What's Bad Enough to Be Bad Enough?
By Liza Mundy
On this historic day, a Wednesday, April Fool's Day as it happens, the day when U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright will issue her stunning dismissal of Jones v. Clinton, answering, for the moment, the question of whether then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton sexually harassed then-state employee Paula Corbin Jones but leaving open infinitely larger questions about men and women and sex and workplace behavior, a hairdresser named John Stark is standing in his salon in North Little Rock, cradling between his palms the head of a woman named Pam.
Brushing her neck.
Flicking her cheek.
Grasping tiny bits of her hair.
"I have to touch women a lot," says John, a talky man with an uptown goatee and an agreeable down-home manner, as he combs and clips and untangles. He means as part of his job, he has to touch women. To Pam, he says: "You're not offended if I touch you on the shoulder, because I'm your hairdresser, but if you're in Wal-Mart and a man comes up to you and touches you, you'd have a problem with that."
"Mmmm-hmmmm," agrees Pam as John circles her, snipping.
John was Paula Jones's hair dresser, too. The whole time she lived in Little Rock she'd come here to Hair Performance for a "spiral perm," that big-haired poodlish look that so alienated her from the nation's power structure, with one important exception. You could say, in fact, that the whole ordeal started in John's salon, here in this cubicle with the sink and the scissors and the styling gel. According to Jones's initial complaint, "I love the way your hair flows down your back" is what Clinton said after she entered his hotel suite and before he allegedly dropped his pants and asked her to perform oral sex. That act, real or imagined, led to an article in the American Spectator implying that she had acceded, then to her lawsuit claiming she didn't, and then to the long parade of other women who may or may not have been subjected to sexual advances from the president and, perhaps most lastingly, to profound national confusion over what, if anything, is safe to say or do to a woman in America today, in an office or a hotel room or basically anywhere.
"If you dress and do everything and flirt and have the whole little package, you have to expect what you get," says Jaime Killough, a 21-year-old hairdresser with short streaked blond hair and a black miniskirt and black tights and black high-heeled mules and a black camisole and, over it, a filmy black shirt. She is talking not about Paula Jones but about herself.
"A lot of John's customers will make comments," she says, "and one that doesn't bother me at all" is when a customer will take a look at her outfit and remark that if her skirt gets any shorter, he's going to get out of John's chair and sit in Jaime's. "That's funny. It's just what you find funny."
The consensus in the salon is a tough-minded one, a far-from-squeamish view that masculine misbehavior is as inevitable as taxes and that when it is unpleasant, it's best quietly deflected.
"A lot of my older male patients say, 'Oh, your hair is so beautiful, can I touch it?' " says another customer, a nurse named Kay. "They're just old men. If it brightens their day, I'm going to let them touch my hair."
"If an unwanted advance comes across my desk," says John's wife, Micky, "I'm going to tell them where to go."
"Just the other day, one of John's customers, I was walking around and I turned around and his mouth was wide open," says Jaime, imitating just how wide open the customer's mouth was, squinting her eyes and adopting a lecherous expression. "And there's one man whose hair I cut, he's old as my grandfather. He's married. He cuts these deer steaks and makes this chili, and he's like, 'Oh, can I come to your home and bring some over?' "
She tries to put the men off nicely, she says; she's working for tips, and in the hairdressing business you have to be nice to your customers or you won't have any. If they ask her out, as they regularly do, she just says something noncommittal like she's busy or she has a new boyfriend. Even so, there's this one customer, the one she calls "my nasty old man," the one who is always touching her, putting his arm around her, pulling her close, talking about her eyes and her smile and her laugh, the one who reached over and, right in front of everybody in the salon, unzipped the front of her dress.
She's stopped being nice to him.
"You have to have," she says, "your boundaries."
He is articulating what appears to have become common wisdom: that "political correctness" has prevailed and prevailed utterly, that the most innocuous well-meaning comment can get a person in terrible trouble, that if you're a man, there's virtually nothing you can safely say to a member of the opposite sex. "Sexual harassment has gotten to the point where, if you're staring at a person for a long period of time and they don't like it, they could file a sexual harassment suit," agrees John David McGraw, one of Jones's former classmates.
