When Lorena Bobbitt startled her hubby one evening with a knife through his privates—vigorously severing an intimate part of their relationship—a lot of women apparently admired the, uh, statement Lorena made that night. I own the conversation radio station for Lancaster & York counties in Pennsylvania, and the other morning Lorena Bobbitt talk poured from my office speaker. Phones sparkled with callers anxious to react. I thought about ambling down the hall to discuss the topic with the show’s producer, a laser-sharp college coed majoring in communications. Then I remembered a fax from my station’s legal consultant. It reviewed the recent Supreme Court decision on sexual harassment, together with a proposed series of rulings from the EEOC.
Teresa Harris was a 41-year-old manager of Forklift Systems in Nashville when the company’s president, Charles Hardy, buffeted her with tasteless jokes. Annoyed beyond endurance, she quit and filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While she claimed neither psychological damage nor interference with her productivity, alleged neither sexual extortion nor physical contact, she did provide ample evidence that Mr. Hardy was a lout with a sense of the comic that passed well beyond the limits of genteel taste.
In a unanimous decision, written by Sandra Day O’Connor, the High Court sided with Teresa Harris, ruling that Hardy was a lawbreaker and that his firm was subject to penalties to be determined by a lower court. This is a big-deal decision. Taste is now actionable. We’ve not come this way before. Justice O’Connor specifically wrote that the law as it applies to sexual harassment is violated when for any of a variety of reasons “the environment would reasonably be perceived, and is perceived, as hostile or abusive.”
The Court says that psychological harm is not necessary to prove damage— it is enough that the employer either creates or allows a hostile environment to exist in the mind of the employee—a climate that would be judged hostile by a reasonable woman. Why the hunt for a reasonable victim rather than an actual victim? Because the Court hopes that it’s come upon the foolproof test with the Reasonable Woman Doctrine. With this test, harassment has shifted from the need to prove a ease of objective harm to proving a subjective offense. It’s not a matter of whether you were hurt, but of whether you think you were—and of getting some other women to agree that they think so, too. If you can find enough women who agree that their gender is unable to cope with the pressures of words and pictures, or that women deserve romantic paternalism inserted between themselves and the loutish buffoonery of some men—you win money.
So there I was CEO of this broadcast company, preparing to go and ask a young woman to tell me how she, and her friends, felt about castration. C)f course I stopped. Though the topic was interesting and on the tongue of every talk show host, and though my employee’s job description called for her to listen to the show, it didn’t demand she discuss such topics with her boss. What to do? Simple. I passed by the young producer’s office and discussed it instead with our engineer, a man who is also taking university courses.
Simply put, all of this means that men in authority can’t discuss sexual matters with women who work with them, even if their occupations dictate the occasional discussion of such subjects. Moreover, if a woman brings up such a topic, it’s best to change the subject, for fear your reaction may be so candid as to set a “hostile” tone. The woman’s regrets in participating in that interaction might easily escalate into a perception that you have created a hostile workplace. In fact, it’s best to scold her about such talk, and to do it in front of a number of potentially credible witnesses of both sexes. Keep notes, perhaps audio or video tapes.
While certainly no one who works with or for you would ever become sufficiently disturbed or angry to seek vengeance . . . it’s been known to happen. By merely keeping a diary of these sorts of discussions, and by discussing her discomfort privately with friends, any woman can later bring a sexual harassment suit against a station, a production company, a magazine, or any business and its executives. How much later? Remember Clarence Thomas?
Now would your employees ever do any of this? Why not? It’s a hard world out there. Business slips, a company cuts back, someone’s fired. She demands reparations. Outrageous? Irresponsible? Women don’t act like that? Does anyone know of a male defense comparable to Pre-Menstrual Syndrome? Courts say that PMS justifies premeditated murder since women suffer diminished rational capacity during certain times each month. Hmmmm. If women are the victims of raging hormone imbalance, does the expression “high-risk” come to mind when considering a female over a male to fill a job? Feminists are correct in decrying the dark side of men. They are wrong in denying their own.
Why would an executive hire or promote a woman when an equally qualified man was available? Suppose you must fill a high-pressure position with someone who will occasionally travel with you. You’ve got a choice between two equally attractive candidates, one a young woman, another a man. Why hazard travel with the woman, especially if you have any doubts about her ability to keep the job? Why not give the guy the break? Chances of him effectively charging sexual harassment are slim, bordering on zero, should he become embittered about his failure in the position.
Before any guy dismisses feminism as a showplace for irrelevant ensemble comedy, he should consider the case of the man sentenced for rape after sexual intercourse with a woman in plain view of others at a party. They testified that the woman disrobed and openly solicited the fella’s attentions. However, her regrets the next morning propelled her to the police station. The courts ruled that her alcohol intake incapacitated her from rational participation just as certainly as if that man had tied her up. No one at the party saw her drinking, but she admitted to having arrived inebriated. A man hits someone while driving drunk and the victim will sue him for everything. A woman hits on a man while prowling drunk and she will sue him for everything. A drunken driver is responsible, a drunken woman isn’t. These aren’t subtle messages.
Naomi Wolf is a neo-feminist who worries “that the national forums of debate: op-ed pages, political magazines, public affairs talk shows, newspaper columns—remain strikingly immune to the general agitation for female access.” In a New Republic article. Wolf constructed a wall of statistics to prove that women make up a tiny percentage of the guests on Crossfire, op-ed writers for the Washington Post, and reporters for the New York Times. Wolf’s numbers showed women to be a minority of contributors to Harper’s, the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Monthly, and National Review. And she counted fewer than six percent women among the nation’s talk radio show hosts. Wolf says this is discrimination.
While searching recently to buy an air conditioner, I discriminated against the least efficient one I found, the least productive, the newest brands without performance records, the machines that would threaten me with the highest bills. Who wants that risk in a world of whimsical energy costs? That’s informed discrimination, and perfectly rational. Rational discrimination is based upon knowledge. Irrational discrimination is a product of ignorance. Employment discrimination based solely upon race, religion, gender, national origin, or disability reduces the pool of applicants from which an employer can choose. It establishes a test that’s certain to screen out potentially productive employees. In the long run it will be inefficient—that is, if discriminating on the basis of gender is a product of ignorance.
But sexual harassment (as well as child abuse) has become the 90’s equivalent of the charge of witchcraft. Today an executive or a business that’s merely accused of sexual harassment faces such potential public derision that to risk it is foolhardy. With the Supreme Court and the EEOC having designated women as a protected class, any employer who ignores the potential liability of hiring or promoting them needs solemn risk-management counseling. Media topics are especially explosive, and it’s not rational to hire shaky people around nitro. Men who “don’t get it” are likely to find themselves enrolled in the Anita Hill Sanitarium for Wayward Boys.
In the present climate, Ms. Wolf’s numbers will not get better. Of course some men are slimy, but, ironically, feminist battlefield victories have turned irrational discrimination against women in the work place into its rational opposite. In hunting for monsters to slay, feminists have forgotten the adage: “Imagination invents dragons where reality presents nothing worse than lizards.”