Sexual Harassment and Power

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Note: This has been updated from a 2009 version.


My high school English teacher was an expansive man, ensnared by the vagaries of a congenital defect. The first class that watched him thrash across the room, dragging his clubfoot behind him, dubbed him “The Galloping Guinea,” effectively vilifying his ethnicity and his physique in one cruel gesture.

But in the privacy of his office, he claimed the intimacy he could not find in the unforgiving mass of the classroom. Each year, amid stacks of classic tomes and contemporary teenage drivel, he introduced one favored student to private instruction. I was one of the lucky ones.

Seated tentatively before his literate desk, I felt him standing behind me. He put his hands on my shoulders, leaned into the back of my head, and quoted Walt Whitman’s narcissistic celebration of self.

This is the press of a bashful hand, this is the float and odor of hair, This is the touch of my lips on yours, this is the murmur of yearning,

Then he attempted to direct my performance. “So what does Whitman mean? How would you feel if I put my lips on yours, if I pressed my bashful hand to your breast? Would you guess I have some intricate purpose?”

[caption id="attachment_19070" align="alignright" width="477"]sexual harassment Lodgings to Let, 1814[/caption]

Back then, we didn’t have words for such foul behavior, other than “yuck-o,” and I opted for an equivalency diploma.

Some years later, I had a boss, quite confident in his prowess with female subordinates in the field. After a presumable business dinner, I found myself pressed to the door of his rental car, with his tongue and thigh in places they didn’t belong. I declined his offer of glory and grind, and suggested an alternate placement for that promotion he'd offered.

By then, the first sexual harassment cases had been heard, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had issued guidelines prohibiting sexual harassment. The thing had been named. But still, just what specific behaviors were we then allowed to challenge?

Absent a clear understanding, sexual harassment law was an unplumbed resource for resolving bad-boy behavior in the workplace and school. Subsequent efforts to refine the definition produced mixed results, while anti-harassment training increased. Yet fear of retaliation squelched reporting.

Mary Ann Ellis, a California-based human resources consultant, said of the confusion, “People have different levels of sensitivity and different interpretations of what sexual harassment is.”

Unlike pornography, we don’t always know harassment when we see it.

Today, harassers come in all sexes and orientations, but women remain the most common targets, and fear of retaliation remains an effective deterrent to reporting. The number of cases filed with the EEOC has gradually declined the last six years, and the consequences of reporting can be as ambiguous as the harassment.

Ellis said, “There can be no retaliation, but there are always consequences for exercising your rights.”

She relayed the case of a young waitress who was harassed by a cook to the point of reporting his abuse. The cook was properly dealt with, but the waitress’ orders no longer received the attention they previously had, and the other cooks shunned her. Neither an ideal outcome nor an uncommon one.

I once reported a colleague’s crowing about pumping his wife’s various orifices, not because I felt harassed by his idiocy but because my employees were intimated by him—and I knew the inevitable retaliation would accelerate my exit from an unpleasant company with some severance in hand. Still, the offender and I knew his favored topic was unseemly, and I had told him so, so what was he trying to achieve? What is it harassers actually want?

Ellis described two categories of harassment. “The nastiest kind is quid pro quo: You have to grant me sexual favors or you won’t receive a promotion. Is that really more about power than it is about sex? The ultimate sexual harassment is rape and rape is about power, not about sex. … The other type is hostile environment, and that sometimes isn’t so much about power as it is about people just being oblivious to what is offensive to other people. On the other hand, sometimes it is about power—men wanting to dominate, intimidate the women in [what the men perceive as] their environment. Maybe it’s all about power!”

OK, maybe it is all about power. To one extreme, harassers, as made so clear by the Harvey Weinstein case, are perpetrators of sexual assault and they should be treated as such: reported, prosecuted, punished and, ideally, rehabilitated. All four are easier said than done.

But other offenders, on the low end of the spectrum, maybe they’re just oblivious nincompoops, driven by deficient evolution and insecurities, trying to prove themselves the alpha dogs by marking as many "others" in their territories as possible.

No reasonable person wants to be the recipient of that mark. But if you feel able, before resorting to a formal complaint and the potential repercussions, imagine this: When someone at work asks you out one too many times or talks sexual trash about a partner, whop the harasser upside the head—figuratively, only—and tell the idiot to bug off. That is power.

Of course, if that doesn't work, today's heighten awareness might make this a really good time to report.

Love, K-B

See "How to File a Charge of Employment Discrimination."


Spawned by a Southern Baptist creationist and a liberal social worker, Kit-Bacon Gressitt inherited the requisite sense of humor to survive family dinner-table debates and the imagination to avoid them. She has an MFA in Creative Writing, with an emphasis on narrative nonfiction, and has taught Women’s Studies in the CalState system. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Publishers Weekly, Thoughtcrime Press’ Not My President anthology, Ducts magazine, The Missing SlateTrivia: Feminist VoicesThe North County TimesSan Diego Uptown News, Gay San DiegoChiron Review (the ancient one, before the internet)American University’s iVory Towerz, and others. K-B is a founding editor of

"Lodgings to Let" by C. Williams, 1814, from the U.S. Library of Congress.