Spinning Our Training Wheels

Peter Wood

Last year, after one of its professors had been accused of sexual harassment, the University of Iowa imposed an across-the-board requirement for “sexual harassment training.” Such training has become fairly common in the last two decades, but the Iowa approach was sufficiently aggressive as to attract the attention of Inside Higher Ed

            What happened next was far from routine. The accused professor committed suicide. Then a few months later another University of Iowa professor was accused of sexual harassment and he too committed suicide. The second death attracted the attention of The New York Times, which wrote about the broader situation. In brief, after years of the administration treating lightly incidents of sexual harassment by star athletes, it had decided to come down hard on faculty members. 

            The president of the Iowa administration made injudicious remarks about the first case and had helped to establish a sense that an accusation alone was enough to get a faculty member into profound trouble. Had the University of Iowa created a de facto death penalty for those accused of sexual harassment? No, but it had certainly thrown accelerant on the flames. 

            Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education revisited the story, and added a

companion piece about the rise of online sexual harassment training. We commented on both here. As far as we can tell, the Iowa cases haven’t made sexual harassment accusations in higher education more newsworthy than usual, and the rise of online training is just another wrinkle in a practice that is now about twenty years old. 


Where Did “Sexual Harassment Training” Come From?

            The term “sexual harassment training” is a bit of an oddity since it means the opposite of what it says. Mostly we are “trained” to do things. Infants are potty trained; dog training doesn’t aim at turning dogs into cats; weight training is for lifting heavy objects, not avoiding them. But “sexual harassment training” means, supposedly, learning what not to do. 

             “Sexual harassment” as a term for describing some kinds of unwelcome behavior appeared in the 1970s, and early on there were calls for people to be “trained” out of it. In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission adopted a three-part definition:

1.    submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term and condition of an individual's employment; or

2.    employment decisions affecting an individual are made based upon submission to such conduct; or

3.    the conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or otherwise offensive work environment (hostile work environment sexual harassment).


And there was a proliferation of court decisions about what was and was not actionable sexual harassment. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 included in its Title VII “recovery of compensatory and punitive damages” for unlawful discrimination, which includes sexual harassment. Title VII also lowered the bar for proof, authorized expert witness fees, and generally put in place the conditions for a sexual harassment claim gold rush. 

            The result was the rise of the “sexual harassment training” industry. The Wall Street Journal reported in October 1992 that the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas which had featured Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment had sent Fortune 500 companies scrambling to establish “sexual harassment training.” Before the hearings, only 35 percent had such training; afterwards, 81 percent did.  In the years since, sexual harassment training has been a growth industry, helped along by more and more favorable legal rulings and new laws. In 2004, for example, Governor Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 1825, which required all California employers with fifty or more employees to provide sexual harassment training to each. 

            The idea of sexual harassment training per se seems to go back no further than 1985. There is no mention of the term appearing in newspapers or magazines in Nexis, or in legal documents or law journals in Lexis, before October of that year, when it appeared in Tradeswoman: A Magazine for Women in Blue-Collar Work. The article titled “San Francisco Women in the Trades” is about an organization with that name (SFWIT for short) and its demands for “hiring goals for women in crafts jobs” and an end to “sex-based harassment.” SFWIT succeeded in getting a hearing before the Board of Supervisors Committee on Civil Service in June 1985, and reported to Tradeswoman, “Since the hearing, we have been approached by high-level supervisors, and the head of the Civil Service Equal Employment Opportunity division for assistance and feedback in developing sexual harassment training for supervisors.”

            The birth of a term? Perhaps. If so, it didn’t catch on very quickly. In the next five years (1986-1990) there were only six newspaper stories and one magazine story that used it. And these were low profile stories. In May 1988, the Associated Press reported that the Metropolitan Waste Control Commission of Minneapolis-St. Paul had completed sexual harassment training by the end of June. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that El Cajon, California decided in July 1989 to spend $2,500 to hire a consultant to set up a sexual harassment training program.  

            The term “sexual harassment training” began to pick up steam in 1991 (ten mentions). Then, by the magic of Lexis searches, we can watch the idea in its first florescence (1992-1998), its brief hiatus (1999-2001), and its second even greater flowering (2002-present). The number of news stories recorded in Nexis is in parentheses; and I have added a citation to one of each year’s articles.

1992 (57) CNN, “Packwood Admission Ups Sexual Harassment Awareness”

1993 (68) U.S. News & World Report, “It’s Not Just Teasing”

1994 (80) The Washington Post, “I Would Prefer Not To’— The man who refused to go to sexual harassment prevention class.”  

