The Backlash! - What Everyone Should Know about Feminist Issues - Cases & Kinds of Sexual Harassment
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Cases & Kinds of Sexual Harassment
By Rod Van Mechelen
(S)exual harassment is as vicious and pervasive and damaging to women in workplaces everywhere as rape is to women guards in male prisons, ... -- Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified

Ellison v. Brady: Male Powerlessness as Sexual Harassment

Kerry Ellison worked as a revenue agent for the IRS. Roughly two years after accepting her initial assignment, a married male co-worker asked her out to lunch. She accepted. Along the way, they stopped by his house to pick up lunch for his son. While there, he gave her a tour of the house. Nothing happened, but Ellison asserts that soon thereafter he began pestering her and, eventually, asked her out for drinks. Rather than coming right out and saying she wasn't interested, she "declined, but ... suggested that they have lunch the following week." (Ellison v. Brady, 924 Federal Reporter 2d Series, p 873)

The next week, however, she avoided or put him off whenever he approached. In response, he started giving her notes that led the court to observe that, "Analyzing the facts from the alleged harasser's viewpoint, (the defendant) could be portrayed as a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac wishing no more than to woo Ellison with his words." (Ellison v. Brady, 924 Federal Reporter 2d Series, p 880) The court acknowledged the defendant harbored no ill will toward Ellison and that he "even offered in his 'love letter' to leave her alone if she wished." (Ellison v. Brady, 924 Federal Reporter 2d Series, p 880) But his notes and letter shocked and frightened her, and when, after she complained, the agency's corrective measures proved insufficient to allay her fears, she filed suit.

Ellison was a victim of mild sexual harassment. Yet, as Mel Feit, Executive Director of the National Center for Men, pointed out, a reasonable woman would have taken him up on his offer to leave her alone, and that by not dealing in a forthright manner, Ellison did not behave reasonably.

Ellison explained her reason for not coming right out and telling him to leave her alone was that, "my feeling was, that's exactly what he wanted me to do. He wanted to have any type of interaction, whether positive or negative with me, and he wanted to create a very intense situation so I would have to talk with him; that's what he wanted me to do, and so I refused." (Night Talk with Jane Whitney, ABC network, April 13, 1992) This seems almost petulant and certainly unreasonable, and it ignores that he was trying to communicate his feelings, something that "does not come easily to (men)." (Brain Sex, Anne Moir & David Jessel, p 112) It also highlights how many women respond when given the chance to take the initiative -- they resent it.

These observations do not change that Ellison felt harassed, but it does suggest how both she and her alleged harasser felt disempowered: In the context of sex, disempowerment is the debilitating uncertainty women and men experience interacting with the opposite sex. In Ellison's case, it's clear both parties felt disempowered.

Prior to "women's liberation," men knew they were supposed to take the initiative and women knew they were supposed to pick and choose from among their "suitors." The question of sex, personal foibles aside, had only one answer: matrimony. Men were the providers, women, the nurturers. But as Reay Tannahill notes, the feminist movement caused many men "to go into retreat." (Sex in History, Reay Tannahill, p 422)

If it wasn't okay for a man to hold doors open for women anymore, then when was it okay to ask for a date? Particularly as, in our society, most men are raised to believe at a profoundly fundamental level that masculinity is base, crude, and morally inferior to femininity? If there were no social or religious restrictions on casual sex, and if "everybody's doing it," then what's the appropriate protocol for dating? And what about date rape? Or sexual competence? Who is supposed to initiate? How does a man behave like a man without being a male chauvinist pig? All the old rules were gone, nobody knew what the new rules were, and women and men didn't know how to behave because, like Ellison and her alleged harasser, they were sexually disempowered.

Into this social malaise, pop-feminists injected the assertion that sexual harassment is about men exercising power over women. Yet, while Ellison certainly felt harassed, her alleged harasser's behavior clearly indicated anything but power. From the start, his approach was almost timid. And he was married, yet it was clear the possibility of sex with Ellison, while attractive, was not as important to him as emotional intimacy. This was no Don Juan; he was more like a lost puppy in need of human contact. Contact which, in our society, men often feel they may obtain only from women.

