The right to privacy is political: Power, the boundary between public and private, and sexual harassment

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14 Scopus citations


This paper concerns the relationship between power and the ability to defend the right of privacy. The discourse of public and private spheres has shifted historically, engendering arbitrary and changing legal and cultural definitions of the boundary between public and private. Historic specifications of this boundary have become untenable as increasing numbers of women entered the paid labor force. Recent formulations define the boundary of privacy as an area within each individual's life. However, greater social power increases the ability to protect personal privacy because it offers the ability to define and protect the "private" from scrutiny. After outlining the history of the shifting public/private boundary, this argument is applied to sexual harassment. Explicitly sexual types of harassment are related to the public/private boundary in two ways. First, they challenge the boundary itself, representing the occurrence of "private" conduct in the "public" sphere of work and education. Second, sexual harassment reveals the importance of social power in defining and defending one's privacy. Sexual harassment represents the extreme on a continuum of communication patterns between status unequals, and an invasion of the sexual privacy of the target.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-71
Number of pages27
JournalLaw and Social Inquiry
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • Law


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