1995 (107) Chattanooga Free Press, “Male, 25, Sexually Harassed by Female Boss; Pizza Employee Awarded $237,000” 

1996 (189) Hartford Courant, “Nail Polish Comes to the Citadel”

1997 (209) Business Week, “Avoiding a Time Bomb: Sexual Harassment”

1998 (262) Health Care Supervisor, “Seven Spoonfuls of Preventive Medicine for Sexual Harassment in Health Care” 

1999 (188) HR Magazine, “Use Anti-Harassment Training to Shelter Yourself from Suits”

2000 (180) Minnesota Employment Law Letter, “Harassment Policy Doesn’t Prevent Punitive Damages”

2001 (157) Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, South Dakota “Ex-dispatcher: Sheriff Made Demeaning Comments, Kept Playboys

2002 (183) Business Insurance “Online training Offers Savings, Convenience, Security”

2003 (196) Social Science Quarterly, “Does sexual harassment training change attitudes? A view from the federal level.”

2004 (270) The Sacramento Bee, “Bosses to get Harassment Education”

2005 (339) The Daily News of Los Angeles, “Firms Pushed to Comply, Sexual Harassment training Required.”

2006 (352) The Tennessean, “Gallatin Mayor Let ‘Thong Girl 3’ Be Filmed in His Office.” 

2007 (289) The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Teacher-Sex Cases Lead to More training about Conduct”

2008 (201) Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Professor Needs to get with the Program.” 

            This is, of course, only a rough measure of the rise of an idea. The notion of “training” people to forestall sexual harassment no doubt precedes calling it “sexual harassment training” and other locutions continue alongside “sexual harassment training. 

            One thing that becomes clear in looking through these news stories, however, is how few of them deal with situations at colleges and universities. Firefighters, pizza parlor employees, Congressmen, blue chip corporations, law firms, and sports franchises among other venues attracted sexual harassment litigation and preemptive sexual harassment training. Higher education not so much. 

            The Chronicle of Higher Education’s searchable archives go back only to 1989.They show vigorous polemical use of the idea of “sexual harassment” well established by 1989.   For instance, in an article about CUNY’s Hunter College, the author observes:

At many colleges and universities, sexual harassment has become an explosive issue.  Allegations of sexual harassment have led to lawsuits, protests, disciplinary action, and the resignations of faculty members and administrators.


The article also references an unpublished book by an associate professor of psychology, Michele A. Paludi, Ivory Power: Sexual Harassment on Campus, forthcoming from SUNY Press.  But the actual term “sexual harassment training” is a rarity, appearing only five times in the last twenty years, and the first instance not until 1998. 

            The rarity of the term is misleading, however, since there are a total of 104 CHE articles in that twenty years that approached the issue by way of prepositional phrases. By coincidence, one of the earliest concerns a case at the University of Iowa. In March 1991, the Chronicle reported on the case of Jean Y. Jew, a medical school professor who sued the University for sexual harassment in 1985 on incidents going back to 1973. She eventually won her case, and part of the University of Iowa’s response was a plan “to step up its training program on sexual-harassment issues, and require all employees to attend workshops.” Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.


Training Last Time

            “Sexual harassment training” has become more or less normalized within higher education and in many other sectors of American society. It may in fact accomplish very little by way of changing human behavior, but the administrators who impose it feel gratified, and the lawyers are pleased since it gives them something to say the next time they defending the institution that stands accused of turning a blind eye to sexual harassment. 

            In that sense, sexual harassment training is like a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint in the airport: an inconvenience that probably doesn’t make anyone safer. But we get used to it.  

            Daphne Patai covers this ground in her invaluable 1998 book, Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism.  Her preface neatly summarizes the psychologically oppressive environment on campus at the time:

I have spoken to many colleagues who now say that they will not close their doors after a student enters their office. They watch their words and wonder whether it is wise to discuss “sensitive” issues in class, however germane these may be to their subject. Up and down the academic ranks, people are acutely aware of the dangers of doing something, however innocuous, however inadvertent, that another person, especially a subordinate, might possibly consider offensive or inappropriate. Lawsuits about matters that would have seemed ludicrous just a few years ago have now become commonplace. An offhand remark or misperceived gesture can threaten an entire career. A professor’s encouraging words or practical help can be retroactively interpreted as “grooming” for sexual demands at a later time.

As Glenn Ricketts put it, “In brief, women are always victims and men are always enemies and perpetrators, whose guilt is essentially innate.

           That was what “sexual harassment training” meant a decade ago. Has it matured into something else? It is hard to know, but the Iowa examples don’t build much confidence.                  

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