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Gender And Class Shape How Researchers See Your Race

Sociologists Andrew M. Penner and Aliya Saperstein have published yet another study that demonstrates how we categorize others in terms of race — not just racial stereotypes, but even racial identity — is dependent upon their other characteristicsIn their most recent, published in the June 2013 issue of Gender & Society, the researchers found that individuals’ socioeconomic position and gender predicted whether their race would be recorded by interviewers as Black, white, or other:

Researchers study what shapes racial classification. In a novel study that looked back at how survey interviewers racially classify people over the course of their adult lives, sociologists Andrew Penner and Aliya Saperstein discovered that from one year to the next some people’s race appeared to change. This change occurred when the interviewer in one year wrote down one race, but in the next year the interviewer wrote down a different race. Penner and Saperstein call these changes in classification “racial fluidity,” and the researchers wanted to know what affected how a person’s race was perceived.

Though they found general factors that seemed to determine respondents’ racial classification, some were gender-specific:

The study found that men and women had similar levels of racial fluidity overall, and some factors, such as where the people lived, resulted in similar changes for both women and men. All else being equal, people were more likely to be classified as white and less likely to be classified as black if they lived in the suburbs, while the opposite was true for people living in the inner city.

However, other factors that triggered changes in racial classification differed by gender. In particular, poverty made men and women less likely to be classified as white, but the effect was stronger for men. Penner explains, “This is consistent with traditional gender roles that emphasize men’s responsibility as breadwinners, so that poverty changes how men are seen more than how women are seen.”

On the other hand, women, but not men, who have received welfare benefits are less likely to be seen as white and more likely to be seen as black, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 70% of welfare recipients are not black. Penner continues, “This result speaks to deeply entrenched stereotypes of ‘welfare queens’ originally made popular by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Knowing that a women is on welfare triggers a racial stereotype that isn’t triggered for men.”

Consistent with other widespread stereotypes, being a single parent affected a woman’s likelihood of being classified as white more than a man’s, while having been in prison affected whether men were classified as white but not women.

Some Additional Thoughts

This study, and their larger research project on racial fluidity, is a major contribution to the sociological understanding of race.  Put bluntly, their work provides further evidence that race is socially constructed.  It is not fixed (i.e., unchanging) nor universal.  Rather, race is contextual, fluid, and, most importantly, an arbitrary way of classifying people.

It is also a commendable extension of intersectionality, wherein the researchers highlight the intersections of gender and social class in racial classifications.  How we view others in terms of race is contingent upon their socioeconomic standing and gender.  To study race separate from other important social characteristics is to paint an incomplete picture.  I particularly appreciate their detailed discussion of doing intersectionality (i.e., applying an intersectional framework) in quantitative research — a practice that remains contentious among (and even antithetical to some) intersectionality scholars.

Lingering Questions

One question that lingers in my mind is the perceivers’ background.  That is, do these dynamics play out the same way for all interviewers?  Are they unique to interviewers of a particular background?  Heck, let me just say what I really mean — is it just white interviewers whose racial classifications appear to be contingent on classed and gendered notions of whiteness and Blackness?  The researchers accounted for various characteristics of the interviewers, including gender, level of education, and age — none of which effected racial categorization.  But, interviewers’ self-identified race did.

In particular, respondents were significantly more likely to be coded as white if the interviewer was white (at least compared to Black interviewers); the reverse was true for coding respondents as Black.  (Maybe these dynamics would reflect other race interviewers’ racial classifications if the survey was more racially inclusive than Black, white, and “other.”)  Since this was merely background noise for the researchers’ primary analyses, they did not dig deeper into this.  Why are white interviewers more likely to see respondents as white, and Black interviewers more likely to see respondents as Black?

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I suppose from my own experience — notably, as someone who is racially ambiguous — there tends to be just as much racial inclusion as there is racial “Othering.”  Some whites and Blacks have seen me as “one of their own,” while others see me as belonging to some other racial group.  So, I am surprised by this bias of categorizing others as one’s own race.  Certainly more research is needed to better understand these dynamics.

A Clarification

A point that seems lost in the academic press releases, commenting on “how others see your race,” is that those “others” are NLYS interviewers.  Certainly, interviewers and researchers are mere humans; thus, it would be inappropriate to expect them to be totally free of society’s influences (including stereotypes and biases).  I could make an issue of the supposed generalizability of the study — that we cannot assume trained interviewers’ racial classifications reflect those of laypeople.  But, their other work makes this concern unnecessary.

One article about the study noted:

These changes were not random, as one might expect if the interviewers were just hurrying to finish up or if the data-entry clerks were making mistakes. The racial classifications changed systematically, in response to what had happened to the respondent since the previous interview.

