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New Left Review I/159, September-October 1986


Diane Turner

The Wages of Virtue

Sexual harassment of a direct kind, with attempted rape merging into matrimonial intent, has always been with us, as the image of a caveman hauling a cavewoman off by her hair shows. The Greek myths are full of lustful gods pursuing mortal maidens, with a wide variety of results. Wish-fulfilment by the poets who created the tales? Old men in dirty cloaks? Closer to our time and farther from regular liaisons, Samuel Pepys in Charles II’s reign and the anonymous author of My Secret Life in Victoria’s relate episodes of what we would now call ‘pestering’ of women in some sense subject to them—maids, wives of employees, and so on. Since 1914 the mass advent of women onto the labour market as real productive units has, however, made harassment an economic as well as a moral problem. The fact that at first nearly all these women were in subordinate positions to men, and that this has only slowly been changing, has stimulated harassment. In a sense, as Lin Farley has pointed out in Sexual Shakedown, harassment is about power and dominance rather than sex; but male sexual opportunity is included in that power. Making women uncomfortable at work—the wide definition of harassment applicable to modern conditions—keeps their earning power and self-confidence down so that they accept otherwise unacceptable men. The general feminist assumption is, correctly, that harassment is an integral part of the social ritual reflecting and perpetuating the imbalance of power between the sexes. Or, to put it another way, its use helps to stop women from getting ideas about being people instead of surrounded cavities. Most critics of harassment concentrate on the damage inflicted on the woman concerned and on women in general. In fact the consequences of harassment spread right through society and have the most unexpected and disastrous consequences. Like the appendix, it has outlived its biological usefulness and, when infected, endangers the whole body. Women Against Sexual Harassment are taking on more than they think.

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