative to voters of other races.  Corrected analyses were released later, indicating that Black voters were no more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to vote in favor of Prop 8.  More importantly, Blacks only represented 6 percent of all voters in California in 2008; even if every Black voter voted in favor of the ban, that 6 percent cannot be fairly held accountable for the entire 51 percent that voted in favor of Prop 8.  But, despite what the numbers say, some were quite hostile toward Blacks in the US, even resorting to racist assaults.

A Double Standard For Prejudice?

Why was it so easy to blame a fraction of the population for the majority’s decision to deny marriage equality in California?  Why did our attention focus on homophobia in Black communities, while failing to ask about homophobia in the US and, more specifically, homophobia in white communities?  And, why were we so angry with Black homophobes (and, at times, all Black people), but not so much white homophobes?

I argue that the answer is a double standard for homophobia.  At the root of the angry reaction toward Black voters who favored the passage of Prop 8 is confusion.  We are confused by what seems to be an oxymoron: a prejudiced minority, the oppressive oppressed, and so on.  We cannot seem to understand how one group, still facing the contemporary remnants of a history of enslavement, exclusion, discrimination, and violence, can harbor prejudice and discrimination against another, marginalized group.  The logic would seem that, given Blacks’ own experiences with prejudice, discrimination, and violence, they should be empathetic toward the plight of LGBT communities due to their exposure with prejudice, discrimination, and violence.

While the logic of empathy makes sense on the surface, it creates five problems (of likely a few others):

  1. It makes invisible the anti-LGBT prejudice, discrimination, and violence of whites.  Though we single-out Blacks when we express our concern about homophobia in Black communities, whites are invisible as a specific racial group in larger discussions of homophobia.  And, it begs the question, should we expect whites to be homo/bi/transphobic?
  2. It holds Blacks to a different standard than whites.  Thus, LGBT- and non-LGBT people alike scrutinize the positions and actions of Black communities and organizations regarding gender and sexuality.  In the aftermath of Prop 8, LGBT and cisgender heterosexuals criticized Blacks in California for their contribution to the passage of Prop 8.
  3. It leads us to overlook the alliances between Black and LGBT communities and organizations, and the positive steps that Black people have taken to fight for the equal rights of LGBT people.
  4. It keeps invisible Black LGBT people.  In discussing whether Blacks are homophobic, we fail to acknowledge that some Black people are LGBT, have friends who are LGBT, and who have relatives who are LGBT.  Unfortunately, predominantly-heterosexual Black communities, predominantly-white LGBT communities, and society in general are responsible for maintaining an image of Black as straight and gay as white.
  5. It fails to ask about racism in LGBT communities.  Even with some obviously racially motivated anger directed at Black communities by LGBT people following Prop 8, there was little explicit discussion about the racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence perpetrated by LGBT people.

Let’s Look More Broadly

Frankly, the social science research on racial and ethnic differences in attitudes toward LGBT people, same-gender relationships, and homo/bisexuality is mixed; but, the tendency seems to be, once you have accounted for racial differences in religiosity and education, you see little racial difference in these attitudes and, for some matters (e.g., LGBT rights), you actually see more favorable attitudes among Blacks compared to whites.  But, that is missed in a narrow focus on homophobia among Blacks.  The larger point that is missed is that Blacks, like whites, are socialized in a society that stigmatizes LGBT people.  Period.  Thus, all people, regardless of race and ethnicity, are implicated in the maintenance or elimination of homo/bi/transphobia.  Though one might be sympathetic, or even empathetic, to the plight of other marginalized groups, one’s own marginalized status does not make one automatically an ally.

Another point that is often overlooked is the sneaky (and not-so-sneaky) efforts of white, cisgender, heterosexual men to pit Black and LGBT communities against one another.  A recent example of such “divide and conquer” strategizing is not as subtle as other conservative politicians and religious leaders’ efforts:

Edwin O’Brien, Baltimore’s soon-to-be Cardinal, used a speech this week to denounce marriage rights for Maryland’s gay and lesbian couples. He angrily attacked the pending passage of marriage bills in the House and Senate. Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, is a strong supporter of marriage equality and he helped to introduce the bills this past Tuesday.  On Wednesday, O’Brien put his own spin on one of the most heinous arguments put forth by social and religious conservatives — that gay people’s civil rights are an affront to black people and the rights of black people.

For all of these reasons, it is important that we regularly acknowledge the intersections among race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.  What are the unique experiences of individuals who are marginalized on more than one of these axes?  Where are opportunities for coalition-building across marginalized and privileged communities?  And, as my last point suggested, how the intersections of these systems manipulated for gain?  Obviously, these are difficult questions, but important nonetheless.

