219. "Looking for Mr. Harassment" Cleveland Plain Dealer, (June 18, 1992), p. 3-C. Also published: "Sexaul Harassment, Second Degree" The Philadelphia Inquirer, (June 22, 1992), p. A11.


When the editors of a new quarterly, the Responsive Community, sought to publish Honeywell’s internal guidelines concerning sexual harassment, the company’s representative was reluctant to grant permission. The guidelines, she pointed out, encompassed cat calls, making kissing sounds, telling sexual jokes, and calling a woman “babe,” “doll,” “honey” or “sweeties,” among other things. Many employees, she said, had called wondering - “Is this sexual harassment?” She was concerned that Honeywell would be ridiculed for having extended its definition of sexual harassment so far.

At the University of California at Davis, a member of the student-run marching band was recently accused of sexual harassment for, among other things, wearing a T-shirt that displayed a sexual slogan and for yelling sexually explicit cheers.

Nancy Stumhofer, a professor at Penn State, was offended by the presence of a print of Goya’s “Naked Maja” on the wall of her classroom. She claimed that the painting was sexually harassing her. The university’s affirmative action office found that she had a legal base for her assertion.

Sociologists will be quick to recognize that such stretching of the concept of sexual harassment has an opposite effect from the one intended. It undercuts those who seek to stamp out unwanted sexual advances and pressures. Every society has a limited store of moral indignation; if one squanders it by lumping serious offenses with marginal ones, it is soon depleted.

People may find themselves in a position similar to the person who tries to eat only healthy food but find nothing that qualifies: Fish contains too much mercury, bread has too much iron, peanuts have fungus - and throws up his hands. Similarly, if people call everybody who disagrees with them a fascist, the term loses much of its bite.

Indeed, the need to conserve our moral censure lies at the root of our legal system, which distinguishes between armed robbery and mere theft, between murder and manslaughter, and shades most other crimes into more or less severe ones.

I am not disputing that sexual jokes, pinup calendars and wolf whistles may under some circumstances, contribute to an offensive climate. But it is time that we draw some lines. Pressure to engage in sexual acts ought to be considered outright sexual harassment. If it comes from people who have power over the person who is being pressured - say from a boss, from a professor (over students), a psychiatrist (over patients), a divorce lawyer (over a distraught client) - it should be deemed an even more serious matter: a case of aggravated sexual harassment.

Acts that merely contribute to a sexually drenched climate - ogling, for instance - should be ranked lower on our scale of condemnation and punishment. Call them acts of sexual insensitivity or second-degree sexual harassment.

Finally, while reasonable people may disagree on where to draw the line between what is in vs. what is out, it must be drawn somewhere. I am not sure that calling someone “sweetie” shows anything, under most circumstances, except that the speaker has not updated his vocabulary. Above all I find it very difficult to see how a classical painting is capable of harassing anyone.

My feminist friends argue that what constitutes harassment is in the eye of the beholder. It is up to the woman involved to determine what gestures or conversation she finds offensive. But this is a standard that no legal or moral system can endure. One cannot possibly demote workers, expel students and condemn fellow men on the basis of such inconsistent and unpredictable grounds. Surely, women, who on occasion do harass men, would not agree to be tried on such grounds.

Those of us who are exercised about instances of sexual harassment, as we all ought to be, should work to ensure that most of the rising societal attention to this matter is focused where it counts most: on pressure on unwilling partners to engage in sex.

The other stuff should be treated more gingerly, and more of us should have the guts to declare that Goya and company are off limits, period.


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