Scholars Assess Harassment Law

Second in a series on sexual harassment

Lawyers, politicians and citizens left the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings last month with a heightened awareness of the issue of sexual harassment, but a myriad of questions about the effectiveness of a male- constructed legal system in dealing with crimes that victimize women.

In response to these questions about women and the law, feminist legal scholars from around the country said that for the most part, the laws currently on the books are sufficient to deal with sexual harassment cases. The problem is that while the laws exist, they are not taken seriously or enforced, they said.

Not Problems of Proof

Difficult burdens of proof should not present legal difficulties in cases of sexual harassment, says Mari J. Matsudo, professor of law at UCLA. Other serious crimes, such as murder, also involve cases where there are no witnesses to corroborate testimonies, Matsudo says. But the problem with sexual harassment cases is society's unwillingness to have strong laws for sexual harassment and enforcement, she says.

Matsudo says the fact that "we just don't care about it" prevents adoption of stronger laws as well as enforcement of the laws that already exist.


Patricia Williams, professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, agrees that an underlying problem in protecting victims of sexual harassment is society's unwillingness to treat this kind of harassment as a serious issue.

"There is no comprehension still of [sexual harassment] as an abuse of power dynamics in the workplace," says Williams.

Scholars insist that more needs to be done to educate the public about women's work rights. "We don't have a system of public education and of leadership for the need to protect civil rights," says Matsudo.

Male-Biased Law

Part of the problem in society's lack of understanding of these problems, feminist legal theorists say, is that the law is rarely seen from women's perspective. And crimes such as sexual harassment and rape, which victimize primarily women, make all the more necessary the need to reexamine who is writing and interpreting the laws, they add.

An understanding of women's life and experiences is necessary in the courts and legal system, says Rutgers professor of law Nadine Taub, who also works at the Women's Rights Litigation Clinic.

Slack Enforcement

The lack of understanding of how serious such crimes really are leads to slack enforcement of the current laws against sexual harassment, the professors said. "As a society, we don't go after men who are sexual harassers," says Matsuda.

"There are many laws in place that deal with sexual harassment," says Elizabeth Schneider, professor of law at Harvard Law School. "The problem is the enforcement of these laws." Schneider and other theorists argue the reason for this is society's failure to acknowledge harassment as a wrong done against women.

Who's the Defendant?

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