Gender Equality … Sort Of

I cringe when I hear the suggestion that gender equality has been achieved, or that we are now living in a post-gender society, or something of the sort that suggests that women now occupy an equal status to men.  But, I do acknowledge that major gains have been achieved for women, inching further away from an exclusively subordinate status and, sometimes, closer to an equal status to that of men.  (I do not, however, buy arguments that men are now a disadvantaged, subordinated group, even if women numerically outnumber men in some contexts, like college.)

Gender Equality For Which Women?

If we learn only one thing from Black and multicultural feminism, third world feminism, lesbian feminism, working-class feminism, and other strands of feminism that challenge the narrow perspective and actions of mainstream (white, heterosexual, Western, middle-class) feminism, it is that the category of “woman” does not consist of one universal set of experiences, needs, and interests.  Acknowledging this point, I regularly correct people who suggest that women began entering the labor force in the 1960s and 1970s.  Rather, white heterosexual middle-class women in the West were beginning to enter the labor force upon the weakening of the societal norm that a woman’s place is in the home.  Women of various disadvantaged backgrounds would have experienced the freedom to stay home as a luxury, for they were/are forced, either due to enslavement in our ugly historical past or poverty in our ugly contemporary present, to work to support themselves and their families.

As such, it is crucial that we attend to whether all women have achieved equal status in society, or at least inched closer to it.  In many ways, gains toward gender equality are realized for the relatively privileged class of women but not others; worse, sometimes those gains are experienced at the expense of disadvantaged classes of women.  (Who do you think is taking on housekeeping and childcare responsibilities while white middle-class women are off working full-time jobs when they aren’t doing it themselves?)

Equality For Two

By virtue of their gender identity and expression, transgender and gender non-conforming people are not treated as equals in our society.  Rather, transphobic people, groups, and institutions attack, exclude, and belittle transpeople in ways that suggest more than a subordinate status — their humanness itself is challenged.  This is seen in the resistance to acknowledging individuals who occupy spaces outside of the female-male/woman-man sex/gender binaries, resisting individuals’ right to define their own gender identity and expression, and, in more subtle ways, like referring to transpeople as “it,” as if they are inanimate objects.

Liberating Gendered People, But Not Gender

Yes, gains have been made for women and, to a lesser extent, transgender and gender non-conforming people.  But, what we usually miss in our assessment of the presence or absence of gender equality (besides thinking of equality/inequality in binary terms) is whether all components of gender have moved toward equality.  There are a number of dimensions of gender: gendered people, sexed people, gender identity, gender expression, among others that I likely have missed here.  We typically focus on the full and equal inclusion of gendered people.  For example, we attend to whether equal access exists for women and men in education and the labor market, and whether household labor is equally divided between female and male partners in heterosexual couples.  (Again, note that transpeople are regularly excluded from these assessments, seen instead as a special case or even a matter of sexuality rather than gender.)  Now that we think about gender instead of sex, we seem to fail ask about the inclusion and treatment of particular sexed people.  One need only to look at the treatment of intersexed people to see evidence of this reality.

Finally, what I find most ironic about traditional assessments of gender equality is that we fail to ask about individuals’ freedom of gender expression.  To be frank, it appears that women are increasingly welcomed in traditionally male-dominated spaces if they become men — not to literally transition their sex to become males and gender to become men, but to become masculine.  Women are freer today to express themselves in masculine ways (e.g., wearing suits, jeans); however, men are not substantially freer today to express themselves in feminine ways.  In fact, femininity is devalued, even at times when women themselves are not.  The policing of gender is sometimes seen in the most surprising places: the “no femmes” and cultural femmephobia seen in gay male spaces, women criticizing other women for being too feminine or “girly” especially in male-dominated space, men snapping at other men to “man up,” and so forth.  Further, society still expects gender conformity.  This means for women, in particular, the double bind of needing to behave like men to get ahead in life, but the expectation to be women at the end of the day to avoid any challenges to their woman-ness and sexual orientation.

What’s My Point?

My overarching point is that we must acknowledge the complexity of gender equality and gender inequality to comprehensively assess whether they are reflected in society today.  This means fully understanding the complexity of gender itself: there is no universal category of “woman,” nor are humans limited to the two gender categories of women and men.  We must acknowledge the experiences, needs, and interests of transgender and gender non-conforming people, as well as women of various racial, ethnic, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and religious backgrounds to begin to assess equity.  We must also acknowledge that there is no universal category of “man,” a point that reflects that men of disadvantaged backgrounds do not fully enjoy the privileged status as men.  Finally, we cannot miss the absence of full liberty to express one’s gender freely without risk of harm or consequence.  For to see women and transpeople equally valued while femininity and gender non-conformity are devalued is only halfway to equality.