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What Is Sexual Harassment?

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In this comparative study done by Abigail C. Saguy, there is an examination of how differently sexual harassment towards working women is legally and socially interpreted in two national contexts. In both the US and France, social figures advocate for sexual harassment laws but are faced with different structural constraints, institutions and traditions. The two main ways that this issue is framed is through the law and the press. Saguy analyzes legal texts and press coverage regarding sexual harassment in her study to emphasize her points. She also uses interviews with feminist activists of both nationalities, public figures, lawyers and human resource employees for their opinions.

Chapter 1 explores how the law has framed sexual harassment and delivers a detailed history of sexual harassment laws in both countries. In the US, courts allow feminists to actively utilize the law-making process. US groups were able to condemn a variety of undesired sexual attention in the workplace as sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Saguy, 2003: 28). However, violent behavior in the workplace that did not seem discriminatory was not included in the Title VII jurisprudence. In France, sexual harassment was first established in the 1990's in Parliament instead of the courts. Feminists could not attack their concerns head-on like those in the US because the political context in France more readily recognized class inequalities and abuse of power than gender discrimination (Saguy, 2003: 24). Therefore, sponsors of the bill to propose a sexual harassment statute in the penal code opted to pitch the statute in the context of abuse of power and exploitation. Furthermore, by avoiding describing the statute as dealing with group-based discrimination (as it was in the United States), sponsors could appeal to Anti-American sentiments. In efforts to receive positive feedback for the bill, the extent of the harassment to be prohibited was limited and only sexual harassment involving abuse of authority was targeted. French lawmakers categorized this type of behavior as sexual violence instead of sexual discrimination (Saguy, 2003: 24). This made sexual harassment more similar, though not synonymous, to rape and battery. Severity of the behavior enabled penal law to invoke fines and possible prison sentences on the harasser, not the employer, when appropriate.

Chapter 3 sheds light on the relationship between the media and the law, and the extent to which media frames challenge or strengthen national legal frames of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment policies are adopted by US employers for a variety of reasons, and the media is a strong force behind these policies. In terms of numbers, the US published 496 stories regarding sexual harassment between 1975 and 2000 whereas France only published 185 stories (Saguy, 2003: 76). This difference reveals the extent to which sexual harassment is an important issue in the US and how France downplays it in contrast. Political sex scandals have been hot topics for both countries however, and marked the peaks of media attention on sexual harassment over the years. Both American and French media outlets covered the Thomas/Hill hearings and Jones' accusation against President Clinton (Saguy, 2003: 77). The difference was that French media framed these stories as problems of morality and "greedy plaintiffs trying to get rich in lawsuits" (Saguy, 2003: 75). 33% of French articles framed the Clarence/Hill case as one of economic greed though only 3% of American articles did so.

Chapters 2 and 4 deliver a more in-depth look into the opinions on sexual harassment compared to the broader content analysis of Chapters 1 and 3. Saguy chronicles interviews with many lawyers, feminist activists, public figures and human resources employees. In Chapter 2, Saguy discovers that sexual harassment is a more pressing issue in the US, as corporations quickly deal with complaints in fear of spotlighted reputation-damaging lawsuits if discovered by media outlets. The expectation of a significant amount of monetary funds being funneled into sexual lawsuits is also ominous for employers. Sexual harassment law is legitimized in American views because of the belief that legal harm spawning from displays of gender discrimination can be fixed with financial compensation. Popular French opinion is that sexual harassment is not a major or impending issue. Lack of action is furthered by the French media for discrediting sexual harassment victims, few trials actually making it through court and presence of unions being led by male figures. Additionally, monetary awards that do end up being given are generally rather small and the possibility of actually having to hand out these awards are not enough to persuade French employers to adopt strong sexual harassment policies like the US. The French media focuses on the "excessive" American approach towards sexual harassment issues, which is seen as litigious and puritan, and has influenced the limited scope of French laws and disgraced their legal and feminist supporters (Saguy, 2003: 70).

Chapter 4 is Saguy's exploration of how different groups define sexual harassment. American and French respondents often frame sexual harassment largely differently from national laws. Saguy uses a series of "vignettes" or hypothetical scenarios between employers/coworkers and asks respondents whether or not they would consider the situation a display of sexual harassment. The French were a lot less likely



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