Before the Jones case was dismissed, in fact, many people saw it as part of an unnerving trend of cases where the smallest infraction, the slightest lapse would land a person in court. Yet in truth the Jones case provided Judge Wright's dismissal holds up on appeal illuminates an opposite trend: When the president's lawyers filed their successful motion asking Wright to dismiss the suit, they cited case after case in which offensive comments and acts of real sexual aggression were deemed by the courts not to rise to the level of harassment. At the same time that the right wing was rallying to Jones's cause, the most avowedly feminist president the country has known was trying to convince the court that an isolated advance even one as graphic as that Jones alleged did not constitute sexual harassment actionable by law.
"Shelley, you really need to undo that top button," said a boss to an employee in a case cited by the president's lawyers; later, peering down her dress, the boss explained, "You got to get it when you can." In another case, a mechanic's supervisor requested a rubdown, co-workers slapped her on the buttocks, and one fellow employee told her "he knew she must moan and groan while having sex." In another case, a boss made a series of goofy remarks to his secretary, calling her "pretty girl," grunting "um um um" when she wore a leather skirt, and reacting to a PA announcement with the comment, "You know what that means, don't you? All pretty girls run around naked."
"It is no doubt distasteful to a sensitive woman to have such a silly man as one's boss," the court declared in rejecting the secretary's suit, but "only a woman of Victorian delicacy a woman mysteriously aloof from contemporary American popular culture in all its sex-saturated vulgarity would find [the boss's] patter substantially more distressing than the heat and cigarette smoke of which she did not complain."
Under federal civil rights law there are two kinds of sexual harassment, both of which Paula Jones claimed she suffered. The first (which the judge easily dismissed) is "quid pro quo" harassment, where an employee's job is made dependent on performing sexual favors. The other, more nebulous category is behavior that creates a "hostile environment." For an environment to be considered hostile, a sexual advance must be either "severe or pervasive": that is, it must either occur repeatedly or it must be egregious. The question is how you define severe. As Catharine MacKinnon, the law professor who pioneered the concept of hostile environment, puts it: What's "bad enough to be bad enough"?
Equally important: What's not bad enough to be bad enough? The president's lawyers cited a number of cases in which one-time physical advances were not considered to create a hostile environment: a case, for example, where a woman was given a birthday spanking; another where a bus driver was kissed, touched and lifted onto a pool table by a fellow employee who then pinned her down on the table; and another in which a woman was called into the office of her supervisor, who "locked the door, and pressed his body against her so that she could feel his erect penis against her body." Each time, the courts ruled that the behavior was neither pervasive nor severe. And it was these precedents upon which Judge Wright relied when she ruled that the act of dropping one's pants, holding one's penis and asking a subordinate to kiss it even if true was "boorish and offensive" but not severe, either.
She wasn't saying it didn't happen. She wasn't saying it did. She was saying that either way, Paula Jones didn't have a case.
The Paula Jones lawsuit has affected not only the legal landscape but the landscape of the places where she worked and played and lived her life. In Arkansas as throughout the country, people are still trying to sort out what's bad enough to be bad enough, not just in Paula Jones's situation but, more immediately, in their own:
"It was an insult," says Lonoke library worker Shirley McGraw of the strange, unexpected thing that happened to her in the stacks.
"I burst into tears," says Little Rock waitress Laurie Hix, of the strange, unexpected thing that happened to her in a car dealership where she worked.
"It was just my word against his," says a Little Rock schoolteacher, of the strange, infuriating things that happened to her in the school where she taught. "I didn't feel like anybody would believe me."
All of these women are describing events that they've never considered bringing to a supervisor, much less the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, much less court events that they've hardly ever talked about to anybody. In fact, their responses to sexual advances were and are remarkably similar to those of the women who've come forward in high-profile sexual harassment cases Anita Hill, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, as well as Brenda Hoster and the other military women who brought charges against Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney for which he was acquitted. Similar in that none of them came forward when the event supposedly happened.
Most don't know what to call what happened to them.
If it wasn't sexual harassment, what was it?
What's bad enough to be bad enough?
Even now especially now after Judge Wright's dismissal, these questions echo, unanswered, across the landscape of Paula Jones's life.