Can a puppy harass a woman? Certainly. But is the little puppy exercising his power over a woman when he grovels at her feet and tries to jump up onto her lap? Clearly not. Nor are the men who, like Ellison's co-worker, timidly ask for a little intimacy, emotional or otherwise.

A woman being chased either by a puppy or a man suffering from a "puppy-dog syndrome" may feel harassed, and this is a legitimate problem. We know what to do with puppies -- give them to children. But what can we do with a sexually disempowered man?

Pop-feminists have tried to resolve this for the female victims by blaming the male victims. Since everything men do is seen in terms of power, and everything women do is seen in terms of powerlessness, it's easy to cast women as the victims and men as the villains. (You Just Don't Understand, Ballantine Books Edition, June 1991, Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., p 229)

More significantly, however, it's difficult to produce an oppressor of men -- if these men truly are victims, then whose victims are they? No villains are forthcoming, yet the haunting fact remains that they have been harmed by someone and are starved for true intimacy. For this, pop-feminists blame ... men, and the male ideology. The male ideology, with its emphasis on rugged individuality, is the problem, they believe, and the men who perpetuate it are to blame. The problem with this is that women are as much a part of the male ideology as men because most men do what they believe will make them attractive to women. As so many women give their love and sex to "rugged individualists," men respond by emulating the characters played by John Wayne, Steve Schwarzenegger and Eddie Murphy, thereby creating the "male" ideology pop-feminists condemn.

As a friend of mine puts it, "men will be nice when nice guys get laid."

Does this mean women are to blame? That because most women are attracted to virility and power, they are the oppressors of men? Were we like the pop-feminists, it might. But a more realistic assessment is that this means women share responsibility for male disempowerment, just as men share responsibility for female disempowerment, and that both women and men must be equal partners in the solution.

Lyle v. Duluth Central High: The Restroom Door said Gentlemen

For men, sexual disempowerment (as opposed to gender-role disempowerment) probably begins in earnest at about the same time it does for women -- in Junior High and High school. For Katy Lyle, this was tragically evident as she became the target for the taunts of some tremendously emasculated boys: "Katy Lyle is a slut," was the least offensive insult carved into the restroom wall. (Night Talk With Jane Whitney, April 15, 1992) Other "nasty sexual stuff" was written or carved onto the partition wall of the second floor boy's bathroom at Duluth Central High School, all of it about Lyle. What had she done to deserve such harsh treatment? Nothing. But then, how many women ever deserve to have their names linked with a "for a good time, call ..." comment on restroom walls? Everyone deserves more respect than that.

Lyle was a sophomore at Duluth Central High when a male friend told her about the slander on the restroom walls. During the next 18 months, she asked her teachers, guidance counselors, and the Principal to have them removed. Initially, she confronted them on her own, but when that produced no response (her Principal felt it would make her a stronger woman), she told her parents and they went in sixteen times. Finally, her brother went in and handled it himself. Soon thereafter, her parents filed a complaint with the Minnesota Human Rights Commission, the Commission found "probable cause" of sexual harassment, and she received a settlement of $15,000. (Sonya Live, CNN, March, 1992)

While it's easy to agree the staff and Principal of Duluth Central High were guilty of gross insensitivity, we might question the idea this was truly a case of sexual harassment. After all, don't young women often call one another "sluts"? And if it's okay for them to insult one another, then shouldn't it be okay for young men to join the fray, too?

There is a certain logic in that, but under Federal law, it was hostile environment sexual harassment because her tormentors uniquely targeted her: "There is a Federal law that outlaws this (type of behavior), because this is behavior that interferes with a person's right to receive an equal educational opportunity. And that law is Title IX." (Nan Stein, Ed.D., Night Talk With Jane Whitney, April 15, 1992)

Sexual harassment falls into the category of sex discrimination. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits exclusion from participation in, denial of the benefits of, or subjection to "discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." (20 USCS Section 1681) Hence, the Minnesota Human Rights Commission held that, under Title IX, Lyle was denied the full benefits of the educational experience as a result of this harsh treatment due to her sex, that this was sex discrimination and, therefore, sexual harassment.

We might agree that Katy Lyle was sexually harassed, and the inaction of her educators, deplorable, but this is not the almost exclusively male-created problem pop-feminists would have us believe. For every young woman harassed by her male peers, there is at least one young man being harassed by his female peers. This is not theory, nor am I citing dry studies and gloomy statistics from the protected cloister of some ivory tower: I'm speaking from personal experience.

