Rays of hope for ending games men, women play


October 15, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A 12-year-old acquaintance of mine named Sara Ricklen walks away from the television set in dismay, having heard Professor Anita Hill declare that Judge Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her.

"Gender role expectations," says Ms. Ricklen, with wisdom and vocabulary far beyond her tender years.

"Huh?" I reply, with wisdom and vocabulary familiar to readers of this column.

"Gender role expectations," she says. "Maybe Judge Thomas was fulfilling his gender role expectations."

Sara Ricklen is a seventh-grader at Park School. On the first day of class this fall, her sex education teacher assigned readings on male and female gender roles. The rest of the country, most of us adults, spent last weekend watching the tawdry political drama on Capitol Hill. Ms. Ricklen and, presumably, others in her class, were putting it into context: Adults are such a bunch of dopes.

I look at her and see hope. Maybe the males and females of her generation are learning to approach each other as human beings. The generation of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, it is clear long before last weekend's hearings, still approach male-female communication as guerrilla theater of the erogenous zone.

"What do you mean," I ask, "by 'gender role expectations?' "

"You know," she says. "Like, boys have always been taught that men support the family, and girls have always been taught that women cook and clean house."

"And that explains the charge against Clarence Thomas?"

"Well," says Sara Ricklen, not wishing to hurt my feelings, "men are sort of taught to be aggressive."

I have a feeling the Clarence Thomas hearings brought the entire nation back to seventh grade, back to a learning process, to a kind of nationwide self-evaluation of the games men and women play with each other.

A month ago, we were absorbed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Now we debate the dating habits of a potential Supreme Court justice.

Many on the Senate Judiciary Committee took pains to decry this public process. They found it demeaning. I agree with them, and yet still found the process compelling and, in several ways, healthy.

Agreed, it's a shame that so many members of the Judiciary Committee showed themselves to be: a) ill-prepared to pursue intelligent lines of questioning; b) fully prepared to defend their political positions at any cost; c) terrified of offending constituents; or, d) asleep.

But look at some positive fallout:

Let's admit we still don't know who's lying, Thomas or Hill. Let's still admit, though, that Hill is a woman of substance who articulated her position, under intense pressure, with dignity and grace.

And yet, in the process of making her charges, she's subjected to speculation about fantasizing, about possible schizophrenia, about sexual urges she may have had toward the man she's accusing of harassing her.

In the face of that, we wonder why it would take any woman 10 years to come forward?

"But she stayed on the job," Hill's doubters cry, "and then followed him to another job."

So? Is there no one out there who works for a contemptible boss -- notnecessarily one who is sexually harassing, but mean-spirited and bullying on any grounds -- and yet continues to stay with the job for a variety of reasons?

Around the country, all who watched the hearings are forced to rethink the difference in our own lives between flirtation and offensiveness. That's a healthy process. It's a pity Thomas and Hill have to pay the price of their lives coming unraveled, but this nation had a group therapy consciousness-raising that assures it can never again be so cavalier about sexual harassment.

Was it painful? Absolutely. Judge Thomas talked of ancient sexual stereotypes about blacks that were raised by the hearings. They are abhorrent.

But there are other stereotypes, equally abhorrent, that Thomas and Hill and some others obliterated while white America watched and could not turn away.

They were extraordinarily thoughtful and bright, and in the very heart of the traditional white establishment, neither of them bent. And there were witnesses for each of them who were black, and they comported themselves with similar intelligence and strength.

This is no small lesson for millions of white Americans who still imagine blacks can't compete in the same intellectual league, and who still imagine blacks reach professional stature simply because of affirmative action programs which mask shortcomings.

Was the weekend still covered in tragic overtones? Absolutely. That two estimable people have to discuss their sex lives in public made the whole nation listeners at the bedroom keyhole.

But the issue is a mirror of the country. Men and women are still learning to respect each other, still figuring out the difference between playfulness and bullying, between being cute and being offensive.

Maybe the next generation will work it out. I look to my 12-year old friend Sara Ricklen and find rays of hope.

"A boy in my class," she says, "told a joke. 'What do you do when your dishwasher goes on the blink?' "

"I don't know," I say. "What do you do?"

"Smack her," says Sara Ricklen.

We look at each other and realize, unhappily, how far the next generation still has to go.

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