Sexual Harassment 2017 
Looking at Aspects of Interpersonal Communication
                                  and Power

             by Sue Fulham / McPherson original essay December 8, 1995
                                        SAMcPherson web site

Sexual harassment - these words invoke fear in the innocent and guilty alike, for certain actions and language are subject to harsh penalty, whether done for innocent motives or malicious reasons. Sexual harassment comes in many forms. It may be overt, such as demanding sexual favours in return for good grades, or more subtle behaviour such as leering, sexual innuendos and comments, and "indirect threats or bribes for unwanted sexual activity" (Sandler, 1990: xvi). In some ambiguous situations, "different senses of reality collide and damages are felt, but no clear-cut violations of the law can be found" (A. Smith, 1994: 139).

Sexual harassment on campus has become a topic of concern since the seventies, when feminists began to look at issues around the body and the ways in which women's bodies have been controlled throughout history. According to Gold, Ormerod and Weitzman (1990), "thirty percent of women students are sexually harassed by at least one instructor in college" (p.xiii). In the early 1980s, academic institutions began to develop policies and educational programs to deal with sexual harassment (Sandler, 1990: xvi).  

To assist in coming to an understanding of the ambiguities involved in relations around the body and between men and women, I will use examples of interactions between a female student and a male professor, as related from the viewpoint of the student. For my analysis of these interactions, I will use a framework consisting of four different ways these incidents might be viewed: miscommunication, a mistake, ethical misconduct and/or sexual harassment. These categories are not mutually exclusive but may overlap in many ways. Rather than approach this paper with the intention of seeking the answer, I am suggesting that readers approach it with the aim of gaining insight into the different versions of "reality" of the individuals involved. I will analyze the incidents from various perspectives and attempt to discover the different meanings they hold. A social-psychological analysis of these incidents will assist in understanding complex aspects about communication, interpersonal relationships and gender differences.  

This analysis will raise issues such as: power, motivation, consequences, subjectivity and consciousness, socialization and solutions. How much credibility do we assign to the subjective interpretations of women? Is motivation a factor, and is ignorance an excuse? A qualitative approach to these incidents will enable us to sort out these issues and better understand similar situations.  

As the story goes, Professor X entered the classroom and immediately singled the student out and smiled at her, maintaining eye contact for three seconds. The student smiled back. The course was social-psychology and the topic of the lecture was interpersonal communication, that is, cognitive information, body language and eye contact. The lecture included the claim that eye contact of less than three seconds indicates interest in the other person, and is friendly and supportive.

 During the lecture, each time the student looked up, Professor X made eye contact (of approximately three seconds) with her, and smiled at her. She smiled back. This continued throughout the three-hour lecture.  

According to the content of the lecture, eye contact of less than three seconds duration is not threatening to women, whereas eight or ten-second eye-contact could be perceived as threatening. Thus, according to the verbal message, the professor's non-verbal behaviour meant that he was showing interest and was being supportive, although the student reported feeling anxious and confused, in part due to the inconsistency between the verbal and non-verbal behaviour. In retrospect, his behaviour seemed sexual and invasive.


Incidents such as these can mean different things to the actor and to the recipient of the action, depending on their socialization, their beliefs, and their location in the power structure of the organization. S. Smith (1995) argues that a person's cognitive system "filters and organizes its own representation of the environment" based on that person's social knowledge (p.87).

Based on research by A. Mehrabian, (1972), it is estimated that non-verbal communication contributes up to 70% of the meaning of an interaction (Hartley, 1993: 164). According to Sandi Smith's (1995) research on the association between nonverbal behaviour and intimacy, more smiling and greater and more frequent eye contact are associated with long-standing, close, personal relationships (p.97). In contrast, nonverbal behaviours that characterize the `becoming acquainted' condition include gazing away from each other. In the classroom situation, behaviour typical of an intimate relationship was directed toward a person the professor knew only within the context of the university, and over whom he held power.

