Cosmo editor's 'chemistry' is frozen in '40s

ROGER SIMON

November 01, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

I don't get it. I just don't get it. I thought I did, but now I don't.

I thought I understood sexual harassment. I thought I knew pretty well what it was and what it wasn't.

But then I picked up a Wall Street Journal Tuesday and read an essay on the subject by Helen Gurley Brown, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Because the Wall Street Journal is read by business managers throughout the country, Brown's article might actually influence life in the American workplace.

Which is too bad. Because I found her essay very scary.

In the essay, she says, "I know about sexual harassment." And then she proceeds to prove she does not.

Here is how her essay ends:

"When I was working my way through secretarial school in Los Angeles at radio station KHJ, and I came in from school every afternoon, some of the men would be playing a dandy game called 'Scuttle.'

"Rules: All announcers and engineers who weren't busy would select a secretary, chase her down the halls, through the music library and back to the announcing booths, catch her and take her panties off.

"Once the panties were off, the girl could put them back on again. Nothing wicked ever happened. Depantying was the sole object of the game.

"While all this was going on, the girl herself usually shrieked, screamed, flailed, blushed, threatened and pretended to faint, but to my knowledge no scuttler was ever reported to the front office. Au contraire, the girls wore their prettiest panties to work.

"There was some retaliatory action one afternoon. Four secretaries ambushed the head scuttler while he was announcing 'Captain Midnight' on a 42-station hookup and took his pants off.

"Alas, I was never scuttled. Sometimes I would look up hopefully from my typewriter to see three or four scuttlers skulking in the doorway mulling it over, but the decision was always the same -- too young, too pale, too flat-chested. Clearly unscuttlable.

"I think indeed we should come down hard on the bullies and the creeps but not go stamping out sexual chemistry at work."

After reading Brown's essay, I got the clear impression she thought the victims of scuttling liked it and she seemed sorry it had never happened to her.

And elsewhere in her essay she wrote: "Many people have suggested articles on sexual harassment to Cosmo. Though a devout feminist, I have resisted. I have this possibly benighted idea that when a man finds you sexually attractive, he is paying you a compliment . . . when he doesn't, that's when you have to worry."

I called Brown to ask her to clear things up for me. Did she really believe scuttling was harmless or even fun? That it was sexual chemistry and proper behavior in the workplace?

"Well, it happened in 1940," she told me, "and it was a crazy thing. Would it be appropriate now? I don't know. It really wasn't such a bad thing. It was fun and games."

I always thought women's underwear was a lot more complicated in 1940 and would not have been that easy to remove. But Brown was there and says it happened. What if, however, somebody tried scuttling in the office today? Would it still be fun and games?

"Would it be appropriate now? No. Everyone in an office today would be too busy!" Brown said with a laugh. "You couldn't run around like that in an office today! But it was an example of people having fun in the office. And what I am saying is this: We should lighten up."

So if Brown believes scuttling is not inappropriate office behavior, what is? What does she think sexual harassment is?

"If a woman can't get a job, or if she can't get a promotion or she gets fired because she won't give her boss sex, or if she is made terribly uncomfortable by sexual innuendo, that is sexual harassment," Brown said. "And she should sue and lodge a complaint, and I would help her if I could."

But it seems to me that you can't say being denied a promotion is serious, but having your panties torn off is not. After all, the women shrieked and screamed and flailed.

"These were sweet, normal girls, about six of them, and they were about 22 years old," Brown said. "And they enjoyed it. I don't think any one of them thought it wasn't fun. Sure, it was pretty personal, but nothing, nothing bad happened. I am a devout feminist, but I am a feminine feminist and I believe it is OK to like men and like sex and like babies. And I say we should lighten up and not make everything a federal offense. What happened then was just fun. Fun and games."

As I said, I just don't get it. Call me overly sensitive, but I just don'tsee ripping off a woman's panties as sexual chemistry. Nor do I see it as sexual harassment. I see it as sexual assault.

And if it or anything remotely like it happened to any woman I knew, I would give her this advice:

Don't call your boss and complain.

Don't call the feds and complain.

Certainly don't call Helen Gurley Brown and complain.

Call the cops and complain.

Tell them you have just been sexually assaulted. Tell them you can identify your assailant, you will swear out a complaint, and you want them to come immediately.

Tell them to bring their handcuffs with them.

And if, as he is being led to the squad car, your assailant complains, tell him to lighten up.

Tell him that once he gets to jail, he might be on the receiving end of a whole new kind of fun and games.

And tell him to write and let you know how he likes it.

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