As most men know, male students in Junior High and High school who aren't "on the make" risk being branded as "queer" by their female classmates. Is it sexual harassment for young women to call a male classmate "queer"? If saying a young woman has an incestuous relationship with her brother qualifies as sexual harassment, then calling a young heterosexual male "gay" does, too. What's more, the social behaviors of the young women in Junior and Senior High schools -- the make up, perfumes, "fashionable" dress, provocative and flirtatious behaviors -- are often so explicitly sexual as to inappropriately incite even the most studious young men. With equal legitimacy, therefore, many young men may claim to be sexually harassed by their female classmates, too.

Male experiences of sexual harassment don't receive the kind of press women's experiences do because female criminal behaviors get less attention in our society than men's do, or are dismissed altogether! (Abused Boys, Mic Hunter, p 39) Hence, this harassment will continue unabated until young men complain about it and make themselves heard.

Unfortunately, as women already know, that won't be easy. Even though women's problems have already received much press, most battles are still uphill, as Lyle's experience demonstrates. Where men are concerned, however, my experience is that our complaints are dismissed utterly -- when I told one group how I had been "afraid of girls" as a boy, for example, the audience laughed and the host snapped, "Let's get serious, here." When women express fear, it's a Federal case, but when men admit their fear, it's a big joke.

What this means is that the first young men to step forward and demand equal protection under the law will likely be subject to ridicule and persecution. But they will be heroes. Not like John Wayne or Rambo, but like Martin Luther King Jr. and Katy Lyle. Many will scoff, but history will call it courage.

The Thomas-Hill Hearings: Romantic Aspirations as Sexual Harassment

Assuming she told the truth, it took this same kind of courage for Anita Hill to testify against Clarence Thomas.

When Judge Clarence Thomas was interrogated by the Senate Judiciary Committee for a position on the Supreme Court, Professor Anita Hill testified that, "while working under his supervision, initially at the Department of Education's office for civil rights in 1981 and '82, then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1982 to '83," Thomas sexually harassed her. (She Said, He Said, Jill Smolowe, Time, October 21, 1991, p 38) Thomas denied it all and, for months afterwards, the nation debated who lied and who told the truth. Here, I will assume Hill told the truth.

What did Hill allege happened? First, that he "asked her out five to 10 times during the period in question." (She Said, He Said, Jill Smolowe, Time, October 21, 1991, p 37) Is it sexual harassment for a man to ask a woman out? What if he is her supervisor and makes her job dependent upon compliance with his "requests"? In that instance, it's a clear case of quid pro quo harassment, case closed.

Was that the case here? Not according to her testimony. But we can construe she consistently said no, yet he persisted. Is male-persistence a form of sexual harassment? Pop-feminists believe it is because to stop it, women must often take direct action. Take the initiative. Confront the situation head on. Most women don't like that; like aristocrats compelled by peasants to do manual labor, many resent that because they are accustomed to letting men do the work. They feel they shouldn't have to do anything. This is one aspect of this issue where most men "just don't get it," because taking the initiative, no matter how painful it may be, is something men are raised to do without complaint. And because their parents, teachers and peers hammered them with the message, "big boys don't cry," many men become so numb -- cut off from their own feelings -- that they may no longer feel the dread, but become like the football heroes whom so many women demonstrate, by their actions, they adore: polite, powerful, persistent.

Within the broader context -- the context that includes not just the female perspective, but the full spectrum of human sexuality -- if Thomas took her "no" to mean "no" on each occasion, but asked again because most women expect men to shoulder the burden of initiation alone, then he would be acting only in accord with what most women expect of most men. But he was her boss, and being the object of a superior's desire can be very intimidating. Hence, she might have legitimate cause to feel he was using his position to pressure her for sexual favors.

