Same-sex harassment is no joking matter

December 08, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- There are words we use to describe what happens all too often on the school playground or the shop floor. We call it ''hazing.'' Or ''horseplay.'' We describe it as ''crude locker-room behavior.'' We say, ''boys will be boys.''

It's a vocabulary that often trivializes the cruel ways many men keep each other in line. It's a language that dismisses the way one man makes another pay if he falls outside some standard of masculinity.

Threats of rape

This is how it worked at its worst for one roustabout named Joseph Oncale on an oil rig in the waters off Louisiana. The trouble began, he says, with a supervisor taunting him, ''You know you got a cute little ass. I'm going to get you.'' It ended with threats of rape from this boss and two co-workers who held him down in a shower and forced a bar of soap between his buttocks.

Who knows why they went after Mr. Oncale. All of these men are heterosexuals. Was it because Mr. Oncale, the father of two, was small? Or because he was new? In any case, in a phrase that must be a classic understatement, he said, ''I felt belittled.''

But Mr. Oncale didn't call it hazing. He called it harassment. When the Sundowner company refused to help, when he was forced from work, he charged sexual harassment. Same-sex sexual harassment. And when a federal appeals court denied him the right to a trial, saying that harassment between men was not covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, he appealed this ruling to the Supreme Court.

There, on Wednesday, a skeptical group of justices seemed ready to overturn the appeals court. ''A Jew could discriminate against a Jew. An African-American against an African-American,'' so why couldn't a man discriminate against a man? asked Justice Stephen Breyer.

But even if Mr. Oncale gets his day in court, even if same-sex harassment is a permissible charge, it is by no means the end of the matter. This is one of those moments when the unusual case, the man-bites-dog case or straight-man-harasses-straight-man case, can throw light on a dusky corner of the law.

Locker room stuff

When women first claimed that sexual harassment was a form of gender discrimination, they were dismissed with the familiar arguments. It was just locker room stuff, boys will be boys, it's the price you pay for breaking into the boys club.

Gradually the law changed. The quid pro quo -- no sex, no job -- is now discrimination. The creation of a hostile work environment -- taunts, pinups, pinches -- is illegal.

Courts have ruled against men harassing women, women harassing men. Some have ruled against homosexual supervisors harassing heterosexual employees.

But underlying this is a certain confusion, a notion that sexual harassment is connected to sexual attraction. What then about a case of same-sex harassment when all parties are heterosexual and presumably not ''attracted'' to each other?

The Oncale case forces us to the heart of the matter. And at its heart, sexual harassment is not about sex but about power. Just as rape is not about sex but about violence.

As Katherine Franke of Fordham Law School describes it, ''Sexual harassment is a way of enforcing gender norms in the workplace.''

As such, she says, it's a form of discrimination against men or women, opposite sex or same sex.

As an example, Ms. Franke says, a man may harass a woman because he thinks of her as an object of sexual attention, not as a co-worker.

A man may harass another man because of the ''kind of'' man he is.

''It's a way of saying you aren't the kind of man we want working here.'' They are both victims of separate but equal stereotypes, different but equal discrimination.

A certain look

Last summer in Illinois, Judge Ilana Rovner ruled that male

teen-age twins had been harassed off their job by a male boss. ''A man,'' she wrote, ''who is harassed because his voice is soft, his physique is slight, his hair is long or because in some other respect he exhibits his masculinity in a way that does not meet his co-worker's idea of how men are to appear and behave is harassed 'because of his sex' under Title VII.''

I have no idea how Joseph Oncale will fare if he goes to trial. I don't know if this story fits into what Ms. Franke calls ''the dweeby guy'' category or whether some other dark dynamic was in play on that oil rig. But I do know it should be heard.

Men do discriminate against each other ''on account of sex.''

If anything, we vastly underestimate the ways some men enforce rules of masculinity and terrorize those who deviate.

Joseph Oncale is not telling a different story than one heard from a million women. He's telling the rest of the story.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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