January 24, 1992

Wife Beating and Sexual Harassment

It's not love --it's war!

Roger Rosenblatt, 1991

Our legal tradition is that a person is considered innocent until proved guilty. With this tradition, it is virtually impossible to convict someone of a criminal act which happens in private, without witnesses. It is the same problem with spousal abuse and some sexual crimes.

Is there any point in having laws against something that cannot be enforced? I think that, in this case, there is. The point of the laws, as were Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas, is not to punish sexual harassment, but to discourage it.

The recourse of women subject to continual physical abuse by a spouse was, and still is, to kill him. There was a popular Calypso song that celebrated this. Some of the lyrics are:

Last night he went out drinking,

When he came home he gave me a beating;

So I cotch up de rolling pin,

And went to work on his head 'til I boshed it in.

He's stone cold dead in de market,

Stone cold dead in de market;

He's stone cold dead in de market,

I kill nobody but me husband.

Obviously, sexual harassment is not in the same league as wife beating, so killing the perpetrator is not really appropriate. Ideally, hitting the man with a baseball bat might be appropriate, if it wasn't potentially lethal. Some people are so insensitive that nothing less will stop it. For most men, an icy stare and "I don't appreciate such language!!!" is enough. To a sensitive man, that remark can feel like being hit by a baseball bat.

A woman's reaction to obscenity and profanity depends on the woman. Some women are strongly offended, some don't mind, and some women use that kind of language themselves. Talking dirty sexually stimulates some people and turns others off. The suggestion "Let's f _ _ _". offends or turns off most women --but not all. I know of one woman who was so taken with the candor of that statement that she ended up marrying the man who said it.

Woman's liberation has produced some anomalies. There are woman who still want to be treated as "ladies," with everything that that implies. Others want to be treated as equals. Still others want to have it both ways which, to my mind, is not reasonable.

Some men use profanity routinely. I happen to be one of them, so if someone wants to live with me or be an intimate friend, that is something they have to put up with. I don't swear to make people uncomfortable --except on rare occasions when someone's prissiness gets on my nerves. When I hit my finger with a hammer, I definitely don't say "oh fudge".

Roger Rosenblatt of Life Magazine, in an editorial on the MacNeil-Lehrer Report pointed out that sexual harassment is designed to make a woman feel inferior and that it is similar to the ways that Negroes or Irish or Orientals or Hispanics have been, and are, treated. He ended his editorial on sexual harassment with "he's not making love, he's making war!"

The term sexual harassment didn't even exist 20 years ago. What constitutes sexual harassment? How does it differ from a pass?

A woman may be subjected to passes, made by men and a few fortunate men are similarly treated by women. A woman is free to say "yes" or "no". Some women like it, some don't. To one woman, it degrades her; to another it is a compliment.

When the pass is made by someone who has power, it might be construed as harassment. When a job or a promotion depends on how a woman responds, that is definitely harassment. The critical element is coercion. The term harassment and coercion implies that someone's arm is being twisted. Unless that element exists, it is not sexual harassment; it is a pass and it is no crime, no matter how a woman might feel about it.

Many a boss has made a pass at his secretary. Some secretaries have said "no" and some have said "yes". If the boss accepts the "no" and it makes no difference in their professional relationship, it is not harassment. Sometimes a woman who says "yes" may lose her job as a consequence.

It is fairly common for two people who work closely together to be sexually attracted to one another. What becomes of that attraction should be completely voluntary. Even with mutual attraction, many prefer to keep the relationship on a professional level, and that should end it. My former secretary told me that she got involved with her boss and that it turned out so badly that she resolved not to ever let it happen again. I'm sure that she's not the only woman who feels that way. Others have found it a rewarding experience. Some have ended up on the payroll for life. Some have ended up as the boss's wife and, of these, many insist on a say in his subsequent choice of secretaries.

You can't blame someone for trying, but arm twisting is not only immoral, it is illegal.

Next column

Return to the Light Stuff Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page