Sexual Harassment in Our Society

October 13, 1991

In one of the great televised spectacles in political history, the sexual harassment charges against Judge Clarence Thomas by

his accuser, Professor Anita Hill, turned a Senate confirmation hearing into an X-rated phenomenon most Americans would not want their children to witness.

Whatever the outcome, the drama played out all during the week has laid bare the thorny, murky issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Millions of men and women tuned into an issue that most adults have on some level experienced, witnessed or at the very least heard about.

No matter where you stand, the Thomas-Hill affair is proof positive that America still has a long way to go. It shows that men and women see sexual harassment through different lens. That women often keep incidents to themselves for fear of losing their jobs or advancement opportunities. That men fear unwarranted accusations that can ruin them. That despite great vTC legal and societal strides in the last two decades, the issue of sexual harassment remains a vast swampland.

Yet it is something that on some level touches almost all of us. In a survey of federal employees, 42 percent of women workers said they had experienced unwelcome sexual attention on the job. Though men complained too, the dominant profile was a single or divorced college-educated woman aged 20 to 44 working in a non-traditional job or in a predominantly male environment. The acts complained of ranged from an actual or attempted rape (0.8 percent), to deliberate touching (26 percent) to suggestive looks and remarks (28 percent and 35 percent respectively).

Not surprisingly, most of the problems occur at this latter level where the interpretive gulf between men and women yawns widest. One poll used in testimony for a Florida case, found that 75 percent of men questioned said they would be flattered by sexual advances in the workplace. Seventy five percent of the women said they would be offended. American jurisprudence has taken some notice of this. Earlier this year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals changed the test for sexual harassment from whether a "reasonable man" would be offended by the conduct in question to whether a "reasonable woman" would find it offensive. Companies too, have attempted deal to with the issue by instituting policy guidelines to clear up ambiguity about what constitutes sexual harassment and to threaten dismissal to offenders.

For all its ugliness, the Thomas-Hill drama brings us to another point in the journey to true equality in the workplace. Men will be more careful not to offend; women will be less afraid to complain when genuinely affronted. The feelings between genders evoked the Thomas-Hill case will be upsetting for many people, but in the end let us hope it raises the level of respect and understanding between the sexes.

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