Suzanne Fields
The accusations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain are so far small potatoes, and badly baked at that. On a scale of 1 to 10, they're hovering around 2. An accusation is only an accusation until we know who's making it and hear her evidence. Looking back, the accusations of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas weren't so weighty, either. They were about a few suggestive remarks about a movie and a hair on a can of Coke.

Context is all, of course. It's about the hierarchy in the workplace.

But when you remember that a sitting president with a reputation as an aspiring lady-killer survived in office after he was impeached for lying about sex with a White House intern, we haven't yet defined sexual harassment. It probably depends on what the meaning of "is" is.

When the issue of harassment first splashed into the news two decades ago, the pundits and politicians (and everybody else who read a newspaper or watched television) played parlor games with the line, "Is this harassment?" It resembled the old television show "What's My Line?" when a panel tried to discern a guest's occupation by asking questions. Sort of like charades: "Bigger than a breadbox?"

Defining harassment at the office is a guessing game, too. Is it harassment when an employer and employee flirt over cocktails at the office Christmas party? Or when they have too much to drink at a dinner at a convention far from home and slur their compliments? The New York Times reports that one of the Herman Cain episodes took place at a "work outing during which there was heavy drinking," which seems about par for an organization representing the hospitality industry. Dining and drinking is what restaurants and taverns are about.

The rules are loosely defined today when so much office socializing goes on over alcohol. Who's responsible if the lady starts the flirting with her boss? Now that the movies and television shows are saturated with cheap sexuality, what's OK in discussing them? What if being "one of the boys" seems to require laughing at suggestive jokes? Sexual signals aren't what they used to be.

Once women were liberated to be the equal to men and heir to all the perks and privileges in the boardroom -- and bedroom -- the rules grew vague and murky. Justice Stewart Potter's famous definition of pornography, "I know it when I see it," became the working definition of sexual harassment.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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