Does that mean Federal law should now prohibit men from falling in love with women whom, by chance, they supervise at work? Pop-feminists might like that -- give them that much more control over men. In that case, however, shouldn't the reverse then also hold true? Shouldn't the Law also prohibit a female subordinate falling in love with her male boss? This is only fair, and it would also protect men since, as things are now, a woman can willingly have a relationship with her boss, but if the relationship sours, she can ruin his life with a charge of sexual harassment. (Presently, you may have an actionable claim of hostile work environment sexual harassment if you are "denied benefits in favor of those who participate in exchanging sexual relations for job benefits." (Sexual Harassment: Know Your Rights!, Martin Eskenazi and David Gallen, p 86) In the case of Broderick v. Ruder, the U.S. Court of Appeals held that "third parties can be injured by a sexual relationship between two other parties if they are denied job benefits." {Sexual Harassment: Know Your Rights!, Martin Eskenazi and David Gallen, p 86})

Hill, however, alleged Thomas did much more than ask her out for dates. She also asserts he spoke candidly "about acts he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes." (She Said, He Said, Jill Smolowe, Time, October 21, 1991, p 38) Would that create a hostile environment? If so, then women are guilty of this sort of sexual harassment all the time as they often talk at work about scenes in films involving rape (Gone With The Wind) and group sex (Rapture). Are these women guilty of sexual harassment? Only if the "reasonable man" would feel harassed by them. So maybe it's time to educate men to recognize how women are victimizing them.

Hill also contended that, "on several occasions Thomas told (her) graphically of his own sexual prowess." (She Said, He Said, Jill Smolowe, Time, October 21, 1991, p 38) By the reasonable woman standard, such might well qualify as sexual harassment. Before we condemn Thomas for this, however, shouldn't we note that most working women brag about their own sexual prowess almost every day, shouting their sexual desirability to the world with their makeup and sensual clothing? Wouldn't it be sex discrimination to penalize men for doing verbally what women are allowed, even encouraged to do visually? It seems reasonable, but just about the only time pop-feminists will admit anything women wear can ever be construed as "provocative" is when a woman is offended by it, as in the case of EEOC vs. Sage Realty, in which "a female lobby hostess was fired for refusing to wear a provocative costume." (Sexual Harassment: A Digest of Landmark and Other Significant Cases, prepared by Diane Strock-Lynskey of the Center for Women in Government, and Joanne Elizabeth Fuchs, p 11)

Reasonable or not, we can probably expect them to deny men can feel harassed by the way women dress, even should some women choose to come to work in a regular office wearing nothing at all. But how many women would ask the equivalent of a vulgar question like, "Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?" (She Said, He Said, Jill Smolowe, Time, October 21, 1991, p 38) Not many. Yet women often speak derisively of their male coworkers, frequently indulging in "all men are pigs" diatribes. So while we might castigate Thomas for making such an absurd comment, we should also acknowledge that all men who are subjected to women's "all men are pigs" jabber, jibes and jokes are victims of sexual harassment, and that their female harassers should be punished. Beyond this, however, we should also acknowledge that women joke about sex, too. If it's okay for women, then shouldn't it be okay for men?

Of all the things Hill alleges Thomas did, however, the worst by far was that he "alluded to the large penis of an actor in a pornographic film by referring to the character's name." (She Said, He Said, Jill Smolowe, Time, October 21, 1991, p 39) That actor, of course, was Long Dong Silver, a black porn star whose penis was alleged to be close to two feet long.

Conceivably, Thomas may have raised the subject critically, in a context entirely different from what Hill suggested. This would not be unreasonable given that, in the early eighties, it was politically correct to joke about the size of black men's penises. In this context, a man like Thomas might well comment on the actor in the course of expressing his outrage:

Thomas: "I find it hard to believe, but the other day Senator Plushbottom had the gall to call me Long Dong Silver!"

Hill: "White men just don't get it!"

This is mere supposition. Let's assume, instead, that Thomas spoke about Mr. Silver in a very suggestive manner. Would that be sexual harassment? If so, then the time has come for all men to press charges of sexual harassment against every female co-worker whose behavior and/or speech falls within the same context: perfume, suggestive looks, innuendo, makeup, clothing that accentuates their sex-appeal, or "self-sexualization," or comments they make about a man's masculinity must be treated as sexual harassment of men. Unless we are going to assume all men "want" such behavior from women, in which case we must also assume women "want" men's sexual behaviors, too. Anything less than equal limitations on sexual behavior is sex discrimination.

