Exposing The Myth Of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a legitimate issue.

But it is only part of a larger issue: the sexual games BOTH sexes play in the workplace.

So what has led us to focus only on sexual harassment and neglect the issue of flirtation?

In the 1960s, the term "sexual harassment" was unheard of.

As women who were divorced in the '60s and '70s began to receive income from the workplace, they began to demand the protection from the workplace that they once had at home.

Almost overnight, workplace rules changed.

Previously, few men even thought of using a lawsuit to protect themselves from an offensive joke. A Polish man who heard a Polish joke was expected to laugh, not sue.

But men did have ways of defending themselves.

If a colleague was offensive, they avoided him. If he couldn't be trusted, they gave him a bad reputation.

If a boss was authoritarian or overloaded them with work, some became passive-aggressive, saying, "Yes, sir" - but doing only half the job.

Others worked overtime. Some took the boss aside and talked with him; others complained in a written evaluation.

And if nothing worked, they applied for a transfer or got another job.

Men never thought of suing the mouth that fed them. Why not? The mouth that fed them also fed their families.

The fights that men fought almost all helped them better feed their families, either via higher salaries and workers' compensation when they were alive or via insurance or widows' benefits when they were dead.

In essence, a man fought for what protected his family more than for what protected him.

Who defines harassment?

When, in the early 1970s, we began to hear of sexual harassment, it most often meant a woman being told that if she didn't have sex with the boss, she'd lose her job. Almost everyone agreed that was harassment.

Soon harassment came to include a boss promising a quicker-than-earned promotion in exchange for sex.

Almost all men were opposed to this because it was mostly men who lost the work favor and whose sexual favors were worth nothing.

But because most men felt it was in the company's interest to fire a boss who exploited the company for personal pleasure, they didn't feel the necessity for government interference.

While men went about their business, so to speak, the federal government expanded the legal definition of sexual harassment to anything a woman defined as a "hostile work environment."

Men were oblivious until the Clarence Thomas hearings pulled their heads out of the sand. They saw that the definition of harassment had expanded to include discussing pornography, telling a dirty joke, calling an employee "honey" or taking a longer look at a shorter skirt.

Does the federal government actually make a dirty joke potentially illegal?


And a look?


And calling an employee "honey"?


All these things are illegal if a woman decides she doesn't like it - and if a man committed the "offense."

Aren't these guidelines gender neutral? Sometimes, yes; often, no.

For example, the sexual-harassment guidelines mandate employers to consider it their "affirmative duty" to "eliminate" behavior that women consider "hostile" or "intimidating" - behavior such as "unwanted sexual advances" or dirty jokes.

The Department of Labor's guidelines are explained in a publication entitled "A Working Woman's Guide to Her Job Rights" - not "A Worker's Guide to Job Rights."

Practically speaking, any man who sued a woman for discussing pornography or for asking him out - a la Hill-Thomas - would be laughed out of the company before the ink on the lawsuit dried.

Who defines "hostile environment"?

The woman.

Not even the man's intent makes a legal difference. In all other criminal behavior, intent makes all the difference. Even in homicide.

The laws are unequal

Sexual-harassment legislation in its present form makes all men unequal to all women. It is in blatant violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection without regard of sex.

Thus the political will to protect only women prevails over the constitutional mandate to protect both sexes equally.

Suppose it is her word against his?

When the guidelines of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were first formed, a "bare assertion" of sexual harassment - a woman's word against a man's - could not lead to conviction without factual support.

By now, a woman doesn't even have to tell the man that he's bothering her. She can simply complain to a girlfriend at work.

The EEOC's decision No. 84-1 allows complaining to a girlfriend at work to be "sufficient to support a finding of harassment."

That used to be called gossip.

Now it's called evidence.

All this led to the filing of 50,000 sexual-harassment lawsuits between 1980 and 1990. In response, three-quarters of America's major companies developed programs designed to fulfill the EEOC guidelines.

That, believe it or not, is still not at the core of what bothers men about so-called workplace harassment. What is?

It's the old "your lips tell me `no, no,' but there's a `yes, yes' in your eyes."

An unfair game

First, men still see women playing their old sexual games. And second, men do not see sexual-harassment legislation requiring women to take responsibility for their games.

For example, the magazine read by the largest number of single working women - Cosmopolitan - instructs women on how to take "indirect initiatives at work to which men unconsciously respond."

What if the wrong man responds?

Other articles tell her how to file a sexual-harassment lawsuit should these indirect initiatives elicit direct initiatives from the wrong man!

Here are a few indirect initiatives Cosmopolitan tells women to take in the workplace:

-- "As you pass his desk, drop a pile of papers or a purse, then stoop down to gather them up. He'll help. Lean close to him, put your hand on his shoulder to steady your balance. . . ."

-- "If you have good legs, wear a very tight, short skirt and very high heels. Bend over with your back to a man (to pick something up or look in a file drawer, etc.). . . ."

-- "Brush up against somebody in the elevator . . ."

-- "Say something slightly inappropriate during a business lunch or dinner, such as, `You look great in blue.' This should be done while you are talking about something else - for example, `I was working on the Apex campaign, and did you know you look great in blue?' "

The power of the woman's indirect initiative is that it puts neither her ego nor her career on the line.

For example, Cosmopolitan advises "immediately after you meet him - within seconds - touch him in some way, even if it's just to pick off imaginary lint."

Now, if he responds by asking her out, but later calls off the relationship, he's subject to a harassment suit.

Once in court, few men would feel comfortable telling a judge, "Your Honor, I asked her out because of the way she picked imaginary lint off my jacket."

More communication needed

The solution? For starters, if a woman feels sexually harassed, she should tell the man directly.

When two feminists compiled the sexual harassment stories of 100 women - Amber Coverdale Sumrall and Dena Taylor, in "Sexual Harassment: Women Speak Out" (The Crossing Press, Freedom, Calif., 1992) - every single man who was told by a woman directly that she felt his behavior was harassing her stopped immediately.

All of the men apologized. Some brought in flowers. When women do not understand men's vulnerability, they miss the degree to which men want to please, not anger women.

In fact sexual harassment legislation often creates a hostile environment: an environment of female-as-child, one that makes even female employers more desirous of hiring men.

And when hiring a woman means a greater fear of a $100,000 harassment lawsuit than hiring a man, the long-term effect can often be discrimination against women.

As the men walk on eggshells, a formerly fluid workplace becomes a paralyzed environment.

The solution lies more in communication than legislation.

Tomorrow in The Times: The suicide sex.

(Copyright, 1993, Simon & Schuster. Excerpted from "The Myth of Male Power," by Warren Farrell, Ph.D. Distributed by New York Times Special Features/Syndication Sales.)