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What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne

What is Sexual Harassment was recently featured in a review essay in Contemporary Sociology by Christine Williams of some of the most important books on gender and work published in the past decade.

You can order a copy at University of California or Amazon.

Lire un compte-rendu en français de Laure Bereni dans Critique Internationale (2004).  


In France, a common notion is that the shared interests of graduate students and their professors could lead to intimate sexual relations, and that regulations curtailing those relationships would be both futile and counterproductive. By contrast, many universities and corporations in the United States prohibit sexual relationships across hierarchical lines and sometimes among coworkers, arguing that these liaisons should have no place in the workplace. In this age of globalization, how do cultural and legal nuances translate? And when they differ, how are their subtleties and complexities understood? In comparing how sexual harassment—a concept that first emerged in 1975—has been defined differently in France and the United States, Abigail Saguy explores not only the social problem of sexual harassment but also the broader cultural concerns of cross-national differences and similarities.


"An outstanding work. This book is at once an analysis of a disturbing social practice and a study in legal mobilization. Saguy gets inside the black box of culture by showing how a piece of legal culture gets produced, disseminated, and received. Paying close attention to the discursive possibilities in the legal texts, the work is grounded in the organizational settings through which representational struggles are waged, displaying how the laws came to be as they are. A rich and provocative account that will be the starting point for future discussions of sexual harassment."—Susan Silbey, author of The Common Place of Law: Stories from Everyday Life

"In this pathbreaking comparative study, Saguy sheds light on a crucial aspect of the lives of many working women by analyzing the various frames through which sexual harassment is understood in two national contexts. While norms against sexual harassment are growing deeper roots in the American workplace, accusations of sexual improprieties remain often the object of ridicule in France. Saguy's explanation of this and other differences goes beyond traditional culturalist models. The beauty of her analysis is to capture some of the ways in which sexuality is used to gain power in the workplace, and the role played by cultural frameworks in mediating these modalities."—Michele Lamont, co-author of Rethinking Comparative Cultural Sociology: Repertoires of Evaluation in France and the United States

"This sophisticated, yet highly readable and dramatic account reveals how differently sexual harassment is interpreted in the laws and social practices in the United States and France. Drawing on a wide range of research, Saguy reveals how political and cultural differences in the two societies have implications for addressing the harm victims face. A must read for sociologists of organizational behavior and culture, as well as lawyers and the informed public."—Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, author of Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender and the Social Order

"Rooted in rigorous comparative research, What Is Sexual Harassment? answers its own question with no-nonsense lucidity and cutting intelligence." --Joshua Gamson, author of Freaks Talk Back 

"This is a remarkable book, both in terms of methodology and theory. This work will be an indispensable tool for anyone concerned with defining the concept of sexual harassment. The comparative approach demonstrates its heuristic importance, as Saguy shows a remarkable mastery of different social and legal cultures."—Françoise Gaspard, author of A Small City in France

"What is Sexual Harassment? offers an original examination of the variable, much contested meanings of sexual harassment in both the United States and France. Saguy not only explains how divergent legal understandings have reflected the quite different cultural traditions and social structures in each of these two nations, but she also addresses how reaction to American media representations of sexual harassment reinforced the development of unique legal constructions in France. This is a highly interesting, innovative, and important study that advances our understanding about how socio-legal meaning is produced, reproduced, and transformed."—Michael McCann, author of Rights at Work: Pay Equity Reform and the Politics of Legal Mobilization

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