He is speaking literally. A former neighbor of Paula Jones, he is now in possession of her toilet, the old-fashioned, large-tank kind that flushes better than the new, smaller ones. Contrary to popular myth, Paula Corbin Jones did not grow up in a trailer park. There are no trailer parks in the town of Lonoke, and while there may be some in the surrounding countryside, what there are, mostly, are farms: cotton farms, rice farms, soybean farms, minnow and goldfish and tilapia farms. Farmers own their own planes and drive $30,000 trucks. But you wouldn't know this from the news coverage. "The land of big hair and tight jeans," is how U.S. News & World Report described Lonoke, noting that "the trailer houses, with their broken toys and burned-out stumps, hint of hopelessness." The result is that the Jones case has done for rural Arkansas what James Dickey's Deliverance did for rural Georgia: solidify the assumption that people in the South are stupid and poor and perverted and trashy.
In fact, Paula Jones grew up in a historic two-story Victorian in the middle of town, a house with a two-acre yard in which her father, a music-loving minister, grew flowers and fruit and all manner of vegetables that he freely gave away. In the late 1980s, the house burned down and Paula and her mother (her father had died by then and her two older sisters had moved away) moved out.
Before it was razed, the neighbor pried out the toilet.
"I just wish," he says in a conspiratorial whisper, "that it could tell tales."
You don't find a lot of sympathy for Paula Jones in Lonoke. What people seem to resent is the way Lonoke has been depicted not the way Paula Jones has been depicted. Indeed, many townspeople seem to share the national skepticism that tainted her case from the start. "I don't think he chose her," says one resident, Mary Lingo, who points out that Clinton, as governor, was surrounded by much better-looking women than Paula Jones and sees this as evidence that her story is false. In this, she is articulating a common attitude, which is that the plausibility of a sexual harassment accusation is somehow related to the attractiveness of the woman. Looks, in a harassment case, can cut both ways. Jones is criticized for not being pretty enough at the same time that she is criticized for trying to make herself prettier: In high school, one classmate says, she wore so much mascara that people called her Tammy Faye. In the public eye at least, both of these things her physical flaws and her flamboyant attempts to correct them seem to detract from the legitimacy of her claim.
Is it sexual harassment if the woman isn't pretty?
Is it sexual harassment if she is too pretty?
Can sexual harassment happen in a small town where everybody knows everybody else?
"I don't believe anybody in this town would do it," says Mary Lingo. "Not in the businesses, because people walk in and out all the time."
"Not here," a friend agrees.
"Not here," someone else says.
Mary Lingo is sitting with a bunch of other women at a table in the Lonoke library. Two of them, library technician Shirley McGraw and her friend Sherryl Miller, have gotten a publisher's advance to write a book about Lonoke, and on another afternoon, in the Heritage Room of the library, Sherryl scrolls through microfilm while Shirley sits at the central table, thinking.
"I've never been harassed," Shirley says. Contrary to the cartoon depiction of Paula Jones, Shirley and Sherryl are the kind of women you tend to see in this part of the country: They don't have big hair, they don't wear tight jeans; they wear loose jeans and sweat shirts and jogging suits. Their hair is neat and undyed, and their demeanors are open and friendly and direct.
"I've done waitress work," says Shirley, a small gray-haired woman with stylish wire-rimmed glasses. "I've worked at a shoe shop, a dress shop, a dairy store, a video store, a grocery store, and I've never been harassed."
"If you set 'em straight to begin with," says Sherryl, who works in a cotton gin with her husband and daughter. There are no other women working at the gin. There was one laborer, she says, who was constantly after her daughter, but Sherryl's husband put a stop to that. The gin is a pleasant place to work, she says; farmers come to get a cup of coffee or a Coke, sit around and listen to Sherryl's jokes, and none of them give her any problems.
"I can't even think of one incident I'd consider sexual harassment at all these places," Shirley says of her various jobs.
"Shirley," Sherryl says, "maybe you and me don't have it."
Then Sherryl says to Shirley, What about that guy at the American Legion? Oh, him, Shirley says. "He always has something to say about my boobs."
"He's just a boob guy, I guess," says Sherryl.