Microsoft: Female Misogyny & Sexual Harassment

Microsoft Corporation is known for many things: its success, progressive work environment, youthful corporate culture, and Bill Gates. Its sprawling corporate campus nestled in among acres of evergreen trees and a park-like setting, Microsoft attracts some of the brightest and most exuberantly creative minds in the still male-dominated software industry.

Well-educated, deeply thoughtful and socially aware, most of the people at Microsoft are among the finest in the world, and only a few there would purposely do anything to create a hostile environment for anyone. During the past few years, however, a company-wide debate has erupted over what has become known as "the infamous Excel poster." (The Micronews (Microsoft's employee newsletter), Vol. XI, issue 26, June 26, 1992, p 5)

Several years ago, the German subsidiary of Microsoft issued a poster promoting Microsoft Excel (the company's spreadsheet application for PCs) featuring a "statuesque blond dressed in a low-cut sequined jumpsuit." (The Micronews, Vol. XI, issue 26, June 26, 1992, p 5) The poster, which was far less revealing than the women's underwear ads common in most major metropolitan newspapers and could easily qualify as an understated cover for a women's magazine, such as Cosmopolitan, was discontinued after some female employees complained about it. Yet it continued to be favored among many of the Microsoft men as "pinup art" for their office walls. While pop-feminists may assert this is due to the degrading objectification of the female model, the fact is all Microsoft posters are valued as "pinup art" by most employees.

Most Microsoft men are sensitive to how their behaviors can affect others. So even though many sported this poster on their office walls, they were careful to place it on the inside of their office door, or in some other place where it would not be visible from outside their offices. This seemed to work well enough until January, 1992, when a female employee needed to talk with one of the programmers who had this poster in his office.

Entering his office uninvited, she saw the poster. Consequently and without extending the courtesy of asking him to take it down or telling him how it affected her, she complained of sexual harassment to the personnel department. Human Resources responded by ordering him to take the poster down, and for the next several months Microsoft employees debated the appropriateness of this action on Microsoft's electronic bulletin boards: "The offensive nature of this type of poster isn't obvious to everyone, however -- as witnessed by the 400 postings on BBS0 in January when one of the Excel posters was removed from an office because of a sexual harassment complaint." (The Micronews, Vol. XI, issue 26, June 26, 1992, p 5 Microsoft maintains one in-house electronic bulletin board, and provides all employees with access to an external bulletin board sometimes known as "Wingnut," and commonly called "Usenet." Usenet is an international user-maintained bulletin board accessed by many major universities and high-tech corporations.)

If this poster could qualify as a cover for one of America's most popular magazines for women, then how could it constitute sexual harassment of women? A friend of mine posed this question at a gender-discussion group: can women be sexually harassed by a poster of a Cosmo cover. The women present responded with a resounding and unequivocal, "Yes!" Women, they said, read Cosmo and other such magazines as a means of "checking out the competition" and to judge themselves against the commercial standards of sexual power. Coming into an office and finding Cosmo covers as posters could, therefore, be like walking into a room-full of hostile competitors. In other words, women vs. women: "Women vs. Women is fueled by self-hatred extended to all other women. From blaming oneself to blaming other women, self-hatred becomes misogyny." (Women Vs. Women, Tara Roth Madden, p 108)

What do women perceive as the male-equivalent of this self-hatred? According to Ms. magazine, it's female violence, as demonstrated by the cartoon by Dianne Reum in the January/February 1992 issue of Ms. magazine.

Recognizing this, Microsoft ordered female employees to remove their "ideal man" posters, featuring a picture of a gingerbread man with the caption, "The Ideal Man: He's sweet, he's quiet, and if he talks back, you can bite his head off."

Why is female violence the equivalent of male admiration? Some of it has to do with the violence some men do. But the misogyny common among women -- the "self-hatred extended to all other women" -- also contributes to the problem. Many women may perceive harm in male admiration because they associate the feeling of vulnerability that comes from competing for that admiration with the violence they would like to do to their competition. Like some perverted version of the golden rule -- "Do unto others before they do unto you" -- they expect from men what they expect from one another and themselves.

This raises a new question about the standard by which sexual harassment is judged: should men be judged according to a standard based on women's covert desire to commit violence? Pop-feminists seem to think so, and their goal is to see this standard applied where ever and whenever women and men interact.


Rod Van Mechelen

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