WOMEN
03/23/2017 05:12 pm ET

Sexual Harassment Isn’t About Sex, It’s About Power

The Thinx controversy is an important reminder of this.

ILLUSTRATION: HUFFPOST/PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Miki Agrawal has been accused of sexual harassment. 

It was only 26 years ago that Anita Hill became one of the most talked about women in the country, thanks to her sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court Justice hopeful Clarence Thomas. Just 26 years ago, when we began, as a culture, to talk openly about sexual harassment in the workplace ― what it looks like, what it means, and how to deal with it. 

For all the progress that’s been made in discourse around this topic, there’s no denying we have a long way to go. One in three women, after all, can expect to be sexually harassed in the workplace in her lifetime.

Generally, when we talk about sexual harassment in the workplace, we tend to think of a rigid cast of character ― a man in a position of power who’s hitting on a female subordinate. But in painting a narrow picture, we fail to see the whole problem, and therefore we won’t be able to fix it.

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Professor Anita Hill is sworn-in before testifying at the Senate Judiciary hearing on the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination. Miss Hill testified on her charges of alleged sexual harassment by Judge Thomas.

On Monday, New York Mag reported complaints that an employee made about Thinx founder Miki Agrawal. The controversy brought up a reality of harassment that’s rarely discussed: that sexual harassment is rarely just about sex. It’s about power, and women in positions of power are also capable of behaving inappropriately with employees. 

A former Thinx employee, Chelsea Leibow, claims that over the course of her time at the company, Agrawal made repeated unwelcome comments about her breasts, fondled her breasts, and even asked to see them. New York Mag reported that nothing was done after Leibow’s repeated attempts to report Agrawal to management and, eventually, Leibow was terminated for apparently unrelated reasons. Agrawal has since denied the allegations.  

Sexual harassment is rarely just about sex. It’s about power.

Cases that accuse women of making unwelcome sexual advances to coworkers and employees may be rarer because less women hold positions of power ― especially in the corporate world.  But also, this type of foul play may be harder to recognize. Women aren’t socialized to be sexually aggressive the way men are, which may make it harder to read the signs of harassment, according to Kristen Houser, Chief Public Affairs Officer at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. 

“It is difficult for people to acknowledge that they are being victimized, and even harder to do so when the circumstances don’t follow well-known patterns, such as having a female perpetrator,” Houser told The Huffington Post.

“Most frequently, survivors of sexual harassment, exploitation and violence delay making an official report of what has happened out of fear of how others will respond,” she added. “From retaliation by the perpetrator to gossip, dismissive responses and outright victim blaming by colleagues, friends and family.”

In the Thinx situation, Leibow told New York Mag that she often bit her tongue during the numerous instances of assault because, “Thinx was a culture of we’re all women here, this is to be expected.” 

Indeed, there’s a well documented history of sexual assault cases where victims of female perpetrators aren’t taken seriously due to that grey area. This leads to a culture where victims have to ask themselves what does and does not constitute sexual harassment  ― and that question often isn’t easy to answer. 

It’s about the objectification of a victim, emphasizing their role as a helpless subordinate.

The first ever court case where a man named a woman as the offender in a sexual harassment case was in 1995. The victim, a male manager at Dominos Pizza, claimed his female supervisor would periodically “caress his shoulders and neck, and pinched his buttocks.” The behavior went unnoticed for months. 

More recently, in 2015, the theater chain Regal Entertainment made a $175,000 settlement in a lawsuit by a male employee who accused a female co-worker of repeatedly touching his crotch. According to the suit, the harassment went on for some time because neither the theater’s supervisor or general manager did anything about the male employee’s frequent complaints ― in fact, they actually disciplined him with low performance evaluations. 

And in March of this year, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against wireless retailer, ABC Phones of North Carolina, Inc. According to the federal agency, a female sales associate was the victim of harassment from a female coworker ― her complaints about inappropriate touching and comments to management reportedly were ignored. 

Victims of harassment at the hands of men also face the same challenges, of course. But there’s a running thread in all instances of sexual harassment, a running thread of intimidation and the assertion of control. Again, it’s rarely just about sex. It’s about the objectification of a victim, emphasizing their role as a helpless subordinate. 

Perhaps part of the reason that there’s so little discussion about women harassing employees and coworkers lies in how we view women in positions of power.  

Isn’t it funny, films and TV shows seem to ask, to see a woman being sexually aggressive?

If we look to pop culture, so often a mirror of society, we’ll see the trope of the hilariously violent or sexually aggressive woman ― from Grace Jones in “Boomerang” to Jennifer Aniston in “Horrible Bosses.” These women aren’t meant to be taken seriously, but rather are meant to be laughed at. Isn’t it funny, films and TV shows seem to ask, to see a woman being sexually aggressive? Their behavior, no matter how horrifying, is presented as a joke, like when Aniston’s character in “Horrible Bosses” threatens her male employee to sleep with her or lose his job.  

So, how do we end the apparent stigma surrounding women as perpetrators of harassment, a stigma that obscures the fact that this kind of abuse is often far more subtle than it is overt? Does it mean encouraging victims to speak out? 

According to civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred, the onus should not be on victims to end the stigma around sexual harassment, especially harassment from women.

“I deal with individuals, and they have to decide what is best for them,” Allred told The Huffington Post. “I never believe in sacrificing an individual for the cause. But I do think that if women fight back in some form to assert their right to be free of sexual harassment, then they’re doing a service for all of us.”

The solution it seems, isn’t solely about shifting the ways in which we react to sexual harassment, but about shifting the environments and circumstances that breed sexual harassment. 

The onus should not be on victims to end the stigma around sexual harassment.

“Cultures are the result of our collective behaviors, and leaders often set the tone,” Houser explains.

“High profile cases of sexual harassment allegations such as [Thinx] and similar allegations from Uber and Sterling Jewelers are a reminder to all corporations and institutions to revisit policies and procedures on sexual harassment and assault. These include ensuring that victims feel comfortable reporting allegations to human resources, training all employees in bystander intervention, and discouraging behaviors that create hostile work environments.” 

In other words, it’s time for us to expand our ideas about what does and does not constitute sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s time for us to rid ourselves of the assumption, for instance, that only men engage in sexual harassment, or that women who are sexually aggressive are purely sources of humor. Perhaps, in the case of Thinx, if there had been a more broader conception of harassment (and better tools and structures to deal with it), Leibow would not have had to deal with the hazy grey area of trauma that she says she finds herself in now. 

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