Exactly When Is It Sexual Harassment?

We must all applaud recent court decisions protecting women from sexual harassment by males in the workplace. This practice has been standard in America for at least a century, and its prohibition is long overdue.

However, I think that in order to restrain themselves from engaging in it, men are entitled to a more precise definition of sexual harassment than the courts have so far offered. It is something like obscenity--the courts have ruled against it, but have never adequately defined it.

I'm afraid that men are in danger of knowing they have been guilty of sexual harassment only after the fact. I believe the courts have held that sexual harassment is persistent, unwanted sexual aggression by a man toward a fellow woman employee, or any sexual proposal or innuendo made by a man in a position to affect a woman's position or career.

That's fairly easy to grasp; yet many young men, hopelessly enamored of a particularly magnetic colleague, may stray beyond these bounds without realizing it. We must consider whether he is rebuked; how often he is rebuked, and how sincerely.

Let us say the young man has decided to make his move. He approaches his quarry and says, "How about lunch?"

She says, "Go ahead. I won't miss you."

Unsure of her intent, he retreats, but tries again the next day: "How about some Chinese?"

She says, "Chinese what?"

Not certain whether it was his question that was ambiguous, or her answer, he withdraws again. The third time he decides to be more direct. He says, "How about dinner and a movie tonight?"

She looks at him levelly and says, "Are you harassing me?"

He has gone too far. At this point he may only excuse himself and hope that she doesn't report him.

Obviously an unwanted, persistent proposal, persistently rebuked, is sexual harassment, and deserves to be inhibited by all the resources of the law. Any sexual advance or suggestion made by a male of superior position is of course sexual harassment per se, whether it is rejected or not.

What worries me, though, is that sincere expressions of interest may be discouraged by this legal bar. Let's say that Ted admires a colleague named Chloe. One day he says to her, "Chloe, why can't we get better auainted--outside the office?"

If she doesn't like him, Chloe has only to say "Buzz off," and wait for him to make his suggestion once or twice more; bingo: lawsuit.

But of course the young man knows there is this danger, and so he makes his advances at his peril. He may be so intimidated by the specter of a sexual harassment lawsuit that he never dares to make his feelings known.

What if, also, the young woman is attracted to him , and is hoping eagerly that he will approach her? Is their romance to be frustrated, never even begun, because of the legal dangers?

Alas, one effect of this new law is the removal of the workplace as an arena of courtship. But where else is there for young people to meet? A pall has been cast over the once free-swinging singles bars by the specter of AIDS. College is a classic mating ground, but by the time they've reached the workplace, most young people have bypassed college or left it behind. The church has always been considered a proper meeting place, but it has an aura of sanctity that inhibits the direct approach.

In times like these, when many young women are said to be reaching a dangerous age of anxiety without marriage prospects, it seems counterproductive to remove, by legal means, one of the last remaining scenes of encounter and courtship.

I certainly am not suggesting that working women do not need protection from lecherous males. They should be relieved of the indignity of unwanted sexual advances, and they should be free to tell their prurient superiors to get lost, without fear of reprisal.

But I do think that both men and women need specific ground rules that will allow them to make contact, court, and perhaps marry, without being scared off by the fear of lawsuit and disgrace.

As I say, the same rules should apply to women also. Anyone who thinks women don't sexually harass men has never worked in an office employing both.

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