Sexual Harassment: Women Speak Out
Review by David Orthmann
Copyright © 1995. All Rights Reserved.
Edited by Amber Coverdale Sumrall and Dena Taylor. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1992, viii + 321 pp. Sexual Harassment: Women Speak Out is out of print but can be ordered from Amazon.com.
Amidst the anguish, rage, and powerlessness that is an integral part of the first person accounts, the voices in Sexual Harassment: Women Speak Out, express a remarkable sense of personal and political change. Cutting across race, class, occupational status, and sexual orientation, the dozens of contributors to this anthology have suffered nearly every conceivable physical and mental abuse at the hands of male employers, coworkers, educators, clergy, doctors, landlords, as well as complete strangers. Watching Anita Hill testify at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings inspired Sumrall and Taylor to produce a volume in which women declare their own experiences of sexual harassment. These essays are not simply vehicles for expressing powerful emotions or the means of healing personal wounds; the contributors also grapple with the terrible knowledge that men have mistreated them because they are female and the abuse they received is an unwelcome part of the lives of the overwhelming majority of women.
Some of the most telling accounts are those in which women recall sexual harassment suffered during childhood and adolescence. In many of these cases, their socialization as females left them without a clue as to how to understand and respond to the abuse they endured. "I had been trained all my life to accept what was given to me and not to trouble anyone" (p. 156), states a woman who as a teenager was fondled by her boss. "I did not know how I was supposed to make him stop and still be nice. I did not have the words for what was happening and there was no one to tell" (p. 157). Another woman, recalling an incident at age nineteen in which she was fondled by a minister for whom she was working, comments: "I wasn't pushing him away because I was taught to respect elders--especially clergy. I was never taught to stand up for myself against authority, even abusive authority. In fact, at that very moment, I couldn't accept that I was being abused, even though I was" (p. 218). Unfortunately, the same confusion and isolation reverberates throughout stories in which young victims mustered up the courage to tell their parents. In numerous instances they were ordered to be silent, not to summon the police, and to simply forget offenses ranging from molestation to rape. "Where in all of this was there anyone to defend me?" (p. 187), asks one woman who was told by her parents that it would be shameful to press charges against a young man who had sexually assaulted her. "Why was everyone pretending that this was something that would just blow over, a slight social faux pas that was best forgotten?" (p. 187).
Not unlike those who suffered during childhood and adolescence, women who were sexually harassed as adults realized they were "given no tools with which to handle these situations, no forewarning of what life is like in this world for women" (p. 97). They describe lives that are a constant struggle to avoid unwanted male attention in the workplace, school, and on the street. "By the end of the first week," explained one woman with a job in a large secretarial pool, "I learned to avoid elevators, stay out of hallways, carry a file folder like a shield, let a dropped pencil lie, and the proper use of my wheeled chair to slide out from under advancing hands" (p. 274). Moreover, those who chose to actively protest sexual harassment by appealing to men in positions of authority found that their experiences were trivialized and they were subject to ridicule. The victims routinely lost their jobs for being uncooperative, were accused of being too sensitive, of having provoked their harassers, and lacking a sense of humor.
Perhaps the most important current running through nearly all of the essays is the idea that acts of sexual harassment are committed in order to keep both individual women and women as a class subservient to men. "When I look back on my sexual harassment experiences," one woman comments, "the commonality those men shared was the absolute sense of entitlement to dominance. They believed they had the right to threaten me, fuck me, extort me, libel me...so they could practice power over me in order to feel superior" (p. 52). Another woman emphasizes the connection between the personal and the political by stating that her "encounters with male supremacy, experiences with sexual harassment, sexual terrorism, were not accidental, random, or individual; they were political, systematic. I was not alone" (p. 234, emphasis in original). These realizations, in addition to the personal violations, have inspired many of the contributors to continue to resist sexual harassment despite the inevitable setbacks. They display a willingness to fight back by any means necessary not only for themselves but for the sake of other women. "How many more women would he intimidate in the years to come," asks one woman in explaining her own sense of responsibility, "if I did nothing?" (p. 130).
Sexual Harassment is a remarkable document because it records the process of individual women rejecting the worst of male behaviors. Those women who once lacked an understanding of why they were violated, who received no sympathy or support from their "protectors," have refused to remain silent and accept sexual harassment as an inevitable part of life. They are committed to teaching their daughters, students, friends, and acquaintances, as well as their readers, the grim reality of sexual harassment and the sprectrum of male violence against women. Many men will scoff at the militance of these women, assuming that widespread interest in sexual harassment will wane, and relations between the sexes will once again settle into a pattern in which males can act as they please without fear of censure. Don't bet on it. While the contributors to Sexual Harassment may not speak for all women, they are part of an evergrowing community of women and pro-feminist men who will no longer tolerate harassment of any kind.