"I just tell him to shut up," says Shirley.
There is a pause, and, after a moment, Shirley murmurs something about an incident that happened to her recently here in the library.
"I didn't know if you wanted to say anything," Sherryl says.
"I had a patron come in here and pinch me as hard as he could," Shirley says suddenly. It was a man she knew, a man who lives in town. "My breast was sore for days."
"And there were people in here," Sherryl says, "so she couldn't do anything."
"My first thought was kicking him where it hurts," Shirley says. But she didn't because it didn't seem appropriate. "I think the way I reacted it made him feel ashamed. I backed off and went behind the counter, and put distance between us . . . He wouldn't even look me in the face the next time."
Is it sexual harassment when someone you know pinches you suddenly, hard, on the breast, in the solemn hush of a library? Shirley is not sure. "It was an insult," she says. "Because I didn't give him permission to touch my body."
An insult. Is that what it was?
The problem with assaults in unlikely environments is that they are so startling, so out of context, it's impossible to know the correct way to react. Kathleen Willey, in her "60 Minutes" appearance, said that after the president allegedly fondled her during a visit to the Oval Office, her first thought was to slap him but, "I felt, well, I don't think you can slap the president of the United States like that." Etiquette has no answer for sexual sabotage.
"If it happened again," Shirley says, "I'd shout loud and clear." But since it just happened once, she didn't do anything. She didn't even tell her supervisor.
"I didn't want to make a big deal and go smearing names."
"She was just kind of dingy," Pamela says. "She was a lot of fun. She laughed a lot, we told jokes, talked about our husbands, our kids, we'd sit back in the back and have lunch." Funny and dingy and talky, but not without her faults: She was also selfish and self-centered, Pamela says, and she had a temper. Pamela remembers one time she was in the car with Paula and some man cut them off, and Paula cussed at him and shot him the finger and he cussed her back. "She opens the glove compartment and pulls out this gun. I was like, Is that a gun? I think she scared me more than him. I was like, Is it loaded?"
Mostly, though, what Pamela Hood remembers about Paula Jones is the way she dressed. The tight leggings, the short belted sweaters, the short skirts, the pumps, the big hair, the bow. Some people called her Minnie Mouse, but Pamela called her Betty Boop. Paula, she says, feigned ignorance about the effect her appearance had on people. "We'd go out and I'd say, 'Oh girl, that man is staring at you up and down!' and she'd be like, 'Where? No he ain't!' "
It was, Pamela believes, a devastating combination: dressing for attention and being or seeming in Pamela's words, so "gullible." She can see how Paula Jones might have genuinely thought the governor was inviting her to a hotel room to offer her a job, but like many people, Pamela is trying to sort through whether, in some way, Paula Jones might have been asking for what she says she got. "No woman deserves to be sexually harassed," Pamela says. Still, "birds of a feather flock together. You hang out with certain people and people assume you're that kind of person." Pamela believes that she's the kind of person to whom these things are less likely to happen.
"I'm the type of woman, I wouldn't allow it, I'd just nip it in the bud. I think I offended some women a while back. I told them I don't think I'm likely to be raped because I'm going to make it hard for them."
It's not uncommon for women to have distinctively different views on sexual harassment based on their own experiences, for one woman to think that if you behave yourself you're okay, and for another woman to be somewhat more sympathetic to the view that men really can be dogs. "I've been in state government for 10 years," says another state employee, May Harden, standing on the steps outside the building where the AEDC is located, just 50 yards from the state Capitol. "And I've never had one incident of sexual harassment." Granted, she says, a man did make a weird comment to her once; long ago, when she was applying for a job in Michigan, a man looked at her employment application, noted her date of birth, pointed out that she was a Scorpio and remarked that "Scorpios have a healthy sexual appetite." She ignored it, she says, and nobody gives her any trouble. "I like to believe it's because everybody respects me and knows how I'm going to behave."
Her friend Deborah Chatman is much more wary. "I can tell you about a pure case of sexual harassment," says Deborah, a songwriter, relating an incident when a music industry executive offered her a job and a convertible and promised to promote her music if she would sleep with him, even once. She declined but still sometimes thinks about what she could have had. "That was a test for me. A great temptation."