Dant (1991) argues that "Knowledge is both constructed and reproduced in the process of participants exchanging and transforming meanings in discourse" (p.208). Therefore, we cannot assume that the incidents involved one-way communication. In the classroom situation, the student herself may have contributed toward miscommunication by her involvement in the interaction. Assuming that the incidents described were indeed sexual, as the student claimed, then the student herself may inadvertently or purposely have led the professor to believe she was interested in sex. After all, she did smile back. However, according to Cupach and Metts (1994) "men are more inclined than women to interpret friendly social behaviour in a sexual manner" (Muehlenhard & Linton, cited in Cupach and Metts, 1994: 47).

In both of the incidents described, the student perceived the verbal message as incongruent with the non-verbal message, and felt anxious and confused. From the professor's point of view, his behaviour in the classroom might just as easily have been consistent with his understanding of the meaning of three-second eye contact and meant to show interest and support. Furthermore, the incongruency in the second incident may have been due to coincidence or an eye coordination problem.

However, from the student's point of view, the professor's inconsistent verbal and nonverbal behaviour in the classroom placed her in an uncomfortable situation. Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory assumes that we feel tension (`dissonance') when two of our thoughts or beliefs (`cognitions') are psychologically inconsistent (Myers, 1987: 61). He further argued that we adjust our thinking to reduce this tension.Hewes (1995) suggests that problematic messages require a specialized form of cognitive processing that takes into account the possibility of multiple interpretations (p.114). Hewes' (1995) explanation of the processing of problematic messages begins with an initial acceptance of the message at face value (p.119). If there is reason to doubt the message, but the importance is not sufficiently high, no effort will be made to extract the hidden message, but, if accuracy is important, the recipient engages in a reflective process of reinterpreting the message (Hewes, 1995: 119). Cues, or elements of the message content, form, and background knowledge and experience of the receiver will assist the receiver in determining the accuracy of the message (Hewes, 1995: 121).  

On the one hand, the professor's verbal explanation of his non-verbal message was one of interest and support, but on the other, according to the student, the non-verbal message was sexual and invasive. The behaviour persisted over a period of three hours, in a situation in which the professor controlled the classroom interaction. The student would have no means of escaping this behaviour, other than looking away or withdrawing from the classroom. From her perspective, if she turns away and ignores him, he might think she's not interested in his "friendship and support," according to his verbal explanation of the meaning of three-second eye-contact. Yet if she smiles back, what does this mean? Thus, from her point of view, she was placed in an uncomfortable situation.

Even if the verbal behaviour and the non-verbal behaviour in the classroom were inconsistent, the possibility exists that they occurred simultaneously completely by chance. According to Greene (1995), non-verbal behaviours are often executed automatically, even though the verbal message may be carefully planned and monitored (p.58). In this case, if the non-verbal message and therefore the ambiguity is removed, the professor's verbal message would have been one of general information to the class. If the verbal message is removed, the meaning of the professor's non-verbal behaviour would be based on the subjective interpretation of the student, in the case of the classroom incident, as sexual and invasive.


Within the university setting, the possibility for sex is tremendous, considering that students would now be away from parental authority, and individuals open to sexual encounters must develop techniques whereby they recognize one another. The attempt to initiate sexual activity has traditionally been a man's responsibility, and "is usually accomplished by indirect means" (e.g. McCormick, 1979, cited in Cupach and Metts, 1994:45). According to Cupach and Metts (1994), indirect communication avoids face loss for the initiator in the event that the recipient does not wish to engage in sexual activity (p. 45). If Professor X intentionally used a method combining an inconsistent verbal and non-verbal message in the classroom, assuming that the non-verbal message was meant to be sexual and his motive was to make a connection with a potential sex partner, then perhaps he simply made a mistake. 


Studies investigating the relationship between feelings and sexual attraction indicate that fear can evoke physiological reactions (Baron-Cohen, 1995: 98), while at the same time, presentation of a situational cue provides a possible source of the feeling (Michener, DeLamater and Schwartz, 1990: 330). In the experiment involving men crossing a bridge, if they crossed a tall bridge, which was a frightening experience, they would be more likely to feel attraction towards the interviewer waiting at the end of the bridge than if they crossed a low bridge (Dutton & Aron, cited in Michener et al, 1990: 330). The attention of a person with the power to pass or fail, directed towards a less powerful person with a desire to please, can induce feelings of fear which may then be interpreted as sexual attraction. 
 If Professor X were consciously using his knowledge to gain advantage over women then this would be ethically unacceptable as well as gender-related. Or, if he were using his knowledge to conduct an informal social-psychological experiment out of curiosity, with no expectations, but without the participants' consent, then this is also unethical. We must also question whether the typical female student could be expected to analyze this situation, or, as suggested by Myers (1987), would she adjust her thinking to reduce the tension, unconsciously accepting one message or the other.
Sexual Harassment

