The Language of Sexual Harassment
- Publisher: English Centre, University of Hong Kong
This paper discusses two related problems: the language in which sexual harassment is characterized and the use of language as a tool of harassment.\ud \ud Attempts to characterize sexual harassment tend to be either descriptive or revisionary. On the first approach, one starts from the assumption that there is a kind of anti-social behaviour denominated by the phrase `sexual harassment’ and tries to elaborate a description of the phenomenon sufficiently refined for, say, legal purposes. The revisionary approach adopted, inter alia, by certain feminist philosophers of law, sets aside, for philosophical or political reasons, traditional definitions of the phrase and seeks to defend and secure a revised definition. For the revisionist, the aim is to identify a range of behaviour -- typically wider than is connoted by the phrase as it is currently used in laws and regulations – that is sexual and offensive, and to effect social change by extending beyond present bounds what is to count as a punishable under the description `sexual harassment’.\ud \ud What is wanted, for legislative purposes, is a reasonably sharp delineation of `sexual harassment’, reasonably immune to misinterpretation, such that the behaviour so characterised may be distinguished from other types of behaviour more or less egregious, which should attract, respectively, more or less serious punishment. Do current approaches show any indication of delivering this desideratum?\ud \ud The second problem concerns the language of sexual abuse. There seem to be paradigm cases of sexual harassment involving non-verbal behaviour that one would require any satisfactory definition of the term to embrace. But, ever since J.L. Austin’s How to do Things with Words, we have become vividly aware that language may be used to perform acts, illocutionary and perlocutionary, and presumably sexual harassment is one such act – something that can be done by using certain language with certain intentions under certain conditions. Can we make clear what language, what intentions and what conditions are such as to render a certain speech act or speech episode sexually harassing? If so, then this would be a contribution to the construction of practical guidelines on sexual harassment that could be implemented in academic and other institutions.
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