"Think of us as a playground for adults," says Damon Jones no relation to Paula the manager of BJ's Star Studded Honky Tonk, a huge country-and-western dance hall where Jones hung out a lot. Though she lives in California now, she still stops by BJ's when she's back in Little Rock, according to people in the bar. And on one recent visit, they say, she was wearing leather and dancing suggestively. It was enough to attract attention enough to make customers run to the Wal-Mart for cameras but no different from the way plenty of other customers behave.
"People come here to have fun and let their hair down, dance and relax and get rid of stress," says Damon, who just now is working one of BJ's three bars, a bar located to one side of a huge motorized head of a bull that moves from side to side, eyes flashing, smoke occasionally coming out of its nostrils. The bull specially made for BJ's is near the cab of a truck, an actual truck, jutting out of the wall, in which the deejay sits playing Linda Ronstadt and George Jones and Prince.
It's a fun place.
A loud place.
A place so big that on a crowded night it might have 1,500 people.
In a place like this the rules and expectations are entirely different from those of a library or an office. In a place like this, there are two fundamental rules: Don't cuss the waitresses and don't touch the waitresses.
Anything else is, as one bouncer says when he's counseling sensitive waitresses, "just words."
"We put up with more here than in a regular office job," says a cook, Lori Sullens. "Somebody can call you 'sweetie' or 'honey' and you don't call it sexual harassment." On the other hand, she says, "anybody tries to touch somebody, all we have to do is tell a bouncer and they're outta here."
"If you're uncomfortable with it," says Damon.
"If you're uncomfortable with it," says Lori.
It's an important distinction. One chief criterion in a sexual harassment suit is whether an advance was unwanted. Moreover, the act has to be subjectively and objectively offensive that is, the victim must find it offensive and a reasonable person must find it offensive, too. At a bar like this, the question becomes complicated. Most of these waitresses aren't overly sensitive: They're working for tips, and they fully accept that there's a certain amount of obnoxious behavior they are obliged to put up with in return. Behavior that a so-called reasonable person might not put up with.
"I've walked over to tables and a guy would be sitting at the table with his pants undone," says waitress Laurie Hix as she fills an order for beer and tequila. "He'd say, 'Hey, baby, want some of this?' and I'd say to his friends, 'Your friend better cool it.' "
"I get propositioned every night," says Laurie, a single mom who works at a day-care center from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then, twice a week, works tables all night at BJ's. On her arm are a couple of bruises from a few nights ago, when a male customer grabbed her by the arms and spun her around to make her face him. In that case, she says, a bouncer threw the guy out. But most of what happens seems no big deal. Most of it is stuff she's gotten used to, stuff that admittedly might have unnerved her once back, say, when she lived in California and worked in a car dealership. There, one day Laurie was wearing a flared skirt, and the owner's brother took a helium balloon and put it underneath her skirt and floated her skirt right over her head.
"To me," she says, "that was more embarrassing because he was full sober and knew what he was doing."
Embarrassing but not as embarrassing as the time when Laurie was walking out of the ladies' room, and a salesman was walking out of the men's room zipping his pants. When he saw her, instead of closing his pants, he flashed her.
Laurie was younger then.
"I burst into tears and ran," she says. In fact, she left work and told her husband, who came to the dealership to confront the salesman, who hid in the used-car lot.
Laurie, who has learned not to take things personally, prefers working at BJ's.
So does Gina Croy, the only female bartender. Gina used to work at a fancy club in Little Rock, a club frequented by doctors and lawyers, whose behavior she often found more tiresome than what goes on at BJ's. The manager there was always sitting around, making the waitresses sit with him, she says, and most of the waitresses were too ditzy to object. "I think they were being harassed or womanized, and they didn't know it."
Is it harassment when you don't realize you're being harassed?
"There's this guy, this customer who comes here a lot," says Gina. "He came up to me and he was real friendly, and he asks me, like, 'When you get off work, do you want to go and have pizza and have sex?' And I said, 'Uh, no.' And he said, 'Why don't you like pizza?' "
Oh. It was a joke.
"It was funny," Gina says. "He caught me off guard. I like to think I don't get caught off guard."