What is "sexual harassment"? According to MacKinnon, (cited in Fitzgerald, 1987), 

                    sexual harassment refers to the unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in 
                    the context of a relationship of unequal power. Central to the concept is the use 
                    of power derived from one social sphere to lever benefits or impose deprivations 
                    in another (Fitzgerald, 1987: 23).  

Feminists argue that the power differential between men and women, such as between professor and student, introduces "an element of coercion into potential sexual relations" (Davidson, 1991: 41). Students often look upon the professor as an authority, as intelligent, with admiration. This idealization by students can feed the professor's "sense of self-worth, importance, superiority - in short, one's ego" (Zalk, 1990: 145). Yet not all women see such behaviour as harassing.  

Three reasons why women might not are that, first, some women intentionally use their sexual power to gain status and power from their relationships with men. Secondly, not all women would recognize it as sexual harassment, perhaps not able to consciously acknowledge their oppression or be able to find the words to express it, being aware only that the situation didn't feel right.  

In situations where these two situations intersect, women might at different times recognize that his intentions were unethical or harassing but at other times put that thought aside and be willing to consent in order to gain access to status and resources. Whether it could still be thought of as ‘oppression’ under these curcumstances – or which one was oppressed - isn’t as clear as we would like. It’s not surprising if women were left feeling cognitive dissonance – or mixed feelings - under such circumstances.  

The third and final reason a woman may not see such behaviour as harassing is that she may see herself as men's equal, both academically and sexually, and as non-threatening, and able to remain distanced from the person as a human being and emotional partner, enjoying the sexual interactions as means to an end or ends in themselves, separate from her own sense of herself as a human being or an individual with a life of her own, a way of thinking that in the past has been attributed to men. 


Nancy Henley (cited in Myers, 1987), argues that "in power and prestige, men are socially dominant" (p.205). Women work harder at conversations and ask more questions; men give opinions, women smile. Also, power is expressed and acknowledged nonverbally; for instance, men look women in the eyes; women look away (Myers, 1987: 207). Although nonverbal communication can have powerful effects, the reasons why are not fully understood (Hartley, 1993: 165). Baron-Cohen (1995) describes one study (Ellsworth 1975) in which 

                    researchers riding motorcycles stared at other drivers while stopped at traffic 
                    lights and observed that stared-at motorists moved off more rapidly when the 
                    lights turned green than those not stared at (p.118).

Facial expressions, particularly from the mouth or eye region, can reveal a diversity of emotions, such as "surprise, cruelty, combinations of surprise and anger, etc." (Nummenmaa, cited in Baron-Cohen, 1995: 109). The eyes have been referred to as "the window to the soul," a common theme in literature (Baron-Cohen, 1995: 106). According to Baron-Cohen (1995),

               The eyes are windows to the mind in the further sense that by observing the direction of                 someone's eyes we can identify the target of that person's desire or goal, since these 
                correlate with the target of the gaze (p.106).

In a situation of unequal power relations, such as in the classroom incident, if the verbal message of support and interest were removed, the "look" would more likely be interpreted as gender-related, if not overtly sexual. Furthermore, since the behaviour continued over a three-hour period, it could hardly be considered spontaneous, a momentary stepping over the bounds of a student-professor relationship, but as a deliberate act, a display of power.  


It is a possibility that the professor's behaviour was meant to be supportive and show interest. Men often claim not to know that their behaviour is offensive toward women. It is also a possibility that Professor X used an indirect method to avoid face loss, as suggested by Cupach and Metts' (1994) theory. However, his indirectness may have been for another reason. Does it make a difference if an act is a conscious misuse of power rather than done out of ignorance? While uneducated people may resort to overt forms, more highly educated people would be better equipped at using more subtle forms of sexual harassment.

