Lazard, L., Capdevila, R. and Buchanan, K. (2008) Role reversals? An exploration of the discursive construction of the woman sexual harasser. Paper presented to: Qualitative Methods in Psychology (QMiP) Section Inaugural Conference, University of Leeds, 2-4 September 2008.
Within the literature on sexual harassment, women have been dominantly represented as the victims of coercive sexual acts (see, for example, Brewis & Linstead, 2000). The construction of women as victims has played a significant role in drawing attention to the prevalence of male violence against women and raising awareness of the seriousness of this issue. However, recent debates have highlighted the ways in which representations of women as victims and men as perpetrators produce and reproduce a version of heterosexual power relations which reinforce normative notions of femininity as weak passive and helpless (e.g. Brewis & Linstead, 2000; Gavey, 2005). Some research on sexual harassment has attempted to move away from these particular gendered positionings of women as victims and men as perpetrators by exploring male victimisation by women (e.g. Felson, 2002). However, such research tends to position sexual harassment as gender-neutral which minimises gendered dimensions to these experiences. In view of these debates, this paper aims to explore the ways in which normative notions of femininity become interwoven in constructions of the woman sexual harasser. This exploration is part of a wider PhD project in which 18 participants who were recruited through strategic sampling were interviewed about their broad perspectives on the issue of unwanted sexual attention. Individual interviews were conducted with participants using semi-structured interviewing technique. Foucauldian discourse analysis of the data highlighted the ways in which the woman sexual harasser is constituted through a range of discourses around femininity which variously position these women as hysterical, irrational and motivated by the need for a commitment relationship. These discourses work to trivialise both women perpetrators and male victims of sexual harassment and reinforce normative notions of feminine sexuality as passive. Implications that these constructions have for challenging problematic versions of heterosexual power relations will be explored