Is it sexual harassment if you think the joke is funny?
Is it sexual harassment if you don't?
"Sexual harassment is so hard to define. So hard to define," says Damon Jones, who, in addition to bartending and generally keeping an eye on things, has been doing this trick where he puts Bacardi 151 in his mouth, puts a little bit of rum on his fingers, takes a cigarette lighter and lights his fingers and then blows the 151 at his fingers, so that he's blowing fire. He calls the trick Flamin' Damon. "I find myself all the time calling people 'sweetie' and 'honey,' " he says. "Because when I call them that, they put money in my tip jar. A lot of women don't get called that by their husbands or their kids. So I call them that and they put money in my tip jar. Is that harassment? Just because I say sweetie or darlin,' is that harassment?"
"You got a drink?" he says to a woman who is staring at him. Damon does not stare back. He treats her like he treats everyone, cordially. "She likes to take her clothes off on the dance floor," Damon says matter-of-factly. "All except her panties." At BJ's, it's universally acknowledged, women, too, will expose themselves, sometimes for fun, sometimes because they hope it will get them a free drink, which it won't, though it won't get them thrown out either. In fact, tomorrow is Chippendales night, when BJ's brings in male strippers, and there will be all sorts of outlandish female rutting behavior, everyone agrees. Up at the front desk, tickets are flying out the door: "How many Chippendales are coming?" says the woman working the door, a ninth-grade math teacher by day and hand-stamper by night, holding the phone and talking to Damon. A female customer wants to know.
"At least four," Damon says, and the schoolteacher relays this to the customer on the phone. Like the waitresses, she likes working at BJ's., doesn't have many problems, maybe because people want something from her, which is to get in. It was at her school where she encountered what she considers genuine sexual harassment: She went out briefly with a fellow teacher, and after they stopped seeing each other his decision more than hers she was copying something at the Xerox machine and he came up from behind and rubbed his groin against her rear. Another time he glimpsed her from afar and made a gesture as though unzipping his pants. Another time she walked into the teachers' lounge and he just looked straight at her and said, "On your knees, bitch."
She didn't tell anybody. "He and I were both really liked and respected," she says. "And the principal I had then was awful; I didn't think there would be a support there." Her new principal is a vast improvement, she says; the reason she doesn't want her name used is because she wouldn't want to bring embarrassment to him or the school, and maybe, she says, with such a good boss, she'd feel comfortable coming forward. But probably not. Because everybody liked this other teacher. "It made me feel furious," she says. "That everybody at school thought he was a particular kind of person and he wasn't that way at all."
Also, she blamed herself somewhat. By dating a co-worker, she figured, she put herself in a vulnerable situation. It was a bad idea. Just like Paula Jones allegedly going to that hotel room was a bad idea. What Jones said happened to her wasn't sexual harassment, the schoolteacher thinks, because "she knew that she was going to a hotel room to see a man. That ranks close to let's say you have a date with somebody and he exposes himself. I would just consider that a hazard. That's a chance you have to take."
"She knew," the schoolteacher concludes, "where she was going."
Almost without exception, people fault Paula Jones for agreeing to visit Clinton's hotel room when a state trooper allegedly invited her to do so. She was going to a hotel room, they say; she should have known what would happen. Still, the fact is that non-office locations can be considered a workplace in sexual harassment suits. In one hostile environment case cited by the president's lawyers, a woman went to a jazz club with her supervisor and the court accepted that she was still on the job when the supervisor, despite her protests, began kissing her and fondling her thighs, and later, when she was taking a walk, "lurched at her from behind some bushes." (What the court didn't accept was that this made for a "hostile environment.") Even when people are relaxing in a hotel, if they are there on business they are working.
It's true, however, that hotels are full of men and, now, women who are restless and bored and far from their families. The result is a combustibly ambiguous environment, a potent mix of business and pleasure. During the week, the Excelsior caters to conventioneers, while on weekends it peddles "Suite Retreat Packages" offering "you and your loved one everything you could want for a romantic evening," including dinner and, of course, a hotel room. Because that's what hotels are full of, hotel rooms. And what hotel rooms are full of, of course, is beds.
