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Sexual Harassment, Psychology and Feminism – A new book

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In a new book, Dr Lisa Lazard from the School of Psychology and Counselling at the Open University explores #MeToo and how women’s assumed empowerment in contemporary culture has shaped understandings of sexual harassment and social responses to it.

This book explores how the phenomenon of sexual harassment has been made sense of and understood, both in psychology and in popular culture, over the last forty years. #MeToo, as the most recent public challenge to sexual harassment, received an extraordinary amount of public support in comparison with how the phenomenon has been treated in the not so distant past. Historically, there have been periods in which sexual harassment, and those who have experienced it, have been trivialised and even vilified. While the support #MeToo received can be seen an evidence of progressive social change, it is also the case that #MeToo highlighted tensions and contradictions in conceptualisations of, and practices around, gender equality.

That so many individuals, particularly women, continue to experience sexual harassment in their everyday lives is, in many ways, surprising because the idea that women are now empowered has become highly visible and taken for granted in contemporary culture. Feminism has become undeniably popular and mainstream over the last decade which has contributed to the impression that gender equality has been achieved. That #MeToo became a viral phenomenon seemed to unsettle ideas of women as empowered sexual subjects and, men as able to easily embrace softer ‘inclusive’ masculinities. #MeToo certainly contrasted with postfeminist ideas which suggest that gender equality has been achieved and as such is no longer needed (McRobbie, 2004; Gill, 2016). These tensions have arisen in contexts heavily shaped by neoliberalism which suggests that individuals are freely choosing subjects who are responsible for their own decisions and the state of their lives. Neoliberal subjects are encouraged to be entrepreneurial and to work on themselves (both at work and in their personal lives) to become ‘better’ – to achieve and succeed (Scharff, 2016).

This book explores the cultural landscapes that have come to shape and frame contemporary resistance to sexual harassment. Using insights from discursive, feminist and intersectional approaches in psychology, the book examines dominant understandings of gendered sexual subjectivities, relationships and notions of equality that are relevant to sexual harassment dynamics and how these intersect with other relationships of power, particularly race and class. A key theme of the book is the examination of persistent longstanding discourses around gendered sexual subjectivities in which women are relatively passive in relation to men as active sexual subjects. These discourses, for example, suggest that men are naturally compelled to seek sex with women. Women, on the other hand, are seen as pursued for sex rather than the pursuers of it. These gendered discourses have been seen to support and enable the sexual harassment of women by men (e.g. Gavey, 2018; Lazard, 2009). The book examines how these ideas co-exist with discourses of women’s empowerment and gender equality in neoliberal contexts and how the ideas shape victimisation and perpetration.

The sexual harassment of women by men has been represented as a particular problem in the workplace, in both psychological research and feminist activism.  Indeed, it was Weinstein’s use of the Hollywood casting couch which prompted actress Alyssa Milano’s Me Too tweet that became the viral hashtag.  Chapter 2 explores how new modes and ideals of work (e.g. working for yourself, entrepreneurship, flexible working) and workers (e.g. autonomous and competent) have shaped how sexual harassment is understood and dealt with. The chapter argues that the widespread traction of #MeToo was supported by neoliberal feminist discourses  in which sexual harassment becomes understood as constraining neoliberal subjects’ ability to achieve, succeed and better themselves.

Chapter 3 discusses the construction of victim identities in feminism activism and popular culture since the 1970s. Victimhood has been much maligned in popular discourse because of its association with powerlessness and passivity. Drawing on media reporting of the sexual harassment of singer Taylor Swift and actress Ashley Judd, this chapter explores how notions of empowerment may offer new possibilities and complexities for positively claiming victim identity. While Chapters 2 to 4 are primarily concerned with the sexual harassment of women, Chapter 5 examines the sexual harassment of men. In Chapter 5, I explore the circumstances in which men are accorded or denied speaking rights as victims. This chapter presents an analysis of media coverage of celebrity men that joined #MeToo as victims. This includes the sexual harassment of the following celebrity cases: Anthony Rapp by Kevin Spacey; Jimmy Bennett by Asia Argento; and Terry Crews by Adam Venit.

The final substantive chapter of the book considers the popularisation of the term ‘sexual predator’ to refer to perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. Within the sexual predator discourse, sexual offending is treated as symptomatic of individual’s abnormal psychology. These abnormalities are seen as a fixed and stable part of identity (Taylor, 2019). The sexual predator discourse presents barriers to perpetrator speaking rights as well as for being heard. This is explored through the examination of media coverage of celebrity perpetrator apologies for sexual harassment during the galvanisation of #MeToo. The media reporting treated perpetrator explanations as excuse- making and further evidence of individual pathology. The pathologisation of perpetrators provided the basis to dismiss their accounts. The implications that the sexual predator discourse has for intensifying vilification of particular groups (e.g. racial minoritized groups) and for fostering positive social change is discussed.


Gavey, N. (2018). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. Routledge.

Gill, R. (2016). Post-postfeminism? New feminist visibilities in postfeminist

times. Feminist Media Studies, 16(4), 610–630. https://doi.org/10.1080/


Lazard, L. (2009). Moving past powerlessness? An exploration of the heterosexualisation

of sexual harassment. Psychology of Women Section Review, 11(1), 3–11.

McRobbie, A. (2004). Post-feminism and popular culture. Feminist Media

Studies, 4(3), 255–264. https://doi.org/10.1080/1468077042000309937.

Scharff, C. (2016). The psychic life of neoliberalism: Mapping the contours of

entrepreneurial subjectivity. Theory, Culture and Society, 33(6), 107–122.

Taylor, C. (2019). Foucault, feminism and sex crimes: An anti-carceral analysis.

Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429429866.


Read about Lisa Lazard's work here http://www.open.ac.uk/people/lml279

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