According to Zalk (1990), "Private Harassers" take pleasure in deception, "because there is power in the secret - the power of getting away with something and never being suspected" (p.152). For example, Zalk describes the "Seducer", a type of Private Harasser who "targets students with whom he would like to be sexually intimate and actively sets out to achieve his goal" (p.156). Another type of harasser is the "Receptive Non-Initiator", who makes no requests, but tries to appear desirable "either by tending to his physical appearance or by adopting a role that encourages trust and familiarity" (Zalk, 1990: 154).


Even if he did use questionable means and places to express his sexual intent, does the consequence of cognitive dissonance within the recipient warrant an accusation of sexual harassment. Or does the signification of sexual harassment come into being if the incidents result in poor grades, a "poisoned environment" or trauma. To claim a cause-effect relationship might be difficult if there were intervening variables.  

According to Zalk (1990), "the professor's greatest power lies in the capacity to enhance or diminish self-esteem" (p.146). Some might ask, "should not a woman feel flattered when sexual attention is paid to her, showing appreciation of her desirability?" If the student wants to be recognized for her accomplishments, is it flattering to be singled out as a sex object, in the classroom or in the professor's office, under conditions of unequal power relations? Then again, perhaps students want recognition of both desirability and capability. Whether the professor was guilty of mind, that is, of consciously misusing his position of power and/or his knowledge to gain advantage over this student, or not guilty of mind, the consequences were the same. For this student, it was important to know the intentions of Professor X, whom she had respected and trusted. However, according to the student, not only did he refuse to discuss the incidents, but he cut off all attempts at communication, threatening to have her charged with harassment.

As Rabinowitz (1990) states,

                    Missed educational opportunities, lost time and effort, and feelings of 
                    disillusionment and disappointment are high prices indeed to pay for one's 
                    victimization by harassment (p.112).

Evidence suggests that to the extent that the sexual harassment resembles the trauma of rape or incest, the student may experience severe psychological trauma (Rabinowitz, 1990: 113).
Judith Lewis Herman (1992) adds that not only survivors of rape and incest experience such psychological trauma, but also combat veterans and survivors of domestic violence (p.32). 

Subjectivity and Consciousness

According to Harding (1987), traditional epistemologies have excluded "the possibility that women could be `knowers' or agents of knowledge" (p.3). Not only traditional epistemologies, but as Modleski (1993) states, postmodern feminism also argues that "the language in which women's experiences are articulated cannot be trusted to render them accurately" (p.110). Since highly emotion-laden interpersonal situations may result in recall of prior situations in which the same emotions dominated, the receiver's judgement of the instances may be affected "even when they are not truly relevant to the issue at hand" (Hewes, 1995: 128). Thus, the incidents may not have happened in the way the student reported them, or may not have happened at all. On the other hand, it is normal for information that is encoded into memory to be used as the basis for decisions about other situations, although "the impact of these encodings increases over time in relation to that of the original information" (Wyer and Gruenfeld, 1995: 11). Thus it seems possible that the incidents themselves were similar to the student's prior experiences.  

It was only after time had passed that the student claimed the professor's behaviour in the classroom was sexual and invasive. However, results of research on sexual harassment indicate that

                    the feeling of being harassed emerged gradually and, in retrospect, was marked 
                    discursively by a series of conversations or events in which were embedded     
                    transgressive or inappropriate phrases and gestures (A. Smith and Martinez, 1995: 74).

Moreover, women often come to know through their bodies, their intuition and emotions contributing to their understanding of a situation. 

According to D. Smith (1987), the subjective meaning that social experience holds for women, rather than meanings imposed by others, is a valuable source of knowledge (D. Smith, 1987: 107). Research that focuses on new discourses about interpersonal communication can increase our understanding of women's lives. Baron-Cohen (1995) suggests that "future models of mindreading will need to give a full account of the role of emotion in this domain, since it is self-evident that human beings are not `cold' computational devices" (p.136). Modleski (1993) suggests that the solution is "telling stories that are true to our shared experience, that contest the oppressiveness of much of this experience and that puts new meanings into play" (p.121).  


