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The Word Nerd: Deconstructing sexual harassment

Writing in 1991, Rosalie Maggio in the Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage remarked that “sexual harassment was not a term anyone used 20 years ago; today we have laws against it.”

Actually, it was exactly 20 years earlier that we find the first citation of “sexual harassment” in the OED, and it comes from the Yale Daily News of April 19, 1971: “We insist…that sexual harassment is an integral component of discrimination. Men perceive women in sexual categories and not in professional categories.” The OED defines the term as “harassment (typically of a woman by a man) in a work place or other professional or
social situations involving the making of unwanted sexual advances obscene remarks, etc.”

Maggio’s point was that while sexual harassment obviously occurred prior to 1971, its lexical recognition gave it greater force to be countered by laws or social norms. Before long sexual
harassment was recognized as a phenomenon in the legal arena.

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that employers could not permit an employee to create a hostile work environment for someone else or base advancement on a quid pro quo for sex. In 1989, the Supreme Court in Canada ordained that sexual harassment represented sexual discrimination and thus could not be tolerated.

Most academic institutions have definitions of sexual harassment and invariably they contain hard to define adjectives such as “unwanted,” “unwelcome” “vexatious” and “obscene.” Adjectives by definition are descriptive and depend largely on a consensus of a shared reality which unfortunately does not exist in analysing sexual harassment. For what is deemed unwanted or unwelcome by one person may be wanted or
welcome to another.

Also, what qualifies as an obscene comment or joke can be highly subjective. One definition of sexual harassment includes the phrase “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.”  Again, we’re dealing with thorny adjectives such as “hostile” and “offensive.” Almost everyone, male or female, accepts that sexual favours can’t be a condition for a job or promotion. Large
majorities consider “unwelcome” touching as improper but often women and men disagree on what constitutes sexual harassment, such as what counts as sexualized remarks or what qualifies “ogling.” And although younger men’s attitudes approximate those of women to a much larger
extent than older males, the gap in the positions of the sexes endures.

It is also important to register that there is a hierarchy of offenses related to the term sexual harassment. Last December, actor Matt Damon in an interview with Peter Travers of ABC Television, stated “there’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”

Those comments were met with anger and frustration online, where many women, including the actress Alyssa Milano, rejected attempts to categorize various forms of sexual misconduct. After Damon’s interview, Milano wrote on Twitter: “They are all connected to a patriarchy intertwined with normalized, accepted — even welcomed — misogyny.”

Last December in a panel discussion of seven feminists in The New York Times on sexual harassment, broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien came down squarely on Damon’s side in this dispute referencing
the various meanings of the term: “I think we conflate the many different definitions of sexual harassment — the legal definition, someone’s personal interpretation. Some things are legally a crime. Other actions would clearly violate a 
company’s standards, inappropriate language, physically grabbing a woman, pressuring an underling for sex. They are all bad and should be stopped, but I think they deserve different levels of punishment.”

Interestingly, on some university campuses the term “affirmative consent” has gained currency. It postulates that at every stage of a relationship, a verbal agreement is necessary but as Daphne Merkin points out in a Jan 5, 2018 article in The New York Times, “asking for oral consent before proceeding with a sexual advance seems both
innately clumsy and retrograde.” And so the debate on what constitutes sexual harassment and how to combat it rages on.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.

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