How else do you know it's unwelcome?

February 25, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Let's take this once again from the top. Maestro, if you please.

Some weeks ago, in a column on the Paula Jones suit, I added one little musical phrase suggesting that even Ms. Jones' version of her encounter with then-Governor Clinton did not rise to the legal level of sexual harassment.

This struck a dissonant chord with an entire glee club of readers, including some who said they were usually in harmony with my views. They responded by all available mails -- electronic, voice and snail -- but they were generally playing one note.

How is it possible, they asked, that even her description of what happened wasn't sexual harassment? If dropping trousers and requesting someone to kiss your private parts isn't sexual harassment, what on earth is?

It turns out that people have the same view of sexual harassment that Justice Potter Stewart had of pornography: ''I know it when I see it.'' But, then again, maybe you don't, even when it has distinguishing characteristics.

There's a whole lot of confusion about what is and isn't sexual harassment, on the part of a commander-in-chief or an Aberdeen drill sergeant, in a hotel room or at The Citadel.

A form of discrimination

Allow me to play it again, Sam et al. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. It's the sex part in sex discrimination, and it's against federal law in two contexts: in educational settings and in the workplace.

In the workplace sexual harassment is defined as ''unwelcome sexual conduct.'' That can be anything from pressure for sex to leering. It can entail a specific job threat or the creation of a hostile environment.

But the operative word here is unwelcome. As Judith Lichtman of the Women's Legal Defense Fund admits wryly, ''that implies that people get one free pass. How else do you know it's unwelcome?''

After all, welcome sexual conduct isn't harassment. The law puts the burden on the receiver to draw the line. And Paula Jones -- again, in her own version -- did that. She said no, at which point she says he said, ''Well, I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do.''

Harassment? I don't think so. Even if you believe every word, even if you regard the governor as her boss -- a stretch -- and even if you define this scene as a workplace -- another stretch -- it never happened again. Nor was her job threatened.

I know there are some new melodies being played in the sexual-harassment song. Last week, the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that sexual bantering and badgering by a heterosexual male boss created a hostile environment for his heterosexual male employees.

But even in this litigious country, there are still wrongs for which there are no legal remedies. Not every piece of piggish behavior is illegal. You can feel humiliated without being legally sexually harassed.

Now allow me to change the background music to John Philip Sousa.

In public and on TV, the truly horrifying tale of two women who integrated the last bastion of The Citadel is also being casually described as sexual harassment.

But so far there appears to have been no explicit sexual content in their grotesque abuse. The story has less in common with other sexual-harassment cases than with the pinning medals into the chests of Marine paratroopers. Setting someone's clothes on fire sounds like plain old assault to me.

Maximizing and minimizing

How odd that the term sexual harassment is being expanded to maximize accusations against the commander-in-chief. But it's also being used to minimize reports of assault at The Citadel or, more widely, in the Army scandals.

The laws defining sexual harassment in the military are pretty much the same as in any civilian workplace, with the added wrinkle that the military bans ''fraternization'' between superiors and inferiors of either sex. In the scandal that hit Aberdeen and keeps growing, there's been a tendency to mush together rape, harassment and fraternization into some generic ''sexual misconduct'' or even a misguided dating game.

At the recent Senate hearings, Nancy Duff Campbell of the National Women's Law Center said, ''they were trying to make light of serious charges and say 'hormones will be hormones.' ''

Sexual-harassment laws are still new and often misunderstood. On the whole, I'm more worried about the charges that are doubted than those that are doubtful.

But let me return to the brief refrain: What's lurid is not necessarily illegal. In the case of the president and Paula I'll stick to my theme song: ''It Ain't Necessarily So.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/25/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.