First it was a word, then it was a movement, then it was law.
Today ‘sexual harassment’ is outlawed under the 2010 Equality Act, which defines it as ‘unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which … either violates… dignity, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.’ We hear ‘sexual harassment’ – in stories of the Kevin Spaceys, the David Cuomos, the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. We use the term – in a court of law, in an accusation, in a warning. We see it, hold it, grasp it. ‘Sexual harassment’ forms part of the conceptual map that permits us to navigate the world; the ideas that structure our experience.
Consider the time before “sexual harassment” existed as a defined concept. To do so is strange. It’s an unlearning; analogous to thinking your way back to being a child, with a child’s contrived naiveite. You have to place yourself in an impoverished conceptual landscape; imagining people having the experiences that we group under sexual harassment and not consider them as a single entity. You have to unsee the link; erase the map.
Yet there was a time when this was the case, when no one grouped those experiences together. “Sexual harassment” (qua concept) did not exist before April 1975. After April 1975, in an employment tribunal against Cornell University, Carmita Woods found a term to articulate the constant unwanted touching of her supervisor that had prompted her resignation. She described it in a court case as ‘sexual harassment’. The concept came into existence.
The effect of this was dramatic. In the New York Times, Farley (who testified at the same hearing as Carmita) describes how ‘it felt as if the term had the potential to change everything’, how “women could share stories and strategies. They understood that they weren't alone, that millions of working women shared their experience. It was as if a light had been turned on in a dark room."
Kant defined a concept as a ‘general representation, a representation that is possible of a plurality of things.’ Fundamentally, what a concept does is group things. It unifies the disparate, bringing them under a common, overarching branch. In the case of ‘sexual harassment’, the words of Carmita Woods brought structure, a link between the thousands of individual incidents of groping, leering, touching, rubbing, jeering that populated women’s experience. It planted them together, on the conceptual map.
What happens when you bring experiences together in this way? You move from something ephemeral, a fleeting series of individual incidents; to something tangible, a reoccurring pattern that made itself known in the weight it put on the shoulders of women who just wanted to work unhindered. You make it a structure, something that people can fight against. Something is there, the problem made recognisable such that individuals can take steps to combat it. In the case of ‘sexual harassment’, a group – Working Women United – was formed, ‘Speak Out’ events began, and Catherine MacKinnon helped flesh the concept out into something that could sustain the weight of law. Due to her ‘Sexual Harassment of Working Women’ (1979), ‘sexual harassment’ became sufficiently articulated to be brought under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act.
Sexual harassment went from an idea that did not exist, to something that carried a prison sentence.
That is an enormous change.
The story of Carmita Woods can be taken in two ways. On the one hand, it inspires. It attests to the power of a single individual, a single protest, single phrase; it shows the butterfly effects, the chains of events we have the power to set in motion.
On the other, we may well find the story of Carmita Woods terrifying. For it leads us to question whether or not we are as impoverished as those in March 1975. We ask, what concepts are we missing out on? We ask a question that is unanswerable. We cannot articulate the extent of our conceptual deprivation without breathing life and coming up with the very concepts we suspect that we lack. It is the same reason someone could not have predicted the invention of democracy, the wheel or human rights. To have predicted it is akin to having invented it, so innovation is thought to be intrinsically unpredictable. As a result, we do not know how blind we are, and we will not until those concepts are created. Our blindness is something that is shown to us retrospectively. We do not know what progress we are failing to make.
There are two reasons to warrant us believing that our blindness is extensive, and the progress we are omitting enormous. The first comes from an unlikely source – computer chips. It is not entirely true that we cannot predict innovation. Although we cannot predict the form of innovation – the specific concepts and ideas that come about – we can predict the rate – the speed at which we think new concepts arise. This is shown by Moore’s Law. In 1965, the American engineers Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years. He extrapolated from historical data about the rate of scientific invention to draw conclusions about future progress. He could not predict how this innovation would occur, only that it would.
We can see the same in feminism. When women make a concerted effort to discuss and draw awareness to aspects of their experience – be that in consciousness-raising groups, or Caitlin Moran’s one-woman crusade to enrich our language – the number of different terms and ideas they come up with is vast. Even in the past few years words – gaslight, mansplain, incel – have allowed new behaviours to be identified, pointed out and tackled. Feminism’s own ‘Moore’s Law’ would suggest that, given sufficient attention, the richness of our vocabulary can increase at an astonishing rate.
The second reason I believe there is so much progress to be made is a little more personal. Over a year ago, I wrote a Facebook post. In it, I put a numbered list, where I detailed exactly what had happened on a night out. I acknowledged that, of the words at my disposal, ‘rape’ seemed to best describe what had happened. But I also accepted that it wasn’t a perfect fit. I was using the best of the language that I had available to me, but in trying to come up with the words that could encapsulate the remainder – the gaps that had led to my experience not quite measuring up correctly to what appeared to be the enormous word that is ‘rape’ – I was left with (rather lamely) with the phrase ‘something wrong’. What I was trying to say was whether or not you felt what had happened to me deserved the name rape, you had to recognise that there was a concept missing to describe the ‘something wrong’ I had experienced.
I’d done very little. I’d vaguely gestured at a concept that needed to come into being. There was no depth, no structure, no concerted effort to pin down what this concept was. Yet the response I received was enormous. 13 girls told me they had reconsidered or re-evaluated some experience that had happened to them – had gone and looked for help after reading what I’d written. These girls had realised that the existence of a gap between their experience and our classical conception of what rape is didn’t disqualify their experience from being something wrong, something worth discussing and addressing. It remains the thing I am – by far - most proud of.
I have many hopes for WYA Writes. I hope it becomes a place where we draw attention to an app that stops these experiences from happening and helps with the bringing about of practical change of WYA. I hope it is a place where people experience catharsis, where they can write to process their experiences, where they can heal. But I also hope that it allows people to interrogate, explore, create and – ultimately – enrich our conceptual landscape. I hope it allows us all to become Carmita Wood’s; to develop language to bring about change.