Interviewer error is inevitable.  But, this kind of systematic racial misclassification raises some cause for concern.  These “mistakes,” to some unknown degree, biased research based on the NLYS data.  In particular, it may have produced inaccurate estimates of racial differences on some outcome (e.g., health).

Fortunately, NLYS along with many other widely used surveys (and the US Census) have ceased interviewer-imposed race and ethnicity.  Now, respondents themselves provide their self-identified race and ethnicity.  While this eliminates interviewer bias, this approach is still imperfect for the fluidity and complexity of race.  In another study by Saperstein and Penner, individuals’ racial self-identification depended upon prior incarceration.  While this may appear to be evidence that respondents lie about their race (which is possible), it actually suggests that even how individuals see their own race depends upon their experiences and status.  Arguably, these contingent self-identified racial categorizations may reflect how others see them.

In other ways, researchers and interviewers may continue to impose their perceptions on respondents.  I have witnessed first hand the imputing of respondents’ gender.  The rationale given against explicitly asking respondents their gender was to avoid offending them: “can’t you tell by my voice that I’m a man!”  I am confident that most people were accurately classified by their self-identified gender.  But, I worry about the unknowable number of people who were misclassified.  I wondered why, when asking about personal opinions and intimate details of strangers’ lives, there was fear of offending them by asking about something so readily volunteered, constantly provided on official forms.

Concluding Thoughts

Although our openness as researchers introduces messiness and complexity, I feel we owe it to the people we study to willingly capture the messy, complicated details of their lives and identities.  I fear we too often choose the convenience of easily contained categories and quantifiable experiences over the rich complexity and diversity of our social world.  Though barely mentioned in the press for the article, Penner and Saperstein’s study reminds us just how complicated and messy that world is.

Actually, Racism Is Probably Worse Than We Realize

In 2008, the argument that race has declined in importance became the crystallized “post-racial” thesis upon the election of President Barack Obama.  By his re-election in 2012, some had offered clarification that race still exists, but it is racism that has disappeared – the “post-racism” thesis.  There it sits, almost as a sense of relief — “whew, now we can stop tip-toeing around people of color, and supporting these race-related causes like Affirmative Action.”

On day 2 of George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the supposed reality of post-racism contrasts with that of the hyperrelevance of race and racism.  A young Black man was killed because his race made him a suspect.

Today, Blackness is still a crime, and whites are charged with the task of policing Black people.  The harshness of law enforcement and the criminal justice system is magnified for Blacks, from the use of excessive force to longer sentences to denial of justice all together.  Even those who are not police officers, judges, and lawyers serve to police Blacks; the days of lynching Black women and men has merely evolved into a calmer form of extralegal vigilance.

For example:

My blood boiled as I watched this video.  I posted it in various places on Facebook, expecting similar outrage.  The video was widely shared, but often introduced with concerned, but surprisingly calm notes: “watch this”; “wow”; “this is messed up.”  Those were comments mostly comments from white people.

But, even some Black folks articulated concern, but little surprise.  In fact, a few people seemed to think that it was problematic that I was surprised, and that they are superior in some way for being unmoved.  The unsympathetic response of “why are you surprised?” stung, playing on my fear that I am “not Black enough” or “too white” to fully comprehend the severity of contemporary racism.  I suppose the anonymity of the internet is a dual-edged sword, where hostility is widely expressed and, absent of an in-person connection, there is little expression of empathy and solidarity.

Racism Is Worse Than We Realize

As I further processed my reactions to this video, I realized that my surprise and anger are warranted.  Yes, in the self-confident sense where I do not need to justify my feelings, or shape or suppress them according to others’ opinions.  But, also because the sheer pervasiveness and severity of racism cannot be fully comprehended by one person.  Even as a researcher, I am unable to see every instance, manifestation, and consequence of racism in every corner of the world.

Like this video, racism that hides behind seemingly race-neutral interactions, laws, and practices is harder to see, and near impossible to prove exists.  Today, we are dealing with consciously suppressed and unconscious racial prejudice — both which shape behaviors.  Few racists openly, proudly identify themselves as racists, and most racists do not even know that they are racist.

Racial discrimination, too, is harder to identify, particularly absent of outwardly expressed racial bias.  It is no longer limited to exclusion at the entry point or first contact.  The “whites only” sign has to be implied since it cannot be hung from the front door.  We may be hired, but then harassed on the job or denied opportunities to advance.  We may receive a loan, but are offered one that is economically risky.

