Observing boundaries and drawing lines

It was early November, 1991, and it was my last day at my job. I was making the rounds and saying my goodbyes, and my boss asked if it was OK if he hugged me. Anita Hill’s testimony at Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings was recent news, and people we being very careful about what might – or might not – be considered sexual harassment. (For the record, I was fine with a farewell hug from my boss.)

And here we are again…Due to the recent publication of Thomas’ memoirs, we’re having flashbacks, while at the same time a high-profile harassment suit against the coach of the New York Knicks has recently been settled in the plaintiff’s favor.

The issue of sexual harassment touches on imbalances of power and on gender politics – and in any given situation, it can be hard to assess what plays a bigger role. It may be unwelcome attention, or it may be an uncomfortable environment, or it may be inappropriate behavior; it doesn’t matter what form it takes, and when you broaden the context like that, many women (and more men than might want to admit it) have been subjected to it. And in that broad context, more people may have inflicted it too, even if unintentionally. It’s complicated, it happens, and as Working Girl notes, like it or not, it’s not going away any time soon.

These stories make the news because someone is willing to speak out. That can be a tough decision, and can still backfire on the speaker, even now – Michelle Goodman talks about the questions and consequences surrounding that decision.

Most of us in the workplace have been through some sort of training about how to recognize and respond to – and not commit – sexual harassment. Anita Bruzzese offers a quick refresher on both sides of the matter with these questions:

Do you kid around in a sexual way?
Do you generally direct your humor to members of the opposite sex?
Do you tell racy jokes no matter who is listening?
Do you think members of the opposite sex are less able than you are?
Do you frequently make remarks about how people look?
Do you use obscene language when things go wrong?
Do you tend to touch people when you talk to them?
Do you make comments that are a put-down to one gender?
Do you ignore the no’s when asking someone for a date until you get a yes?
Do you use sexual comments and gestures to intimidate people or gain power?
Do you ignore conduct that you really think could be sexual harassment?

I’ve been fortunate not to have had many problems with this in my work life; it may be partly because I’ve worked in heavily female offices, and it really hasn’t come up in the balance-of-power context. For me, the unwelcome-attention factor is more critical – if it’s unwelcome, unwanted, and objectionable, then it can be considered harassment. But for me, this is also where it can get tricky. I’m looking at Anita’s list of questions and reflecting on situations I’ve observed. I’ve seen cases where women haven’t raised any objections to some of these behaviors – because they find the men engaged in them attractive, and it’s considered friendly or benignly flirtatious. I think this sort of double standard makes observing boundaries and drawing lines tougher than it already is, and further confuses the situation. This ambiguity and lack of consistency in behavior standards may be one reason that this issue isn’t going away any time soon.

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  1. It’s certainly true that a life without flirting would be a very sad life indeed.

    And I’ve been thinking that the pendulum would inevitably swing the other way and we would grow less sensitive to the whole sexual harassment thing.

    It’s Clarence Thomas’s fault, coming out with that autobiography and reminding us of the whole sorry mess!

    It was interesting to me to learn that some women feel they have never been sexually harassed. Which is good! My experience was maybe a bit different because for years I worked in an all-male environment and had MANY incidents, some funny, some truly weird and annoying and even alarming.

  2. Working Girl – It’s probably true that working in an all-male environment, you’d be more exposed (no pun intended) to the possibility of sexual harassment than someone in a more female-dominated setting. But it’s a swamp – and blaming Clarence Thomas for it is fine by me.

  3. my best friend went through a suit, because her boss was a giant perv. It was all a nightmare that drug out for 2 years, and in the end, all but ruined her life, nearly destroyed her marriage and if she had it to do over again, she would likely have stayed quiet.
    That makes me so sad!

  4. Misty – I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your friend. I guess that’s why deciding to speak out is so difficult – you might end up in an even worse situation.