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The unspoken battle: sexual harassment within law enforcement agencies

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woman silencedImagine working in a company or business and being forced to endure verbal harassment. Every day, envision your work being looked down upon or experiencing unwanted sexual advances at work. These events are not merely imagined but are the reality faced by too many female agents within the ranks of federal law enforcement agencies. There have been documented incidents of sexual harassment within the Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), and the Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms (ATF). Suzanne J. Doucette, an accommodated FBI agent, had an incident when her supervisor caught her in a choke hold from behind and demanded sexual favors (Hill, 1997). This type of treatment seems to be extreme but it unfortunately can be an all too common interaction.

Sexual harassment can range from incidents like Suzanne’s, which verges on sexual assault, or something as little as fellow agents making derogatory jokes about their female counterparts. Even a derogatory joke is still, technically a form of sexual harassment. The US EEOC first defined sex discrimination in 1990, it was broken in to two parts. The first is Quid pro quo, defined as “employment related bribery or threat to obtain sexual compliance” (Bell et. al 2002). The second form of sexual harassment is a hostile environment; it is defined as when sexual behaviors that occur have “the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment”  (Bell et. al 2002).

US Special Agency badgeQuid pro quo is easier to spot or to be able to prove in court, than a hostile work environment. The difficulty is in proving what constitutes as ‘hostile’. To be able to call something hostile depends on the viewpoint of the interpreter. The legal system tends to look at whether a reasonable person would consider that sexual harassment has occurred or even if the situation was in anyway offensive.

Many instances of sexual harassment are not a physical or outright attack; the malice can be laid deep into the body of a joke or sleight of hand remark. The Federal Court’s decision of Barnes vs. Costle (1977) allowed women who were entering the predominantly male work places more leeway when dealing with what was thrown at them by the male agents. Large amounts of women began entering the criminal justice system back in 1972. Forty-one years later and women are still dealing with the problems that come with entering a primarily male environment.

Sexual harassment becomes even more difficult to prove when it is put into the setting of a male-dominated work environment like federal law enforcement agencies. Women in ‘traditional’ male positions are often treated with hostility because they jeopardize the believed “production of masculinity”.  Lonsway, Paynich and Hall (2013) studies focuses on the definition of sexual harassment and found that one half to three quarters of American women who work in law enforcement will be subject to some form of sexually harassing behavior in their work environment, with sexist or sexual remarks being the most standard response by far (Lonsway et al. 2013).  Furthermore they show that the majority of the time, any forms of sexual harassment within the federal agency was perpetrated by a co-worker. 

One powerful first-hand account is by Suzanne J. Doucette who was a ten year veteran with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, her case was the one mentioned in the introduction of this paper. Doucette managed to break free from her supervisors hold, but from that day on, her work and contributions to the agency were diminished substantially because of her supervisor (Hill 1997). When she filed a complaint it was met with typical institutional denial, it wasn’t long before her evaluations fell ‘below acceptable’, and she was soon ostracized. Shortly after, she left the Bureau and a promising career behind. As an up and coming member of the FBI, her career was cut short simply because she knew she had been wronged and wanted to change how things were done with the FBI. Suzanne is surely not the only agent from the FBI to wage a complaint but she is one of the few that have gone public with her complaint.

Texeira (2002) found that African American women are very often held to a stereotype of sexual promiscuity and as a result are vulnerable to sexual harassment.  One of Texeira’s participants Velda, a veteran officer, commented, “I just try to do my job, and who protects and serves me?”(Texeira 2002: 520). This powerful statement puts it rather simply for us all. The women who protect and serve the people of the USA deserve to be protected to the same level by the very laws that they uphold. Sexual harassment more often than not leaves more psychological scars then it can physical.  Morgan (2001) discusses the effects that are felt by those who are sexually harassed. 

Being sexually harassed is an embarrassing, if not humiliating experience. The pressure to exchange sexual favors for employment is demeaning, as is being the butt of a sexualized joke or gag. A consequence is the erosion of trust in others, especially men.  

Morgan makes a valid point that being the victim of sexual harassment, regardless of the form it takes can produce a loss of trust.  Since most of the federal law enforcement agencies are filled with men this could directly affect how the women work with their fellow agents, thus decreasing their ability to complete their cases. It is actually in the best interest of the Federal agencies if they were to stop sexual harassment and ensure that the trust between agents is strong. Women who experience multiple forms of harassment, even really low forms it of frequently have poorer job-related outcomes and poorer psychological health than others (Gruber 1998). It is not the type of sexual harassment or the fact that it happens very often but it is the lasting effect on the female that creates a negative psychological impact.

