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?”

sexual harassment

Lodgings to Let, 1814

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.


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.


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  1. Kim Kinman says:

    Not quite sure what category my harasser falls, is there such a thing as a power hungry oblivious nincompoop? He was my boss. I knew his lovely wife and beautiful children. It started with sexual joking at our project meetings. One Christmas Eve it escalated to a physical assault when I found myself alone with him in the building after volunteering to cleanup after the Christmas party. I never told my hubby, but a few months later confided in a friend who was head of Human Resources of another company.

    She asked if I ever laughed or went along with the jokes. Ashamed, I said yes. She told me this was common for women in this position. We’re never taught how to deal with this kind of behavior (at least I never was).
    She told me to politely put a stop to it when next the “joking” happened, this draws a line in the sand, a boundary for him. But, she also told me to be prepared, I would most likely be fired for some innocuous reason.

    I was. Been my own boss ever since. Years later I told my hubby, and after much discussion he allowed the power hungry oblivious nincompoop to live.

    • K-B says:

      And there you have it, Kim! Although, being fired bumps your nincompoop into the retaliatory category. Of course, had you filed a complaint, that you ever laughed at his jokes would be used against you. No wonder harassment is under reported. Just like rape.

      • Kim Kinman says:

        You are absolutely right K-B!

        My hubby just asked why these women harassed by Weinstein waited years to come forward!?! I told him the same reason I never did – retaliation.

        After my firing, my former boss began to trash my name around our very small village after my firing. Turns out, I was well liked by his clients and they just couldn’t understand why I was gone. He told them I was stealing from the company! Well, he and I had one final private meeting – post firing. He had let the bitch out of the box. Let’s just say he got an attitude adjustment, and my small business is doing just fine!

  2. Hunt says:

    Thirty-five years ago I entered residency training in the last bastion of male supremacy in medicine: surgery. We were two women in an otherwise all male department and the challenges were many. Being on duty 100 hours a week, having to memorize the minutiae of the anatomy and the sequence for each procedure, and trying to remember drug functions when I was 36 hours out from my last nap would have been challenging enough. Add to that, however, the delights of those “old school” surgeons who refused to let me or my female colleague do anything other than hold retractors made learning our craft that much more difficult than it was for the men in the program. “Girls just don’t have surgical hands” they said. Having to listen to jokes that were more than merely ribald, all aimed at “the girls” and told in front of the entire crew in the middle of rounds, was utterly humiliating. Had these jokes been proffered only by other residents, it would have been bad enough, but the handful of powerful attending surgeons who often generated that style of humor made it grotesque. In the operating room, things were even worse. What is the proper way of defending oneself when one has one’s hands deeply buried in the patient’s chest and one’s breast is being massaged by the surgeon’s elbow, especially, when he then jokes to the male resident observing that “I have fingers in my elbow?” When my female colleague and I discussed this with our program director, we were told “Surgery is an intense and stressful specialty. People need to let off steam in the OR. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” I took the heat, finished the residency, and went into emergency medicine, a specialty that, by then, had a critical mass of women, and where I was able to enjoy a career comparatively free of discrimination or harassment. My (once beautiful) female colleague ended up hospitalized for months, cadaveric and weighing less than 80 pounds with a severe eating disorder that nearly cost her her life and dropped out of medicine altogether.

    • K-B says:

      It’ll be interesting to see where this #MeToo moment heads. There are certainly enough targets of sexual harassment for a very well-populated movement.

  3. Hunt says:

    I’ve found that in women’s groups in which I have participated, many more people do have a story than don’t. Some are flat out rape or blatant sexual harassment. Some are subtle discrimination, ie. just not being able to break into the inner circle. But most have a story.