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  • Debbie Dougherty

Woman at Work? Must be a Prostitute.

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

Shortly after posting my first blog a few weeks back, I received the following message from a stranger:

I would like to say that this experience is unique, but almost any woman reading this blog will be able to tell similar stories. As a woman who works, the moment you do anything that may draw attention, your sexuality is on display and your sexual availability is assumed. As Julia Wood and Charles Conrad explained in their research from 1983, women workers are confronted with a paradox of the professional woman. Because professionalism is associated with masculinity (in the U.S.A, with a particular type of white masculinity),

Debbie S. Dougherty
Women Workers are Chronically Sexualized. Art by Freya Clark (Chibi Art Style)

women must be simultaneously feminine and masculine to be perceived as professionals. There appears to be one exception. I have repeatedly found in my research that working women, regardless of the work they do, are associated with prostitution. This association crosses the ideological divide. Your politics do not matter. If you are a working woman, you risk being treated like a prostitute.

Perhaps the most obvious example in recent times is the bizarre claim that U.S. congresswoman Lauren Boebert was once a prostitute who hooked up with Texas Senator Ted Cruz as part of an escort service job. The story contends that as a result of their, um, interaction, Ted Cruz decided to support Boebert’s bid for the house of representatives. Because, you know, women must sleep their way to the top. Despite the ample evidence that these claims are false, there are plenty of gleeful videos, articles, and blogs that crow about Boebert’s career as a sex worker. As Abigail Weinberg writes, there are plenty of problematic behaviors that people can choose to talk about when it comes to Lauren Boebert, but instead of focusing on these real issues, people continue to accuse her of being a prostitute.

Maybe you are thinking that only outward facing women experience this type of backlash. Oh my friends, if only that were true. I first discovered the assumption that working women were like prostitutes in some of my early research when I asked a group of male study participants to define sexual harassment. The following conversation ensued (names are changed to ensure privacy):

Allen: I think that, sexual-harassment, it takes so many ways shapes and forms. Like [Bob] was bringing up about the way people dress. A couple weeks back I was doing some work on the fifth floor, and a woman came out of [room]. It's like she walked out of a catalog. I mean she had a dress on, that was about mid-thigh. And, if it were any tighter, I could have told you whether her belly button went in or out [Laughter]. And, she had her name tag on. If I was at a nice bar downtown, “whoa, she's interesting.” But I felt, my thought was at that time, “was that appropriate work clothing?” Because, it was like, she's trolling for something.

Bob: Yeah

Allen: And that bothered me. You know? It [sexual harassment] can take so many ways, shapes, and forms. Mode-of-dress. Touching, the words used, hell, even an expression at somebody. . . . I've seen professional women standing on street corners almost dressed like she was. [I promised my readers to keep this blog short so I trimmed this conversation for brevity, but the larger conversation is available in my book. It is fascinating and a little bit scary].

These men talked as if the woman in question owed them her sexual attention. In a near perfect illustration of the paradox of the professional woman, these men sexualized this woman’s appearance, including her name tag (weird, right?). Think about it. This woman was going about doing her job, minding her own business, when a man looked at her and decided she must be “trolling” for something.

Note the way that this woman was called a prostitute. Apparently, for these men, the only professional role that a woman can fill is the oldest profession in the world, standing on a street corner, selling her body for sex. I have seen this phenomenon repeatedly over the years both as part of my research and in examples told by women training participants. Women in the flow of work get trolled for their sexuality. Just like I did in Facebook Messenger. Just as Boebert was by the media, Just as many of the women reading this blog have by their colleagues, clients, and customers.

What are our action steps? Predatory sexual behavior gets woven into the working world through repetition and through silent acceptance. This repetitive sexualizing of women and feminized people does something. It creates a culture where this type of language and behavior is accepted and normalized. When we see this happen we need to call it out, regardless of who is being targeted. We need to find our courage and speak words of dissent. Leaders in particular should, well, lead with their courage and their words. In this way, it is possible to begin to unweave sexual harassment from organizational culture.

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