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A Clarifying Moment in Politics of Gender

By Todd Gitlin
Sunday, April 5, 1998; Page C04

NEW YORK—Sexual harassment began as an occasion for jokes, became a crime, ended up begetting more jokes, and now will become a crime again -- a more specific crime, better understood.

The odds are that most Americans have sighed with relief now that a strong, clear opinion has come from the bench of U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright. The workplace will continue to become a less predatory place. Women will have less to fear than in the bad old days of goosing and come-hither-or-else. Men will have less to fear in the form of gratuitous litigiousness.

The lewd jokes used to be the property of the men who benefited from the crime -- the men who abused their power by getting a little or a lot on the side, or who licked their lips over how nice it might be to get away with this or that.

These were, in the main, men who were indifferent at best to the dignity of the women they groped, pinched and humiliated. At times the jokes were accompaniment to the harassment -- a sort of music that men played to prove to themselves what heavy hitters they were. At times they were part of the harassment itself, as with catcalls and insinuations, trial balloons of sorts, that led to groping, rape or on-the-job punishment if the woman said no.

Then came Catharine MacKinnon and Anita Hill. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan, introduced the idea that sexual harassment on the job, because it fostered a "hostile environment," was an illegitimate exercise of power, and as such a form of sex discrimination, punishable under the law as discrimination. The courts adopted her thinking.

What MacKinnon brought into law, Hill brought into public culture during the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you thought Hill was telling the truth, as most women did, the record of what a powerful man might inflict upon an female employee with impunity was out in the light.

There were those who thought that even if Hill was telling the truth, she stuck with Thomas, so he must not have done anything terrible to her. They were challenged by those who thought that if you didn't think he did anything terrible to her, you didn't get it, since the power of men requires women to grovel in order to get ahead. After Hill, many women went public with their own stories of getting passed over for jobs and promotions because they didn't lie down for the satraps in charge.

Some women, too, came into the light with extravagant accusations, such as charges against college professors for misuse of metaphors or having an oil painting of a nude female in the classroom. Men in power wondered just which overt act would constitute one compliment, or leer or invitation too many. In the wake of the Anita Hill charges, David Mamet's play, "Oleanna," and the Michael Douglas movie, "Disclosure," popularized suspicions of paranoid women blowing up charges against innocent or blundering men. Men's defensive embattlement and women's truculence probably increased. So did justice.

Then came Paula Jones, and a tale of a sexual advance from the future president of the United States which, if true, was surely, in Wright's words, "boorish and offensive" -- but not a violation of the law. Since Wright's decision makes it clearer what sexual abuse is not, it also has the effect of making clearer what sexual abuse is. (The decision does not deal with sexual harassment as such because Jones's delay in filing suit prevented her from alleging that crime.)

In the past generation, there have been so many sea changes in relations between the sexes, the nation has become either seaworthy or seasick, depending on your point of view. On balance, it is a far freer world for women, a more regulated one for men. Debates over sexual rights and wrongs will of course continue now, but some clarity is gained. With the highest-profile sex abuse case in history thrown out of court, the question of sexual morality moves where it mainly belongs -- to discussions of ethics and principles, to the vagaries, transgressions and mysteries of human relations, and to the jokes and national soap operas that help us grasp and grope our way through moments of decisive cultural change.

Todd Gitlin is professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University and a columnist for the New York Observer.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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