"You just don't go into a room that has a bed," says an executive who is sitting at the Excelsior bar on a Monday night, drinking a light beer and watching the basketball game. He is talking about meetings with female colleagues. "I can't imagine a major corporation allowing a man and woman to be in a room with a bed."
At this executive's company Tupperware it is still acceptable, however, for men and women to hug. In fact, it's imperative. Hugging is part of the Tupperware culture, always has been; it's part of the motivation process. "We're a touchy-feely company," says the executive, a middle-aged sandy-haired man who declines to give his name, though he does give the first name John of the executive beside him. Both men are Tupperware vice presidents (men who work for Tupperware tend to be executives; the sales force is almost exclusively female), and it is part of their job to hug women. John in particular, as the regional vice president in charge of this part of the country, will hug hundreds of women in the next day or so, as part of what's called "the recognition": calling the most successful Tupperware ladies to the stage of the Clinton Ballroom named after the president and recognizing them for their achievements.
Which is not to say that John will be hugging women indiscriminately. Tupperware executives now have training in how to hug. "We go through a coach," says John's companion, "We're taught that if a woman comes up to you and extends her hand, then you shake their hand, you don't hug them." Only if the woman hugs you are you permitted to hug her back, and even then it has to be the right kind of hug. "It's not a total hug," explains John's companion, "it's almost like dancing, a quick hug and it's over. Never a kiss. Never. Now, do they come up and plant a kiss?"
His silence speaks for itself.
They do plant kisses. They definitely do plant kisses.
"Our responsibility," he says, "is not to forget, if they run up and jump on you, that they're just pleased about the company, not about you personally."
Get 600 excited Tupperware ladies together, the two executives agree, and you have to be careful. To protect himself, John's companion carries photos of his wife and kids, as one might carry garlic to ward off a vampire.
Sexual harassment? Tupperware? At a nearby table sit four Tupperware ladies actually, Tupperware managers is more precise, since they are responsible for both sales and recruiting. They laugh at the notion that the business is free of sexual unpleasantness; there's always the problem of the husband who happens to be home, alone, when you're delivering product. Even so, being a home-based business, they say, Tupperware is freer of harassment than other places they've worked.
Places like the Air Force base where Barbara Weddendorf, one of the Tupperware ladies, handled base communications, a hugely stressful job. "I can understand why women don't say anything," says Barbara, recalling how one man she worked with at the base was particularly friendly, always putting his arm around her, and she tried to convince herself it was nothing. Then one night the man cornered her in a supply room and tried to kiss her and she kneed him in the stomach and escaped.
"That," she says with some amazement, "is the first time I've ever told anybody that." Her tablemates ask her why. "You feel like you're being stupid," she says. "You ask yourself if you've done anything to bring it on. I was embarrassed. I was just, embarrassed. It's like, I was looking at it, asking if it was my fault." So what did she do? "I became his supervisor," she says, and banished him to night shift, and made sure that no other woman would have to work with him alone. "Power," she says, smiling sweetly, "is a terrible thing."
A companion, Regina Ann Mize, is smiling too, and laughing, but it's the sort of laugh you laugh when you are horrified and mystified and appalled. "The first time I was sexually harassed," Regina says, "was in Meeker, Oklahoma." She was in high school, she says, and her family had just moved to Meeker, and they lived on a farm. She had a lamb she wanted to show, and so she enrolled in agriculture class, which was theoretically all-male, but since her nickname was "Johnny" and she put that on her application, they let her in and then, apparently, couldn't figure out a way to kick her out.
"They hated my guts," says Regina, who is laughing but still horrified, "the ag teacher, the boys, and the girls because I was in class with their boyfriends." Every day the boys made comments about how she ought to be barefoot and pregnant rather than sitting with them in agriculture class. When she went to the initiation of the freshman agriculture class into the Future Farmers of America she was appalled to see that the initiates all male were being made to sit, naked, on blocks of ice holding grapes between their buttocks, and so she left, panicked and appalled. Then one day, in class, one of the guys came up from behind her and took a broomstick and pushed it between her legs and said, "There, now you have a [penis] like the rest of us." By then Regina was so mad, so frustrated, that "I took the broom and I beat the fire out of him with it."
