Viewpoint: Sexual Harassment: Why Is Society Shocked?

by Jennifer Coburn
San Diego NOW

Not since Anita Hill's testimony before the Senate have we heard so much in the news about sexual harassment.

Three Army trainers at Aberdeen Proving Ground near Baltimore, Md., currently face charges of rape and sexual harassment. A male drill sergeant at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri recently pleaded guilty to having sex with three female soldiers. Three weeks after setting up its sexual harassment hot line, the Army received more than 5,000 complaints.

On Minnesota's Iron Range, women coal miners were terrorized by the men with whom they worked to the point that some kept loaded guns in their homes and cars. Others brought knives to work to protect themselves against what had become a daily barrage of sexual assaults. Men exposed themselves to the women, pressured them for sex, fondled and grabbed them. After breaking into a woman's locker, three men ejaculated into their co-worker's clothing.

At Mitsubishi Motors, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit on behalf of more than 300 women employees who the EEOC charges were sexually harassed by their male co-workers. Women were depicted in sex acts and the drawings were circulated for the amusement and titillation of the staff. Men employees surrounded individual women, demanded sex and groped them.

When she was in sixth grade, Eve Bruneau was harassed by her male classmates every day at her New York school. She and other girls were called such names as "dog-faced bitch" and "prostitute." One boy grabbed a girl's breasts, while another cut a girl's hair, Bruneau says.

And we're all familiar with former U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood, who resigned in disgrace from the Senate after 29 women claimed he sexually harassed and abused them. All's forgiven, apparently, and he's back on Capitol Hill -- this time as a highly paid lobbyist.

With each news report of sexual harassment, people are shocked. But should they be? These cases reflect more than an occasional problem at a few organizations. Rather, they are symptomatic of a long-standing, pervasive problem in our culture as a whole.

We should be outraged by this gross abuse of power. But when the country is surprised that women are sexually harassed and abused, it is in serious denial of a national epidemic.

In a survey sent to 90,000 female soldiers, sailors and fliers by the Pentagon last year, nearly one in 10 Army women reported being sexually assaulted. According to a 1995 Department of Defense study, 78 percent of women in the military had been sexually harassed by military personnel either while on or off duty. So, one in five military women have not been sexually harassed. We should be more shocked when a servicewoman tells us she hasn't been sexually abused than when she says she has.

Col. Carl Strock, chief of staff at Fort Leonard Wood, said that although the Army has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, it is not a "zero-defect institution." His portrayal of the military as a little less than perfect is a reflection of the deplorable lack of leadership on this issue. When the military takes sexual harassment seriously, it will investigate and respond to complaints rapidly, educate personnel intensively and lead by example, rather than make excuses and minimize the issue.

More than one-half of all women who work outside the home report they have been sexually harassed. While conducting research for a book on sexual harassment, I found it depressingly simple to find women to be interviewed as case studies. Everyone I mentioned the project to told me that she or someone she knew had been sexually harassed on the job. After placing a small advertisement in the local newspaper, my phone rang non-stop with women who wanted to talk about their experiences. Not only did women call me with complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace, but they called to report teachers, attorneys, doctors and clergy.

A 1993 survey of more than 1,600 public school students in grades eight through 11 found that 85 percent of girls had been sexually harassed by classmates. Instead of being outraged that students were sexually harassed in his community, one man gathered petition signatures stating, "An 11- or 12-year-old cannot deliberately and or intentionally commit acts of sexual harassment." He said that his own daughter had endured taunts in the same school district. "This is a way of life," he said. "It is not sexual harassment."

A friend of mine recently argued that sexual harassment only occurs in male-dominated fields. I agreed. But when pressed to name a female-dominated arena, she could not. Sexual harassers are as comfortable at a construction site as they are in a diner, hospital or office. Sexual harassment is more frequent when women enter traditionally male fields, but it occurs in every occupation.

Sexual harassment is about keeping women in their place by creating a hostile environment. It is a turf war where the winner gets the high-paying jobs and the power. Former Pentagon personnel director Lawrence Korb says, "This is still a man's profession, with a lot of men who intellectually and emotionally have not accepted that the military could be women's work." When a work site moves toward gender equity, sexual harassment reminds women not to get too uppity.

NOW activists work daily to eliminate sexual harassment -- not just when the issue is in the headlines. We must continue to band together. Protest at Mitsubishi dealerships. Demand that the armed forces demonstrate leadership. Empower young women on campuses. Educate women about their legal rights.

As military and company spokespeople assure us that they are investigating claims of sexual harassment, we can all be proud to be part an organization that has taken the lead in raising awareness about sexual harassment and proposing solutions to end it. Society may be shocked, but we are not.

Jennifer Coburn, former San Diego NOW president, is the author of Take Back Your Power: A Working Woman's Response to Sexual Harassment, which recently received the Outstanding Book Award from Las Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America.

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