Sexual harassment in the office b & wSexual harassment cases are not limited to just a male harassing a female. It is simply the most common. All of these are products of the basic concept of hegemonic masculinity. This can be defined as “configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy in patriarchy, which guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordinate position of women” (Rabe-Hemp 2009). Rabe-Hemp (2009) addresses how female officers and agents construct their identity and image of themselves in relation to their gender. The women in the study reported that fellow female officers were better at serving women and children in victimization situations then men, thus, allowing the historical thought process of men doing “real police work” to perpetuate the sexist views that male police officers or agents might have towards their fellow co-workers. Sexual harassment can take place in many settings, but within law enforcement it is very prevalent.

Sexual harassment cartoonA study that shows this the best is the two-part study done by Lonsway, Paynich, and Hall (2013).The first part involved surveying sworn personnel within a single federal law enforcement agency. The second  was conducted with a national sample of female police officers.  The authors of this study begin by addressing the negative impact that is associated with sexual harassment. Their research showed that many did not identify the behavior as sexual harassment. This is important because most victims do not label their experience as sexual harassment. 24% of the female police officers in study one said that they experienced a “constant atmosphere” of offensive remarks. Yet, 100% of the female officers who were interviewed in the second study described experiencing at least one sexually harassing incidence during the course of the research.

The survey demographics for study one concluded that out of the 679 officers that responded 69 were women, 607 were men, and 3 did not indicate their gender (Longsway 2013). In Sample 2 they received a list of law enforcement agencies from the National Directory of Law Enforcement Administrators, Correctional Institutions and related agencies published by the Public Safety Information Bureau in 2002. The study found that overall 83.5% of the sample in Study 1 indicated that they had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment that was mentioned on the survey they took. This includes both men and women. In Study 2, they found 93.8% of female officers indicated that over the course of their law enforcement career they had experienced at least one form of harassment. For more information on these studies see this link:

The first known response was the fear of being labeled. The second response was the ‘no big deal’ thought process, that it is simply a part of being in law enforcement.  Lastly, the third response recorded was that the respondent would handle the situation on their own, by talking to the person on their own or enlisting peers.Women within the ranks of federal law enforcement and women who enter any male-dominated field seem to be sentenced to ridicule and harassment. The research from previous studies and with the use of empirical data it is easy to see that not only do women within federal agencies endure sexual harassment but they must endure the psychological effects that come with the harassment. The loss of trust and the self-doubt that is created due to having equal work to male co-workers being undervalued and eventually discarded all together can be detrimental. 

Table from Lonsway et al.




































The use of surveys allowed the authors of the two studies to get specific and realistic answers from the officers who returned the surveys.They received information regarding, whether the women had been harassed or not but as well the type of harassment, who the perpetrator was and whether the incident was reported or otherwise dealt with. Furthermore, they were able to gather data on what the individual who was being harassed did as a response to the perpetrator of the harassment. The data received from these studies will help further research on the issue and make it a more central issue in modern law enforcement. 

Federal court cases have worked hard since the 1970’s to make the work place a safer environment for women. Currently women are accepted into the working world, with the exception of male-dominated work environments such as law enforcement. Sexual harassment is not tolerated on paper but it is a different story in practice. The original topic that sexual harassment has a negative effect on women has held true and is now backed with empirical data.



Barnes vs. Costle (1977) Legal bref:


Bell, Myrtle P., Mary E. Mclaughlin, and Jennifer M. Sequeira. "Discrimination, Harassment and the Glass Ceiling: Women Executives as Change Agents." Journal of Business Ethics 37, no. 1 (2002): 65-76. Accessed January 12, 2015.


Gruber, James E. "The Impact of Male Work Environments and Organizational Policies on Women's Experiences of Sexual Harassment." Gender & Society 12, no. 3 (2014). Accessed July 13, 2015.'s_Experiences_of_Sexual_Harassment


Lonsway, Kimberly A., Rebecca Paynich, and Jennifer N. Hall. "Sexual Harassment in Law Enforcement." Police Quarterly 16, no. 2 (2013): 117-210. Accessed July 13, 2015.


Marino, J. (2006, September 26). Female FBI Agent Discusses Sexual Harassment at the Bureau and Suicide of Her Husband---Did the FBI Drive Him to it? Retrieved February 17, 2015, from


Rabe-Hemp, C. (2009). POLICEwomen or PoliceWOMEN?Doing Gender and Police Work. Feminist Criminology, 4(2), 114-129. doi:10.1177/1557085108327659


Texeira, M. (2002). “Who Protects and Serves Me?” :A case study of sexual harassment of African American Women in one U.S. law enforcement agency. Gender and Society, 16(4), 524-545. Retrieved March 4, 2015, from


Lucy Marshman has a BA in Criminology from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She has a drive to join law enforcement and to help others.

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