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"Sexual Harassment is Literally Epidemic!"

Written by: Marzia Marastoni


The role of feminist scholars in international law is fundamental: they have the great responsibility of unveiling gender bias and overthrowing male dominance in the international arena.


I personally find the theory of sexual objectification particularly significant. Women have been the objects of sexual desire by men, and male dominance turned injustices into normality. Men’s dominance silences sex inequalities. I love this word: it silences. It shows how inequalities are an epistemological issue. Hence, I believe that not only the law sees and treats women the way men see and treat women, but also women are not always able to recognize X as a sex inequality. Let me spell this point out.


Some years ago I read a thought-provoking book, which left an indelible mark on me and which I would suggest anyone read, i.e. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing.


In her book, Miranda Fricker explores a powerful concept, according to which someone might be wronged in his or her capacity as a knower. I am referring to the idea of hermeneutical injustice, i.e. the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to hermeneutical marginalization. Fricker explains this term through the true case of Carmita Woods, who experienced what today is named “sexual harassment”. Carmita’s boss seemed unable to keep his hands off her at work, and one night he gave her an unwanted kiss. Carmita was not able to deal anymore with these molestations: she had a breakdown and she quit her job. She was ashamed, embarrassed, and she found herself unable to explain the reason for her unemployment.


Carmita was a victim of hermeneutical injustice: her experience was obscured from collective understanding and she could not describe what happened to her. When she finally met a group of women who had the same experience, she compared her experience with those of other women and she realized that she was not the only victim of molestations in a workplace. For the first time, the term “sexual harassment” was coined and within a few years, thanks to the tireless efforts of activist lawyers, courts began to recognize sexual harassment at work as a form of sex-based discrimination.


In my view, the concept of hermeneutical injustice clearly shows the importance of those feminist scholars who pay attention to epistemology, giving women a “different voice”. The voice of standing up against injustices, the possibility of recognizing these injustices, and the legal means to fight against them. Recognizing “sexual harassment” as a right, in my view, has been a step forward in overcoming the rhetoric of male domination and subjugation.

Perhaps, the Istanbul Convention would help fighting hermeneutical injustices at the international level, giving a high profile to issues of sexual harassment, stalking, rape, etc., and emphasizing the fact that these things do not just “happen”. As I see it, international agreements between nations can help those women who are trying to make sense of social experiences (e.g. stalking or sexual harassment), but they are unable to this due to a certain sort of gap in collective understanding.


Indeed, granting a right does not necessarily address the cultural practices, the political contingencies, and the economic situations that cause gender inequality and injustices. However, I believe that the language of “rights” can be useful to help to overcome hermeneutical injustices. Hence, tackling the culture is not enough if women are misbelieved and if nothing concrete happens.


Sexual harassment law was shaped by the battles of these brave women, who shared with courage their stories. It has been a step forward to make women less invisible at the eyes of law and politics. Yet, it has been a small step in a huge marathon.


N.B. The title of this article is a quote from Cornell professor Lin Farley, who in a public hearing on women’s issues in the United States, planned by the NYC Commission on Human Rights, publicly used the new language “sexual harassment” for the first time. She said: “Sexual harassment of women in their place of employment is extremely widespread. It is literally epidemic”.

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