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BETH ELISE SCHNEIDER, University of Massachusetts Amherst


A review of research literature on problems of women in the labor force, recent changes in sexual attitudes and behavior, and materials from the Sociology of Work, suggests that the issue of sexuality at work has not been researched as a significant component of the dynamics of work organizations by either sociologists or sexologists. This study examines the incidence and consequences of the sexualization of the workplace. By sexualization is meant any verbal or physical contact that occurs among persons at work that could be sensual or sexual in intent or content. Interactions may be agreed to or coerced; they may occur between persons of the same or opposite sex, between persons of similar rank or between superior and subordinate. The analysis is based on data from a twenty page mailback questionnaire on the experiences of 377 working women--both heterosexual and lesbian; it focuses on the relationship between their sexual identity, age, marital status, feminist identification, and several workplace characteristics--gender structure, extent of supervisory responsibilities, social class difference--and (1) their resulting definitions of sexual harassment, (2) the extent of their sociability at work and beliefs about the integration of their public and private lives, and (3) their experiences at work of unwanted sexual approaches, sexual assaults, and committed intimate sexual relationships. The findings indicate that (1) working women do not maintain sharp lines between their public and private lives but have significant social contacts with persons from work. Beliefs about the desirability of this integration and experience are constrained by workplace factors, such as gender structure and supervisory responsibilities, and background factors such as age and race; (2) the workplace does provide a context for beginning a committed sexual relationship, particularly for lesbians. Co-worker liaisons are the most prevalent pattern of involvement for all women; involvements with bosses are frequently detrimental to a woman's career; (3) significant majorities of both heterosexual and lesbian women had physical or sexual contact with someone at work in the last year; almost all women consider these approaches unwanted and disliked behaviors; their opinions are directly grounded in actual experience; (4) lesbians show greater awareness of, and hostility toward, these experiences than do heterosexuals; this is most clearly reflected in definitions of sexual harassment. While all women workers unanimously define as sexual harassment those behaviors characterized by forced sexual intimacy, physical violation, and sexual objectification, there is little consensus and much ambivalence about behaviors considered less serious but more common. Ambivalence reflects the complexities of male-female interaction and the meaning of heterosexuality in daily interactions at work. In contrast to opinions about the problem of unwanted approaches, definitions of sexual harassment reflect crystallized consciousness of power inequality. Women who define less serious behaviors as sexual harassment are strongly identified as feminists, and those in economically and socially powerless or vulnerable positions--the young, the poor, the lesbians, the "token" women, victims of sexual assault. In conclusion, the workplace is sexualized in many complex ways, most to the detriment of working women.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

SCHNEIDER, BETH ELISE, "SEXUALIZATION OF THE WORKPLACE" (1981). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8201394.