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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: September 2009

2 - Equality through litigation: sexual harassment in the United States


“The development of law against sexual harassment, and its transformation from private joke to public weapon, is one of the more successful legal and political changes women have accomplished.”(Catharine MacKinnon 2002: 12)

The United States was the first country in the world to recognize sexual harassment as sex discrimination, and today probably has the most sophisticated legal and institutional apparatus to handle such complaints in the workplace and the legal system. It is important to note that although there is a public perception that sexual harassment law has gone too far, in fact it is by no means as broad as most people think it is – not only the European but also the US public is frequently misled by misconstrued and exaggerated interpretations of the reach of the law. Feminist advocates and legal scholars, however, are concerned that sexual harassment laws have not gone far enough, as they still invite sexist interpretations and possibly unfair applications of the law. Feminists continue to debate the pitfalls, weaknesses, and problems of sexual harassment laws and their applications (MacKinnon and Siegel (eds.) 2004).

Despite the criticism against the law from many sides, the revolution of sexual harassment law in the United States can be considered a feminist success story (Brownmiller 1999). The US law reflects and is deeply influenced by feminist legal arguments; most importantly, US courts have accepted a definition of sexual harassment from the victim's perspective – as unwanted sexual behavior – or, as Gwendolyn Mink put it, “the law begins with a woman's word” (2000: 4).

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