A longtime lobbyist in her fifties dresses up in "tight leopard get-ups" whenever she goes over to the Hill for her corporate clients and then, essentially, lobbies with her chest, rubbing it against the appropriate arm. Members of Congress tend to greet the striking brunette with lines like "You gorgeous thing." Despite a long marriage, she reportedly takes no offense.

One advocate for a liberal public interest group, when interviewing for a job at a new firm, repeatedly alluded to the senators she had slept with on junkets in the past. She apparently believed these accomplishments represented her best credentials for getting the job.

A well-respected reporter for a major daily is known for redirecting her love interest on the Hill every time her employer switches her beat.

One staffer, intent on marrying a congressman, has allegedly attempted to have affairs with as many of them as possible in the past few years, through expert cruising of bars and fancy receptions. Just recently she hit on Congressman Right; alas, his interest waned. Now she's threatening to expose the relationship.

Stories of this ilk -- and nearly every Hill staffer and lobbyist you call has one -- make the average feminist's hair stand on end, and the reason is easily fathomed. As women continue to grapple with the serious issues of sexual harassment, discrimination and pay inequity in the workplace -- and most lately, on Capitol Hill -- any talk of women who actively use their sexuality for professional gain threatens to undercut our quest for credibility and equality. Unfortunately, not talking about those women undercuts the truth: that the sexual culture on the Hill is often a little more complicated than a bunch of old codgers fondling unwilling young nymphettes in their private Capitol hideaways. And suppressing that truth may make rectifying sex discrimination a tougher battle than it already is.

Face it, feminists: Not only is there complicity on the part of some women who walk the halls of Congress, but some see sex and sexuality as legitimate professional currency. Complicity on the part of some women doesn't excuse a congressman's inability to distinguish between those women who crave their sexual charms and those who don't. But the reality of women using sex on the Hill does help explain why sexual harassment still exists, why it's so difficult for women who have been harassed to come forward and why women still have trouble being taken seriously in politics. Simply put, women who treat their sexuality as a bargaining chip hurt other women. When they blur the lines between professional and sexual conduct, it's almost inevitable that, sooner or later, other women will pay the price.

One of the undersung victories of feminism in the '80s was the gradual acceptance of women, not as male clones frantically denying all aspects of their sexuality, but on their own, more flexible terms. It's not necessary for female Hill staffers to speak to colleagues in affectless tones, and they don't need to stock their closets with Alcott & Andrews chadors. But flexibility in the way we now comport ourselves doesn't mean there are no limits. What is unprofessional demeanor? Like obscenity, you know it when you see it.

Of course, the presence of the occasional spike-heeled temptress in the Capitol corridors is hardly the primary cause of sexual harassment on the Hill. The fact that Congress has exempted itself from its own sexual harassment laws has posed a formidable barrier to making and resolving accusations. And the peculiar work environment of the Hill -- where subservience and loyalty are often more important than competence and intelligence -- should not be underestimated. "You are made to feel like you're not part of the team if you step out of line in any way, and you're made to pay for it," says Dorena Bertussi, the staffer whose leg former representative Jim Bates of California loved to ride. (She went public; the voters ousted him.) And it was typical that Bob Packwood's initial response was to try to discredit his accusers. Yet while these factors are extremely inhibiting, successful sexual liaisons -- whether initiated by men or women -- also help to make accusations more difficult.

On the Hill, a studied match between political power and sexual power can prove to be quite fertile. Men who couldn't get dates throughout high school and college suddenly have their pick of the lot. On the other end of the couch are a lot of women who happen to find power, if not the ultimate aphrodisiac, certainly enough to mask a member's marital status, boorishness or physical appearance.

Not surprisingly, lobbyists, who are supposed to do virtually anything to satisfy their clients and increase their reach, are considered the most aggressive users of sex. "Many female lobbyists put themselves in a position to make something happen," says one male legislative director who has had more than one female lobbyist make her body part of the issue at hand. Overly provocative dress and manners -- what used to be called feminine wiles -- are also still part of the culture. Troup Coronado, a former legislative assistant with Sen. Orrin Hatch, recalls the female lobbyists who always came to the Hill "as though they were going to a nightclub," with tight black miniskirts, revealing tops and lots of jewelry.

