AT A BIRTHDAY party in my office, the celebrant was feted with a cake in the shape of male genitals. The cake was devoured with great gusto, to the mirth and entertainment of many of those present and the intense discomfort of others. The cake was presented to a woman by the other women in the office. Those most uncomfortable were men.
If men had sponsored the party, it could have been considered an example of insensitivity and the abuse of male power. Since women did it, the party was all camaraderie and good fun, and any man who was offended simply kept it to himself.
Sex arrived in the workplace when women did, and ever since men have been unsure just what women believe its boundaries are. Over the past 20 years, I have seen a steady increase in frank language and sexual innuendo, much of it coming from the women, whether they were my boss or the lowest subordinate. The tougher the job and the greater the pressure, the franker the language and the more intense the sexual atmosphere.
Wherever I have worked, sexual relationships among co-workers have been a fact of life -- from hasty couplings in closets, to serious affairs, to love and marriage. The law can't eliminate sex at work; it can only try to keep it within reasonable boundaries.
During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, the senators fell over themselves to express their horror at the language Clarence Thomas allegedly used in asking Anita Hill out -- language unfortunately not that different from the average hit record, movie or television show, where jokes about male anatomy, suggestive language, double-entendres and frank sexuality have become commonplace. This pervasiveness of sex our public life makes determining standards of acceptable behavior much more difficult.
If a man asks a co-worker out, discusses personal matters with her and in other ways tries to advance the relationship, he can through the same actions be responsible for consequences ranging from sexual harassment to beginning a lifetime relationship. What is offensive to one woman may be obnoxious, amusing or even endearing to another.
Where men and women are together, there is misunderstanding and mystery. I have seen highly professional, otherwise respectable men commit sexual harassment, just as I have seen highly professional, otherwise capable women imagine relationships that did not exist (this happened, in fact, to me) and contrive harassment charges to revenge other slights or to advance themselves.
It's crucial to legally define sexual harassment as clearly as possible so that the true victims of sexual abuse and discrimination don't have their suffering trivialized. Otherwise we will be treated in our courts to interchanges every bit as bizarre as Sen. Joseph Biden and John Doggett arguing over how to ask a woman out. This is not and should never be a matter of law or public policy.
One troubling aspect of the Thomas hearings was that they put on public display the private rituals by which men and women come together. The man usually initiates relationships and therefore subjects himself to embarrassment, rejection and misunderstanding, particularly since these matters are not always conducted in straightforward, businesslike ways.
Men don't get it. That's what the professional feminists tell us. And they are right, we don't. We may get some of it, but not all -- not even many of us who have promoted and encouraged our women subordinates and oppose any form of sexual discrimination or harassment.
And that's because the rules of sexual harassment are not objective but determined by the reactions of the woman involved. Each woman makes her own law. Women want to be treated equally but don't want to be considered sexless. They want to be sexually attractive but only to the right man and only with the proper approach. That leaves considerable possibility for error. The man must read the woman's signals; the woman must make those signals clear.
Women today enrich the workplace at all levels and in all jobs. They are police officers and firefighters. They make a strong case for being qualified to carry arms into combat. If women are tough enough for that, to kill and risk being killed, they are tough enough to handle a dirty joke or a clumsy flirtation without rushing to join the women who are truly victims.
Women want to be respected, capable workers without losing their sexual identifies, and they should be able to have it both ways. But if a man wants to ask a co-worker out, he shouldn't have to bring his lawyer along.
William Broyles Jr., former editor in chief of Newsweek, is co-creator of the TV series "China Beach."