NO ONE IS TALKING. The courthouse file has been sealed and the women can't be reached and their lawyer says only that he can say nothing and then he hangs up the phone. So we have only the sketchiest information, only the barest of details and all we can say for sure is that three women sued their former employer, saying they were asked to have sex with him as a condition of employment, saying that they should not have been asked, saying further that they had left their jobs as result, but saying also, that for a while they did what he wanted. For this they ask justice.
This is not your basic case. This is not your routine suit. This is a suit brought under the sponsorship of that, the word, of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, which gives the case a "movement" imprimatur and which indicates, at the very least, that some pretty smart lawyers thought that this particular case would either advance the cause of womens rights or, at the very least, put some employers on notice that this sort of thing has got to cease.
The three women worked for a graphic arts firm that has since gone bankrupt. They worked from as long a period of time as 3 1/2 months to as short a period of time as three days and they say they were asked not only to have sex with the man but, in the case of one of the women, pose nude for the man and, in the case of another woman, entertain clients of the firm by having sex with them. The least serious charge is that the man ordered one of the women to reveal the personal details of her sex life to him -- an accusation that is downright frivilous considering what else has been alleged.
Anyway they sued and they sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bars discrimination in employment on the basis of sex. The thinking here is that these demands are usually not made of men. The point here, is that a demand is being made that has nothing to do with job performance and, although it is not all that different from, say, and FBI agent being asked to clean the director's pool, the courts have allowed the use of the civil rights set for redress.
There are some precedents. The first involved a woman named Diane Williams who said she was fired from the Justice Department after rebuffing the sexual demands of her supervisor. The trial court ruled in her favor and awarded her $19,000 in back pay and other compensation. Another case involved a former employee of the Environmental Protection Agency, Paulette L. Barnes, who also claimed she was penalized for declining the sexual advances of a supervisor. This being Washington and the federal government, Barnes was not fired. Her job was eliminated instead.
The two cases have some elements in common. In the first place, they both involve the federal government and, in the second place, they concern women who said they paid the penalty for saying no -- they lost their jobs. This is not the case with the suit brought against the defunt graphic arts firm. That firm is a private employer and the women not only did not rebuff their employer, but they admitted going along with the program, one of them for a considerable amount of time.
And so now you get to the part that seems to upset people. Now you get to the part where you are tempted to say that this case does not belong in the courts at all, but in the trashcans instead. What you are tempted to say is that these women ought to add the word "no" to their vocabulary, ought to have done what the woman who worked for Justice and EPA did, -- have some pride, show some backbone, stamp their feet and say no, no, a thousand times no.
And this, I have to tell you, is how I wrote the column the first time around. I trotted out, the all-but atrophied concept of free will, pointing out that they could have quit, that they could have said shove off, that all of this happened in Northern Virginia and that it has been years since anyone starved to death there. No one ever said life was either fair or easy. There are choices you have to make and, it seemed to me, they made theirs.
But on paper it didn't work. On paper there was, something wrong -- something that didn't add up. What you had to do was overlook the suit itself, overlook that they had felt strongly enough about the matter to seek a lawyer, go down to the court, file a suit -- and have their names appear in the newspaper story. You would have to have a standard for them and maybe a different standard for, say. FBI men who perform personal services for J. Edgar Hoover -- a standard that says only in sex and only in women does weakness deprive you of justice.
You may quibble with the facts. You may be more comfortable taking the side of one of the women than another of the women and you may prefer if they had said no. But the fact that they didn't really changed nothing, does not diminish the injustice of it all, does not change the fact that they felt coerced and that this, above all, was not a bargain between equals.
For this they deserve justice.