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The Emotional Labour of Dealing with Sexual Harassment

Updated: Nov 1, 2020

By: Alicia Izharuddin

This blog post begins with a fictional story which is yet to have a happy ending:

There is a man who has a history of harassing women but always got away with it. His friends and colleagues know about it but remain steadfast in their loyalty towards him. Close friends vouch for his good behaviour. Yet, stories about his behaviour travel far, into the living rooms of people who have never met him, into the coffee sessions shared between friends. Some do not know his name yet tales of his behaviour have achieved the status of legend. In the meantime, the voices of the women he had harassed are quashed. They stand by close to the scene of the crime – the circle of friends who protect the perpetrator and his reputation. They watch and wait in vain for laws and attitudes to change beyond their own lifetimes.


Stories of sexual harassment do not disappear; they re-appear both in whispers and breathless fulminations. They do not disappear because they leave emotional and psychological scars. As the expert in gender-based violence and restorative justice, Mary J. Koss, argues, “once victimised, at minimum, one can never again feel quite as invulnerable [1].” Sexual harassment is an everyday wound, like small cuts to the soul and mind. It is symptomatic of a Malaysian sickness so protective of patriarchy and entrenched in impunity.

This blog post is about living with sexual harassment and emerging from it a whole, but different person. It is about the emotional labour of swallowing one’s pride, stigma, shame, pain and oppression as part of one’s everyday lived experiences. Its aim is to map sexual harassment against the socio-economic landscape of our times as a means of finding the meaning of resistance together.

Meaning of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is broadly defined as forms of unwanted sexual attention towards a receiving party and causing distress in the latter. Even with evidence, sexual harassment is notoriously difficult to end with charges and conviction. There have been several attempts in Malaysia to legally redefine sexual harassment to move away from the outdated colonial legal euphemism of “outrage of modesty”[2]. Considering the quotidian nature and scale of sexual harassment, very few people have been prosecuted for sexual harassment, let alone imprisoned or whipped for outraging another’s modesty.

Currently, the term ‘sexual harassment’ exists in Employment Law. It has a tokenistic legal status within companies, higher education, businesses and civil service. Much of the rhetoric in Malaysia currently rests on neoliberal concerns about the adverse impact of sexual harassment on productivity in the workplace. To put it crudely, women distressed by sexual harassment make for inefficient workers. Despite that, women, being the main target of sexual harassment, usually choose to suffer in silence or change jobs.

For now, sexual harassment outside the workplace is made just for public discourse – to be debated while sweeping under the carpet the everyday, messier realities that work against the victim because she is not ‘perfect.’ Most sexual harassment stories we hear consist of the ‘perfect’ victim and the ‘perfect’ perpetrator. On one hand, the ‘perfect’ victim is the unsuspecting woman on the street on her way to a destination. The ‘perfect’ perpetrator is a male stranger or a group of men who leers, stares, follows, verbalises catcalls or other noises to signal his dominance; “I am entitled to your attention.” The perpetrator is “perfect” because being a stranger, most likely a working class one or migrant labourer, he is easily constructed as the Other to both the female victim and local, respectable middle-class man.

While on the other hand, the imperfect victim is someone whose life, behaviour and history are blown disproportionately into the frame while eclipsing the crime itself. Her behaviour preceding, during and after the incident is scrutinised for traces of ‘poor judgement’ (“Why did you put yourself in that position?” “Did you lead him on?” “Do you have a personal vendetta against him?”).

Like sexual violence, sexual harassment is about power and dominance. They belong to the same continuum of male dominance and violence as they are cut from the same social fabric [3]. The concept of sexual harassment made its debut as a legal concept in 1980 in the US but records suggest that it is a common incidence for more than a century and relates to the presence of women in the public sphere as workers. Sexual harassment arises because of the male anxiety about women’s presence in the public sphere, of women threatening the authority and dominance of men despite working twice as hard to earn a wage and respect equal to men.

The name Anita Hill is synonymous with the moment sexual harassment exploded into the global consciousness. When Anita Hill pressed charges against the soon-to-be US Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas in 1991, she was making history in more ways than one. Hers was the first high profile sexual harassment case in the US. Thomas was prosecuted for allegedly making inappropriate comments about pornographic films and repeatedly asked Hill out for a date. She was an attorney and university law professor at the University of Oklahoma and she was also a Black American woman. Judge Thomas was also a Black man, making the Hill vs Thomas case unique for Americans at the time and about racial and sexual politics at the highest order of public life.

Like the truth-telling power of j’accuse à la Emile Zola, the accuser was condemned. There were attempts at shredding Anita Hill’s reputation to pieces by Judge Thomas’s supporters. Hill was seen as sabotaging his appointment to the Supreme Court and that she had welcomed his sexual advances.