"Go, girl!" says Barbara.
The next night Regina, looking resplendent in a black cocktail dress, is one of the Tupperware ladies who are called on the stage to be hugged by John, and afterward she reenacts the kind of half-hug half-handshake that he gave her. "That's a new one on me."
Two days later she is standing in the kitchen of her home and she hears that the Paula Jones lawsuit has been dismissed and she can't believe it, she's amazed, and sorry, because she thinks the president's sexual behavior matters. Because in truth, despite her toughness, despite her laughter, despite the time that has passed, she remains scarred by what happened to her nearly 20 years ago in Meeker.
"What I went through in that school, it was horrible," she says. "It wasn't one incident, it was day-to-day," but nobody would do anything about it, not the principal, not the teachers. Finally she left her home and moved in with her grandmother so she could attend another school. After that she never fully trusted men, or institutions, and that's one reason she's a Tupperware lady: She'd rather work for herself.
Then she says something that just occurred to her, says the same thing that Paula Jones said, not after the Excelsior happened because Jones, remember, didn't say anything publicly then but only after the article was published implying that a woman named "Paula" had had sex with the governor and enjoyed it.
"Even now, after all this time," says Regina, thinking about the guys in her agriculture class, whose names she can still remember, "I would just really want an apology from them."
"You must be having nightmares!" says Chris, who is sitting with them in the front waiting area. They are teasing John. Jaime explains that she was at John's house with his wife, and they were all getting ready to go out, and John wandered out of the bedroom in his underwear and the women sent him back but not before she got a glimpse of John in his skivvies, says Jaime, cringing. "Oooh! The vision is with me!"
"I'm being sexually harassed," says John, sitting down at the front desk and putting his head down. "I'm going to press charges."
But they are laughing. They are friends, John and Jaime, which is why they can talk like this. "The women I've worked with, we've always had an open relationship," John says. "As long as you have a friendly relationship, you're less likely to have sexual harassment." That's true in the salon, too, he says; female customers like to talk about sex, he says, they like to ask him about Redbook surveys and quiz him on what he likes, and he'll draw Jaime into the conversation, and yet, John points out, "I don't get them out of the chair and slap them on the ass."
"What about the brush?" Jaime says.
"Don't tell about the brush!" John says, but he admits it, one day something came over him and he just popped Jaime on the rear end with a paddle brush.
"If the boss I had in Shreveport had done that, I would have been offended," Jaime says, but when John did it she wasn't. And she's not exactly blameless in the hands-on-the-body department. "There's a joke around the salon that his boobs are bigger than mine, and I'll tell him I'm going to grope him." She demonstrates, going over to John and rubbing his chest.
"I still wouldn't take Jaime in the back," John says, "and drop my pants."
That's where he keeps getting stuck. On the dropping of the pants. He can believe everything up to that point, he says, but he's just not sure that Clinton would drop his pants. "I don't know if a man would do that," he says. But then he thinks about it. "Yeah, a man would." A man might. Men will do anything. Which is why he tells Jaime to stop being so friendly when she goes to clubs. Men, inevitably, will misinterpret. "We're sexually motivated, men are," he says. "Brian," he says to a young customer who just walked in the door, "you're sexually motivated. In the last five minutes, have you thought about sex?"
"Yeah," says Brian, and heads to the cubicle for a cut. Across town at that very moment an emissary for Judge Wright carries the original copy of her opinion up to the fourth-floor clerk's office, where it is stamped and entered onto the docket sheet and posted on the Internet and announced by the TV anchors and broadcast across America, where, when he hears it, Damon Jones is relieved, and when she hears it, Regina Ann Mize is disappointed, and Shirley McGraw, in Lonoke, is just glad it's all over, and meanwhile another man walks into the salon and John Stark, pressing his point, asks him if he has thought about sex in the last five minutes and the man says "yes," and John asks whether a man might conceivably drop his pants in front of a woman and the man says "yes" at almost exactly the same time that a federal judge a woman is declaring that whether he did or didn't doesn't matter, leaving it unclear now, as before, where exactly a proper and lasting boundary lies.
Liza Mundy is a staff writer for the Magazine.
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