Deconstructing Sexual Harassment: An Analysis of Constructions of Unwanted Sexual Attention and (Un)resistance in Participant and Policy Accounts

Lazard, Lisa (2009). Deconstructing Sexual Harassment: An Analysis of Constructions of Unwanted Sexual Attention and (Un)resistance in Participant and Policy Accounts. PhD thesis University of Northampton.


The term ‘sexual harassment’ has been treated as key to victim resistance against normalising constructions of unwanted sexual/gendered attention as ‘just sex’ and as a ‘trivial’ part of everyday life. The act of labelling unwanted conduct as sexual harassment has been constituted as an important political step in reframing normalised problematic conduct as gendered violence as well as legitimising recipient access to formalised routes of amelioration. However concerns have been raised that recipients, particularly women, are ‘reluctant’ to use the term ‘sexual harassment’ to describe their experiences and resist unwanted attention using laws and policies designed to deal with this issue.

Drawing on resources from discursive, postmodern and feminist approaches, this thesis explores how constructions of the term ‘sexual harassment’ and strategies to deal with it shape, enable and constrain resistances against gendered/sexualised power relations inscribed in manifestations of unwanted attention. It unpacks how discourses of sexual harassment polarise labelling and non-labelling behaviour to produce the former as an act of resistance and the latter as non-resistance. This project moves away from this polarisation to consider boundary construction around the issue of sexual harassment. Through discursive analysis of narratives identified through Q methodological analysis and constructions produced in interview data, this thesis examines the how both inclusion and exclusion of relevant issues in multiple understandings of sexual harassment and policy considerations impact challenges that can be made to unwanted conduct.

Central to this examination is critical consideration of the operation of gendered power relations within sexual harassment discourses. I pay particular attention to how various constructions of resistance within sexual harassment discourses become embedded in and re(produce) gendered binaries of dominance-subordination. This thesis considers how gendered binaries might be transgressed and destabilised by articulating alternative spaces for the performance of resistance.

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