Without concrete evidence other than the testimonies of witnesses, a case such as Hill vs Thomas became a battle of “He says, she says.” Thomas ‘won’ the case and was appointed to the US Supreme Court. But the case has a much more powerful legacy in favour of Anita Hill. Within five years after the case, reports of sexual harassment in the US doubled, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996. Over the same period, awards to victims under US federal laws nearly quadrupled, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million. Now, a new film has been made about the case.

The emotional labour of sexual harassment

Much has been discussed on the rather dry legal dimension of sexual harassment in Malaysia without exploring its messier emotional effect. I’d like to argue that dealing with sexual harassment is a lot of emotional work. I use the term ‘emotional labour’ or ‘emotional work’ to describe the emotional effect and self-management when women and men are told to dismiss experiences of sexual harassment.

Emotional labour is the regulation of emotions so that our relations with those around us – employers, partners, colleagues, family, friends and total strangers are made easier for us. It is about suppressing our real emotions to produce desired emotions in others; such as contentment, pleasure, non-violence. Emotional labour is a useful concept for bringing to the forefront experiences which often leave no physical resistance or injury yet imprint deep emotional and psychological scarring and pain.

Emotional labour is derived from Marx’s work on capital and developed in the classic study by Arlie Hochschild in The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling. Marx has commented on the human cost of surplus value, particularly to the ‘instrument of labour’ – i.e. the worker herself. He asks (and I paraphrase): how can the rich complexity of human life be reduced to an instrument of labour? Hochschild has taken up the concept to examine what happens when emotion is manipulated to make a worker more successful in the workplace; how purposeful smiling and praise for superiors can take a psychological toll on workers. Can a person switch emotions on and off so easily? What may be the human cost of using emotion as a core constituent of one’s labour?

Emotional labour is a concept taken up by feminist theorists to argue that women have always worked and worked overtime. They must perform the ‘double shift’ – of waged work outside the home and after work, unwaged housework at home. Emotional labour links these two domains of work together. Women must be nicer at work, please her man, make him a sandwich. She must remember birthdays, children’s events, and make dinner and tea – all of which are under-appreciated. The stress of managing a pleasing exterior, a manufactured smile, of being nice and non-confrontational can take a toll on women. In addition to the daily barrage of stress for women, they must contend with sexual harassment within and outside the workplace.

Sexual harassment can trigger a range of effects: depression, anxiety and panic attacks.  It is humiliating and it encourages women to keep silent. And we have to consider how the effects of sexual harassment can be exacerbated in the current socio-economic context of rising living costs, retrenchment, under-employment and unemployment. Both less well-off and affluent women may have to bear the brunt of a brutalising work environment by putting up with sexual harassment and intimidation because of job insecurity. Data has already emerged of rising mental health concerns and suicide in Malaysia, a country where mental disorders are taboo.

We must now talk about the gendered side of emotional work and how women do it without financial compensation and recognition. Some have argued that emotional work is the new frontier of feminism because women are now emblematic of hyper-employment. We have arrived in an economic epoch where flexibility and 24-7 communication have resulted in hyper-employment and poor work-life balance. To adopt Michael Hardt’s conclusions, affective labour is privileged in our current post-modern economic age; thus, mismanage affective labour at your peril.

Again, women will face the sharp end of this current economic situation as we will to continue to do ‘feminised’ work that is not considered ‘real’ labour such as housework, care work, and being nice and polite even when we do not want to. Women tend to be paid less or not paid at all for these kinds of labour because they are seen to be ‘natural’ and therefore ‘easier’ for women to do.

What you do when you find yourself sexually harassed

When you identify that what had happened to you is sexual harassment, the first step is to file a police report so that the police will begin an investigation. The police will then consult the Director of Public Prosecutions who will assess as to whether there is enough evidence to prosecute. Prepare for comments and resistance that will trivialise your experiences.

What you should do when you suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks and / or suicidal thoughts

Talk to a neutral, professional third party such as the Befrienders hotline at +60 3-7956 8144. Approach recommended healthcare practitioners and seek counselling. While friends and family are an important support network to have, they should not bear the emotional and psychological burden of meeting your needs. Restrict the cycle of emotional work whenever you can.


End notes

[1] Mary J. Koss. 1987. Changed Lives: The Psychological Impact of Sexual Harassment. In Ivory Power: Sexual Harassment on Campus, edited by Michele A. Paludi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[2] In Malaysia, sexual harassment is a crime under S354 of the Penal Code for outraging of modesty, which reads: “Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any person, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage the modesty of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years or with fine or with whipping or with any two of such punishments.”

Also under the legal euphemism of ‘outrage of modesty,’ sexual harassment may be charged under S509 of the Penal Code, which states that, “Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any person, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such person, or intrudes upon the privacy of such person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both.”

[3] See the early studies on sexual harassment by Frankiln, Moglen, Zatlin-Boring, and Angress (1981) on the degrees of sexual harassment, one of which is sexual imposition or assault.

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