Sexual harassment and “just saying no”

– Posted by LMW

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about sexism and sexual harassment. It seems that the sexism in the responses to accounts of sexual harassment, and the sexism that allowed the sexual harassment in the first place, are linked together in strong ways.

Carrie N. Baker’s book, The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment (2008), gives an overview of the history of the term sexual harassment. She details the struggles of women against unwanted sexual attention, and the effects of this unwanted attention (and its rejection) on women’s professional lives. Sexual harassment is described by Baker as “unwanted sexual demands, comments, looks, or sexual touching in the workplace” (Baker, 2008, p.1).  When the term first started being widely used in the 1970s, it re-oriented the conversation around sexual attention in an important way. It rejected the idea that male sexual advances on women were “normal” or “natural” and therefore had to be tolerated by women.

There is a long history of attacking and punishing women who name and call-out sexual harassment. Baker describes how women have been blamed for the sexual advances that have been directed at them in the workplace. Male lust is seen as uncontrollable, and sexual treatment as a natural response to wanton women. This is the “she was asking for it” argument.

There is also a history of punishing women not only for naming sexual harassment, but just for rejecting the sexual advances. Baker mentions that the first legal cases about sexual harassment were brought under Title IV in the United States, which was originally passed as a race equality act. These cases made the (at the time) “novel argument that a male employer who fires a woman for refusing his sexual advances has discriminated against her based on sex and therefore, has violated her civil rights guaranteed by Title IV” (Baker, 2008, p.15).

Moving from the 1970s to 2014, I have recently been hearing a lot of sexist responses to awareness of sexual harassment. Allegations of sexual harassment are not necessarily met with a counter-charge of “she was asking for it” (although “she actually/secretly wanted it” does come up), but they are met with a claim that she should “just say no.” In this account, sexual harassment is not a problem because women should just turn down the sexual advances. The sexual advances themselves are treated as (1) not the problem and (2) inevitable, repeating the 1970s logic that male sexual desire is uncontrollable. Also similar to this 1970s logic, women are made responsible for their sexualized treatment. It is the responsibility of the woman to say “no,” and not of the man to stop behaving in this way. If she does not say “no” firmly enough, presumably this is her failure. Anything that then happens that is not consensual becomes, ultimately, her responsibility.

In addition to locating all responsibility with the woman, this version of things also does not consider the power differentials that may exist, and that are particularly prominent in the work place and the university environment. Just as in the 1970s, there are often consequences to saying no to the sexual advances of powerful men. Career advancement and sexual attention are tied together in ways that are damaging to women. This is true both for those who say no and those who say yes, precisely because this treatment confuses and conflates professional achievement and sexual attention.

There is also an interesting manipulation through left politics that happens in the responses to sexual harassment that I’ve recently heard. Being concerned with sexual harassment is re-figured as being sex-negative. Women who are disturbed by sexualized treatment in the work and learning environment are just “sex-negative,” “conservative,” and possibly “repressed.” After all, who doesn’t enjoy sex? Ultimately, this is just another way to insist that it is ok to sexualise women, in all environments and at all moments. The slur of putting a woman’s sexuality and her politics into question becomes another way to insist on ongoing sexist treatment.



Baker, Carrie N. The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2008.



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