On the ground, we cannot see other interactions to “accurately” assess whether we have been discriminated against.  (This speaks to the importance of research to look at the broader patterns!)  Like the racial profiling video above, Black people may suspect unfair or differential treatment driven by racial prejudice, but rarely can we compare the same situation experienced by a white person.  Even in some of the recent audit studies that demonstrate racial discrimination in the labor force, some of the participants were unaware of the discriminatory treatment they faced until they compared notes with others and the researchers.

In reality, racism and the pervasiveness of racial discrimination are likely far worse than we can imagine.  So, I stand by my surprise because it is a reasonable reaction to such harsh reminders of the everyday consequences of racism.  But, also because I much prefer to hope for something better than resign myself to accept the world as it is.

In Defense Of Femininities — All Of Them

Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month!  Yep, it is March already.  A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world.  Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”

Comprehensive Gender Equality

Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender.  By no means have we achieved gender equality.  And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.

Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.”  In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex.  This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.

There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality.  First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group.  The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked.  Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general.  Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.

Gender Diversity

There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.

Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability.  It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.  Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism.  Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.

Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.”  Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen.  Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).

Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions.  In reality, there is no universal femininity.  Rather, there are multiple femininities.  Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed.  This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.

Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased.  “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin.  There is no singular status or identity of woman.  As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.

In Defense Of Femininities

Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued.  In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity.  Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men.  You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.

My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field.  Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.

Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self.  On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!”  I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!”  (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)

These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level.  In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home.  Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded.  Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.

Liberating Femininities

As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.

For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity.  Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued.  Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat.  As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves.  (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”)  True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.

It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future.  Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women.  We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class.  And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities.  For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

Racism, as a social system, shapes and structures every aspect of society.  As sociologist Eduado Bonilla-Silva argues in his structural perspective of racism (PDF), racism operates as a social structure that has taken on a life of its own, and serves as an “organizing principle of social relations in itself” (page 475).  So, a more appropriate conceptualization of racism reminds us that it operates as a system of oppression, not merely an ideology (i.e., racial prejudice or, the more sanitized reference to “racial attitudes”) nor actions (i.e., interpersonal racial discrimination).  Borrowing from sociologist Barbara Risman‘s thesis of gender (specifically sexism) as a social structure (PDF), we can think of racism as system that operates on multiple levels:

  1. Racialized Individuals: aspects of the self directly related to race (e.g., racial identity, racial attitudes) and consequences of racism (e.g., health, income, education, values, aspirations).
  2. Racialized Interactions: re-creation and reinforcement of racial inequality in interactions between individuals (e.g., racial discrimination; “doing” race and holding one another accountable for “appropriate” performances of our presumed race; immediate, automatic categorization of others by race).
  3. Racialized Institutions: laws, policies, organizational practices, cultural and social norms that re-create and reinforce racial inequality (e.g., racial disparities in the criminal justice system, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, pay inequality, “professional” standards that privilege white middle-class ways of living and behaving).

When framed this way, our challenge is not to “prove” when race does matter or when racism is at play.  Rather, racism is understood as universally and perpetually relevant, shaping the core of every aspect of social life.  We are hard pressed, then, to prove when race doesn’t mater or when racism isn’t at play.  This puts to rest the misguided and naive discussions about the supposed “post-racial” society.  And, it helps to maintain attention to racial prejudice, while not being completely distracted by playing the “who’s a racist?” game.

Everyday Racism

Even in this modern era — supposedly “post-racial,” or even “post-racist,” — racism operates as a daily burden in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  As such, scholars have introduced a fitting concept: everyday racism:

Racism is easily recognized in its extreme forms (e.g., white youth beating up and killing dark-skinned people), or in its overt forms (e.g., throwing bananas at black players on European soccer fields). Everyday racism can be more coded (a white teacher saying to an African-American student: “How come you write so well?”); ingrained in institutional practice (appointing friends of friends for a position, as a result of which the workplace remains white); and not consciously intended (when lunch tables in a canteen or cafeteria are informally racially segregated and the white manager “naturally” joins the table with the white workers where only they will benefit from casually shared, relevant information and networking).

The term is quite apt, first, because of its reference to the daily occurrences of subtle actions, slights, and microaggressions, and second, because it refers to a common, “everyday” feel of the reality of racism.  By attending to the extreme, overt expressions of racism of a few “bad apples,” we miss the widespread existence of minor, subtle expressions of racism.  Though a rare slight here or there has little effect, the everyday exposure to these slights adds up, taking a toll on the health and well-being of each person of color.

In fact, the health consequence of everyday racial discrimination is comparable to, and may even exceed, those of major events of discrimination, like being unfairly fired or denied a job.  This is, in part, due to the heavy cognitive and emotional toll of processing — “was that discrimination?  was that because I’m Latina?”  Despite the stereotype that people of color are quick to “play the race card,” to assume unsatisfactory or differential outcomes are the result of discrimination, most probably go through a series of steps in their heads before concluding racism may have been at play.  That represents a lot of used up mental and emotional energy, on top of all of the other stressors everyone experiences regardless of race, as well as those disproportionately faced by people of color (e.g., poverty, barriers to important institutions like education, health care, etc.).