Men who harass are generally not evil men who spend their lives harassing women. Men who harass are our husbands, our fathers, our sons and our friends. Professors who sexually harass students cross all ages, professorial ranks, disciplines, and family situations (Fitzgerald et al, 1988b; Sandler, 1981; cited in Zalk (1990: 142). Many contribute their time and energy to helping others, and are decent people. Men go through divorce, midlife crises, and sexual identity crises, just as women do. Professors, too, are just ordinary people trying to cope with sexual desires, feelings of sexual inadequacy, their masculine identity, and the aging process. Men, like women, are socialized into playing out their gender roles in a society which intensifies the differences between men and women. Men and women need to become comfortable with themselves as persons so that they do not feel the need to control others.


Bell hooks argues that women and men must share a common understanding of what feminism is, if there is ever to be a mass-based political movement. She suggests defining feminism as "a movement to end sexism and sexist oppression" (hooks, 1989: 23). Her view of sexism recognizes the interconnections between sexism and diverse factors such as race and class which altogether contribute toward the social construction of femaleness.

Language is used by those with power over knowledge to create meaning; indeed, in Foucault's view, the body gains meaning within discourse within a set of power relations (Foucault, cited in Butler, 1990: 130). Male-dominated discourse has claimed the right to interpret women's experience, and women come to disown aspects of themselves, specifically their bodies and their sexuality. According to Barrett (1988), male supremacy is still grounded in men's attempts to control reproduction and women's bodies (p.45). Social meanings produced within male-dominated institutions tend to serve the interests of this group and of those who support them. 

Charlotte Bunch defines feminism as "a transformational politics, a struggle against domination wherein the effort is to change ourselves as well as our structures" (Bunch, cited in hooks, 1989: 25, 26). We need to examine the notion of "personhood," since within male-dominated discourse the standard of personhood is the white male. Martin (1987) states that

Persons are composed of a body and a mind (some would add a soul) and are `relational nomads' who are isolated from each other but necessarily in relationship with is quite likely that women are seen as less than fully persons (Martin, 1987: 17).

Furthermore, we all need to examine the ways we have been socialized and attempt to overcome patterns of interaction which interfere with effective communication. Hewes (1995) states that "messages can affect people's ability to predict and understand others' intentions and behaviours" (p.113). Without accurate information, the world we live in, which is complex as it is, would be an even more confusing place.

Whether one concludes that the incidents described involved miscommunication, mistakes, ethical misconduct or sexual harassment is not the issue. We live in a world of multiple realities where each person's point of view is real for him or her. When multiple realities are taken into consideration, there is no single answer to a problem such as this. Although it is easier to simply blame one person, to do so is to deny the reality of that person's experience. How we perceive something depends on our socialization - the discourses to which we are exposed, our own life experiences, our place within the power structure. As Wittgenstein argues, "belief, language, reasoning and action...arise from human behaviour anchored in its material, biological and cultural setting" (Wittgenstein, cited in Bloor, 1983: 2).  

It is not possible to hold all perspectives in consciousness at the same time. However, it may be possible to perceive the situation from various standpoints, from within the framework of each of the participants as well as of observers, although Baron-Cohen (1995) argues that "some individuals are so tuned in to their own viewpoints that they are largely insensitive to the viewpoints of others" (Baron-Cohen, 1995: 135). The tendency is, however, because we are human, to seek a single answer to a problem. Thus we assign blame and decree innocence according to our own interpretation of the situation.  

Researchers need to examine interpersonal "misunderstandings" between men and women from a multiplicity of perspectives so that situations such as the ones focused on in this paper can be better understood. We need to become conscious of how the individuals involved perceive such situations and how they are affected by them, by writing about them and analyzing them. According to Weedon,

            It is language in the form of conflicting discourses which constitutes us as conscious
             thinking subjects and enables us to give meaning to the world and to act to transform
             it (Weedon, 1987: 32).

Students and professors stand to gain insight from research into the area of interpersonal communication and power.

1. There have been a number of minor edits made (2017), since 1995 when the essay was written. These do not alter the essence of this piece but serve to enhance its explanatory power.
2. View ‘Non-Discrimination and Harassment Policy’. Western University (includes sexual harassment):  retrieved 2017.


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                          This page was published  November, 2017, on the S A McPherson website


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