Moving past powerlessness? An exploration of the heterosexualisation of sexual harassment

Lazard, Lisa (2009). Moving past powerlessness? An exploration of the heterosexualisation of sexual harassment. Psychology of Women Section Review, 11(1) pp. 3–11.


In exploring the discursive constitution of sexual harassment in academic and participant accounts in my PhD research, the construction of victimhood has been a key concern. The accordance of victim status to recipients of sexual violence has been viewed as critical in challenging normalising constructions of sexual violence as ‘just sex’ (e.g. Burt and Estep, 1981). The legitimisation of victim positionings for recipients of sexual coercion has been treated as particularly important for women since dominant representations of sexual violence position women as the victims and men as perpetrators (Brewis and Linstead, 2001). While this gendered construction of victim-perpetrator relations is crucial in raising awareness of male victimisation of women, the presentation of victimhood as a tool for resisting sexual violence has been questioned. For example, representations of women as victims reproduce versions of femininities that posit women as powerless/passive which works to re-inscribe male dominance and female subordination.

Using interviews on the topic of sexual harassment conducted as part of my PhD project, this paper explores how heterosexualised gendered relations become interwoven in constructions of victim and perpetrator. 18 semi-structured interviews were conducted with participants who were recruited via strategic sampling. Foucauldian discourse analysis of this data highlighted how women victims/male perpetrators, women offenders/male victims, and same-sex victims/perpetrators become constructed through a heterosexualised gaze. Constructions of victim-perpetrator relations in both heterosexual and same-sex sexual harassment (re)produce versions of heterosexualised femininities as passive/powerless and heterosexualised masculinities as active/powerful. This paper explores the following question raised by these constructions: how can the construct of the victim status of women be legitimised whilst moving past powerlessness?

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