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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: History and Definition

Slavery and the Industrial Revolution set the climate for work-based sexual harassment. Though women serve as primary targets, it can also happen to men.

As a second home, the workplace serves not just as a venue for economic gains, but also serves as an important social network that provides a mirror of the culture where it exists. Part of that culture is a gamut of traditional beliefs that are gender-biased. These beliefs have subjected other people, oftentimes women and non-heterosexuals, to abuse and marginalization, as they are often regarded as inferior or as mere sexual objects. The workplace, as a result, is not immune from the banes of lopsided human relationships that usually lead to incidents of discrimination, particularly sexual harassment.

A brief history of sexual harassment

Reva B. Siegel's "A Short History of Sexual Harassment" in Directions in Sexual Harassment Law: Introduction and Afterword (2004) traces incidents of sexual harassment way back to the era of chattel slavery. African-American women and those involved in domestic service suffered from sexual coercion.

Other studies though say that sexual harassment in the workplace is said to be a by-product of the Industrial Revolution. Siegel cites how Helen Campbell (Women Wage Workers, 1887) and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1905) documented how women were victimized by sexual harassers in household services and factories, particularly those working in the garments and meat-packing industries.

The Industrial Revolution strengthened capitalist market economies which dichotomized gender roles. It was during this period when paid work-outside-the-home became distinct from domestic work. Men were expected to perform the former, while women reigned over the latter. Due to wars, men served the armed forces and left jobs for women (and children) to take over. During peace time, however, only a handful remained and treated by men as co-workers with lesser skills and could be taken advantage of.

Perceived as competitors, employment conditions became difficult for women, and it was also more difficult to receive higher wages, to have access to opportunities for improvement, and to join trade unions. Worse, they had " bear silently the sexual advances of their male counterparts, because to refuse meant to lose employment or to suffer reduced wages. This was tantamount to starvation to them and their families. On the other hand, to accept was a curse, for future marriage or better employment became an impossibility for the branded woman" according to a paper on work decorum for the judiciary released by the Supreme Court of the Philippines in 2004.

Definition and nature of sexual harassment

The United Nations (UN), as stated on Recommendation 19 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), defines sexual harassment against women as: "...unwelcome sexually determined behavior as physical contact and advances, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions. Such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem; it is discriminatory...her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment, including recruitment or promotion, or when it creates a hostile working environment."

Such unwanted, unwelcome conduct, behavior, attention, or request that is sexual in nature, whether physical, verbal, or non-verbal, often makes the victim feel uncomfortable while working. The group Sexual Harassment Support notes that harassers have various personalities and the act itself has different patterns. And although it is often perceived as only about a man exercising power over a woman or an employer taking advantage of an employee, sexual harassment in the workplace can happen to any member of the organization regardless of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and work category. Ergo, even if the real intention is to protect women, as they are usually the victims, laws or policies against sexual harassment also benefit men, for these are supposed to shield everyone from a threatening, aggressive, or offensive working environment.

Written by Leann Zarah (

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