Ironically, because of accusations of hypersensitivity or that one is “playing the race card,” people of color face even greater pressure to process potentially racist events before making such conclusions.  Yet, one still faces the risk of having one’s claims of victimization denied or dismissed.  This, then, could lead one to doubt or question their own experiences, or feel that white people — even those who proclaim to be allies, liberal, anti-racist, or “color-blind” — just don’t “get” it and thus aren’t worth speaking with about issues related to race and racism.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

I will say up front that this may be my own, personal burden: daily disappointment.  It may come as a surprise that I am stubbornly optimistic.  I have chosen to devote my life’s work to challenging inequality, prejudice and discrimination, and exclusion, and promoting equality, acceptance, and diversity because I have high hopes that such change can (continue to) occur.  And, though a product of their time and social context, humans are capable of good, humanity, and peace.  So, despite the crappy things that I may experience, witness, or read or hear about today, I will sleep tonight and wake tomorrow with replenished hope for peace and justice.

My optimism is a gift.  And, it is often a curse, leaving me open to constant disappointment.  An example:

I spent my first Christmas with my partner a couple of months ago.  Deciding against participating in the capitalist take-over of the holiday, we spent the day together as our “gifts” to each other.  I decided to take a brief walk to get some fresh air, and used getting sodas from the local gas station as a fine excuse.  (There wasn’t much else open on the holiday.)  I walked to the store jamming to Shangela’s “Werqin’ Girl,” and feeling great (I’m digging songs by drag queens these days).  I headed to the back toward the coolers, and two women entered the store after me.  With sodas in hand, I got in line to check out.  Two people were ahead of me in line.  I watched as the cashier told one customer (a young white man), “you’re coming back later?  Oh, you can pay for this then.”  Such trust.  And, sadly, my first thought was, “there is no way this white cashier would trust me to pay for something later, no matter how many times he sees me as a customer here.”  It is what it is in this racist country.

Then, another customer (a white woman) cut in front of me in line.  I thought many things in that moment: maybe she hasn’t seen me yet; maybe she is planning to get behind me once we move forward; maybe she is with this other (white woman) customer.  Maybe there is some logical reason for her otherwise rude behavior.  The other customer began checking out.  The person who cut in line did not check out with her.  She did not move behind me upon seeing me.  I became angry.  “Should I tell her, politely, that I was next in line?”  I decided to let it go, albeit unsuccessfully.  My anger started to beat out my logic.  I moved closer, attempting to rely on her presumed fear of me as a large brown man to get her attention.  Nothing.  With her purse on the counter, partially open, I rested my hand close to it, trying harder to make her uncomfortable.  Nothing.  She checked out.  I checked out.

Outside, I noticed the two white women were together, though they did not check out their purchases within the same transaction.  I walked out toward the street, putting my headphones back on.  I noticed the two women pull up behind me in their van.  An opportunity for revenge!  I stood in the way of their exit.  I looked both ways before crossing the street: once, twice, three times.  When it was obvious that the street was safe to cross, and had been for more time than presumably necessary, I looked back at the woman who cut in front of me in line.  Then, I looked her up and down, and proceeded to cross the street.

The entire event disappointed me.  Can’t I go one day — even Christmas day — without being forced to think about racism?  And, my own (constrained) actions disappointed me.  Wasn’t there a better way to handle the situation?  But, unfortunately, people of color are constantly placed in these situations to process, to weigh appropriate courses of action (or inaction).  We are placed in situations in which we are forced to ask, “was that about race?”  And, no matter our response, we are left thinking about it days, months, or years later, while it never develops into a significant memory in the minds of our privileged counterparts.

The insult to the injury of these events of everyday racism are the responses that belittle our experiences: “are you sure that was about race?”; “maybe you’re overreacting”; “maybe…” [some other “logical” explanation]; “just try to forget about it.”  Upon facing some subtle, minor, and presumably “innocent” incident, we are then told by a group who are not faced with such a burden that our reaction, how we feel, think, or act, is inappropriate or excessive.  Figuratively speaking, you are punched in the gut and then asked why you are curled over and groaning.

I suppose I could avoid these daily disappointments by assuming the worst in people.  But, disappointed or not, I am inclined to continue to see the potential for good and kindness in every person.  I can’t imagine that great leaders of yesterday and today would be as strong in their conviction if they had little hope for humanity.

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.