While most female lobbyists today are considered competent -- in fact, they're thought to be more qualified than their male counterparts -- there are still women whose looks seem to be their primary job qualification. "There's a tradition of corporations and labor unions hiring pretty blondes to lobby congressmen," says Tony Podesta, a lobbyist with Podesta Associates. They wear mink coats and high heels to hearings of the various appropriations committees. Staffers call them "door openers," and, amazingly, they're quite successful, especially in the House, where the access to members is greater.

"It definitely works," says Michael Pertschuk, a former high-level Hill staffer and now codirector of the Advocacy Institute, a training group for lobbyists. "Men pay more attention to attractive and seductive women, even if they're unconscious of it."

"{Provocative women} have much greater access than their homely sisters," agrees a longtime (male) lobbyist -- which may be why lobbying firms seeking Packwood's attention have long known to dispatch a woman to his office to make the pitch.

Like lobbyists, Washington reporters also live and die on access. And some have found that there is an inverse relationship between the length of a skirt and the length of the audience they're granted with male sources. Several very successful reporters are known for wearing low-cut dresses and high heels on assignment; they are also known for being able to extract huge amounts of information from men. The theory is that they make men think: I can sleep with this woman if I talk to her long enough.

One prominent male journalist defends this as a "powerful persuasive technique" and a "legitimate journalistic weapon" that women can use to get both information and jobs. The fact that this behavior -- no matter how expedient -- demeans not only these women but all women seems to have escaped him.

As for female staffers, Elizabeth Ray may be a distant memory, but there are still more than a few who appear not to have been hired for their abilities. (Though members no longer use the word "pretty" in job descriptions, you'd be hard pressed to pass by a congressional office and not find an attractive, typically blonde, woman sitting at the reception desk.) But perhaps more prevalent are the smart women who play dumb or behave in a traditionally feminine way that seems inviting. Southern women are often accused of this, but it crosses all regions. Some women still seem to believe that they can get more accomplished through flattery, giggling, touching a man's arm or leg and fluttering their eyelashes than through incisive argument. One staffer recalls watching a woman come up to a congressman she barely knew at a reception and start eating, coquettishly, off of his plate. She was looking for a job.

College interns are legendary for coming to the Hill looking for romance, but they're not alone. One college grad told her friend on the Hill that she was trying to get a job in Ted Kennedy's office so she could sleep with him. Single congressmen get letters from women applying for the position of wife. But the lines of appropriate female behavior are seldom as clear-cut as letters of proposition. For one thing, being charming and gregarious means being employed in Washington and especially on the Hill, where everybody is required to walk around with a have-a-nice-day expression. This is hardly an argument against flirting in the workplace. But there's flirting and there's aggressive flirting; there's dressing for the office and there's dressing for the evening.

There are also a lot of men in this town who demand high levels of feminine solicitude. Marlin Fitzwater, for instance, is well known among female White House correspondents for responding only to women who provide delicate verbal stroking. Female staffers who have to deal with retired military men often find themselves wincing at their own retrograde responses. Margaret Sullivan, an aide to House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, used to work with Pentagon officials on intelligence committee matters. At first they politely dismissed anything she had to say, so she tried the soft approach. "I'd laugh with them, tease them. They began to like me and, eventually, listened to me."

And contrary to Erica Jong's hopeful analysis in Outlook two weeks ago, young male staffers can be just as guilty of unreconstructed thinking as their doddering bosses. One committee staff director in his upper twenties ordered a female underling to buy high heels and nylons; when she came back with her new pumps, he complained that they weren't high enough. Another woman was told by her chief of staff in front of a group of people: "Why don't you wear more clinging clothing? This dress looks great on you."

Still, women who use their sexuality instead of their skills to get ahead can't place all the blame on a "patriarchical mindset." Most of these women have been fed feminist messages since birth: They're hardly victims. They have only themselves to blame, not just for their own reputations, but for making it harder for women to be taken seriously in an atmosphere where discrimination is rampant. (Even in the most liberal members' offices, women are often shut out of high-level meetings -- or they're asked to fetch coffee and take notes.)

It's likely that men's attitudes and behavior will evolve, though slowly. But let's not pretend our evolution as women is complete. Thankfully, women no longer have to deny our sexuality to be and feel equal. As equals, however, we are required to use our sexuality responsibly, to act like grown-ups: We can't have it both ways. And until some of us stop behaving like we can, the most stringent sexual harassment policy won't help level the playing field of the Hill, or anywhere else, for working women.

Karen Lehrman is writing a book on the future of feminism.