She-wolf whistles back: new sexism for the '90s Harried men cry foul in turnaround

August 20, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

Sexism in the '90s. Are men and women trading places -- at least some of the time? Consider the following:

* A female supervisor of a manufacturing company is charged with sexually harassing a male employee for six years. After hearing testimony about unwanted caressing and demands for sex, a California jury awards the subordinate more than $1 million in damages.

* Dolly Parton sings about "that sexy little body" while making leering catcalls at Billy Ray Cyrus during the finale of a popular video.

* First-year congresswomen reportedly debate which male colleague has the best bottom over a chummy dinner on Capitol Hill.

While men have long been criticized for sexist actions and

comments in the workplace, women are gaining ground in that dubious arena. As more women claim the corner office and title of boss, they are at times choosing to dish out what they've taken for decades.

"As women start using the tactics they've condemned men for -- the catcalls, the sexual jokes and things -- they're becoming like the very thing they condemn," says Larry Riggles, publisher and editor of Everyday Men, a semiannual magazine based in Frederick.

And men are speaking up about it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has seen the number of sexual harassment complaints by men more than double in the past few years. While it's still a fraction -- roughly one-tenth -- of those filed by women, more than 950 charges were filed by men last year, compared with 446 in 1989. (The commission doesn't track the gender of the alleged offending supervisor.)

This spring, Sabino Gutierrez of California won more than $1 million in damages after a jury ruled that his female boss had sexually harassed him. He charged that he was subjected to unwanted caresses, fondling and demands for sex from the personnel manager of the hot-tub manufacturing company he worked for. The decision has been called the largest award ever for a male victim of sexual harassment in the United States.

"It's difficult for a woman to talk about harassment. But it's even more difficult for a man," says Susan L. Webb, a Seattle management consultant who has written extensively about the issue. "He tends to get laughed out of the room. We have this underlying belief that men should be sexually available at all times and like it."

But many women find it tough to summon much sympathy for the idea of male as underdog and unwilling sex object. Men still have the best jobs and the most power, they argue. Are men simply being poor sports -- crying foul when they no longer get to call the shots?

Brice Freeman says that's not the case.

"I hear comments from female co-workers," says Mr. Freeman, 32, a consultant on sexual education who lives in Northeast Baltimore. "They refer to me in a sexual way -- saying I turn them on or talking about my body. I wouldn't say that to them. . . . But some women feel more freedom in expressing themselves today. That means they act like idiots at times, just like some men do."

Lucrative topic

Even fictitiously, the topic now brings big money. Michael Crichton, author of "Jurassic Park," recently closed what's been called the most lucrative sale ever for feature film rights to a book -- earning $3.5 million for his yet-unwritten tale of a man harassed by his female boss.

Yet old attitudes prevail.

"I was talking to a friend the other day, and I said I didn't believe that the average man could be sexually harassed by a woman," says Mr. Riggles, 43, who lives in Libertytown. "I guess a lot of men would look at a guy who claimed that and say, 'Wuss. Why didn't he fight back?' I can't picture a man taking harassment from a woman. I'm not saying slug her, but surely there was an outlet."

Even in the upper echelons of government, unenlightened voices are being heard.

Tucked in a recent front-page New York Times story describing life for first-year congresswomen was a paragraph about their conversation over dinner one night. During the meal, some women were said to have rated the derrieres of their new male colleagues.

"If the roles had been reversed, there would have been an unbelievable outcry," says Bascom Talley, president of Corporate and Government Consulting Inc., a management consulting firm in Washington. "But I think men are getting a bit of what they deserve. For a long time, it's been an acceptable part of the culture for men to make fun of women. Now the tables are turned. I don't think it's necessarily a good thing, but it's another step in the equalization of the genders."

Ms. Webb says such discriminatory comments in general pack less punch when aimed at the elite.

"The key element is that it's more permissible to poke fun at a group that's been in a position of power and respect," she says. "It's less hurtful. It's not as funny to do so when you're poking fun at a group that's been traditionally demeaned."

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