Mechelle Vinson is that rarest of all things: hero and goat. It was Vinson, once a bank teller, who just made law when the Supreme Court ruled in her suit that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and that businesses may be held liable for it. For that, Vinson is a hero. But for not decking the man she says harassed her, she is a goat.
The first thing to do is to cheer the decision. It is a precedent-setting one, even a mind-boggling one, because Justice William Rehnquist, of whom no Supreme Court justice is more conservative, wrote it. In his usual terse and clear style, he said, "Without question, when a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate because of the subordinate's sex, that supervisor discriminates on the basis of sex" -- and that is a violation of federal law.
The decision goes further. It also holds that a victim of sexual harassment need not suffer economic damages -- a loss of a promotion or the loss of the job itself -- to have a case. Sexual harassment, like racial or religious harassment, poisons the work place. The law, Rehnquist wrote, "affords employees the right to work in an environment free from discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult." All over Washington, lawyers for various women's rights group were heard to say, "Right on!"
But they could be pardoned if they also said, "I don't believe it." The reason is that the Vinson case reverses the dictum that bad cases make bad law. This was a bad case that made good law, but it confirms a damaging stereotype. Vinson, after all, was not harassed in the usual sense. She claimed she was was harassed, if that is the word, for four years and admitted to having had sexual relations with her supervisor on more than 40 occasions.
Vinson's version of the facts of the case are right out of pornographic film. She testified that as a lowly bank teller, she was sexually harassed by her supervisor, Sidney L. Taylor. She said Taylor fondled her in front of other employees. She said Taylor followed her into the ladies room and exposed himself. She said Taylor raped her. She said Taylor even suggested having sex with her in the bank vault. It may or may not matter that she admitted having sexual fantasies about Taylor, not to mention her grandfather. Taylor has denied all of Vinson's allegations.
There is simply no excusing Taylor's behavior, if Vinson's allegations are true. And, in the long run, it is good that employers can be held accountable for the sexual harassment of employees by supervisors. With their own money on the line, America's businesses will quickly adopt rules and standards of behavior that will minimize sexual exploitation. In the same way that it is no longer permissible to call a fellow employee "nigger" or "kike," it will no longer be permissible to use sex in the same way. The unsavory perquisites of power are getting slimmer and slimmer.
But if Taylor and his employer have much to answer for, so does Vinson. Under her version of the events, she is a caricature of the female victim -- the personification of the canard that femininity and weakness go hand in hand. Working in Washington, D.C., a town lousy with banks and white-collar jobs, she stayed at a branch where, by her account, her supervisor had raped her. She did not bring charges against him. She did not go to the police or, for that matter, to the president of the bank. No, instead, for four years she submitted to a sexual relationship.
As a legal precedent, Vinson is admirable. As a role model for women, she is a disaster. If her accusations are true, what Taylor deserved, besides a suit, was a red cheek. Instead, Vinson did nothing. She says she played victim all the way, and not surprisingly, she was allegedly victimized as a result. She held her job dearer than her own self-respect, forgetting that she always had three words at her disposal. The first is "no," and the other two are "I quit." Vinson settled for "I sue."
Sexual harassment will be with us as long as men and women work together. The law now says it is a form of sex discrimination, and the law is truly wise. But the law does not say that it is the only recourse, that a woman has to take on the job what she would not on a date -- that what passes between the sexes at work is, like antitrust, solely a legal matter. Women have an inalienable right to say no -- and then, if necessary, haul off.