Issues of Definition

Sexual harassment is legally defined as any unwelcome sexual advance, behavior, or conduct in any aspect of employment, housing, or academia that creates an intimidating or hostile environment. There are two types of sexual harassment: "Quid-pro-quo" (this-for-that), and "hostile environment". The law recognizes three scenarios for the workplace:

(a) Submission to sexual conduct or demand is, directly or indirectly, a condition of employment.

(b) Submission to sexual conduct or demand is, directly or indirectly, a condition for employment decisions such as promotion or a raise.

(c) Submission to such conduct results in interference with work performance or creates a hostile or intimidating work environment.

The bulk of this definition relates to situations in which the person who claims harassment must necessarily be in a position of less institutional authority than her or his aggressor. An employer, for example, cannot be dependent upon an employee for conditions of employment; nor can an employer be dependent upon an employee for promotions and raises.

The third condition for defining sexual harassment can, of course, be applied to situations in which the harassed person is in a position of higher institutional authority than that of his or her aggressor. It is possible, for example, for an employee to create a hostile working environment for an employer; it is also possible--as many of us know from personal experience--for a student to create a hostile working environment for an instructor. But this third clause has not publicly been applied to these conditions. Every case of sexual harassment that has been extensively covered by the media involves an employee's accusations of an employer. Those who have followed sexual harassment discussions in the media--ranging from Nightline to Rickie Lake--will have seen that the issue of institutional authority of the aggressor in such cases is always taken for granted.

Within contemporary discussions of sexual harassment, particularly those in educational settings, "bottom-up" or "contra-power" harassment simply does not exist. Conflicts that arise between student and teacher are result of the teacher's lack of control. If we deny the possibility of contra-power harassment, the teacher is responsible or at fault for any problems she or he has with students because she or he has an unconditional "authority" over students.

But research has show that institutional authority does not level the playing field between men and women. When surveying gender research in discourse analysis, Evlynn Ashton-Jones explains that in professional situations, a woman who is in a more powerful position, a position with more institutional authority, is still often at a disadvantage in mixed sex conversations:

While it seems reasonable to speculate that these conversation patterns [of male dominance] might be subverted or reversed in situations where a woman clearly holds power--for example, a female employer conversing with a male employee or a female doctor talking to a male patient--this does not seem to be the case. Candace West, for instance, finds that female physicians use language that minimizes status differences, whereas their male counterparts use language that emphasizes the physician-patient hierarchy--in both cases, regardless of the patient's gender. More to the point, however, Helena Leet-Pellegrini's examination of gender and expertise as covariables in mixed-sex conversation shows that, even when women hold positions of power, the conversational advantage that men enjoy is not eliminated. In fact, possessing a higher level of expertise than men did simply reinforced women's supportive work in mixed-sex conversation. (15)  Women, then, even when attaining a position of authority, such as that of a college instructor, can be at an authoritative disadvantage. And this disadvantage is not eliminated in virtual space.


Introduction | Overview of Study | Examples of Student-to-Teacher Harassment in the Traditional Classroom | Issues of Definition | Problems with Virtual Space | What Can We Do? | Works Cited