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Jewish World Review Feb. 6, 2000 / 1 Adar I, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Harassing the harassers -- I REMEMBER ONCE when I was working full-time, a male coworker made a particularly crude, sexual comment to me. It wasn't the first time this had happened with this particular fellow, and I'd had it.

We were in a hallway at the time, and though he was much bigger than I, I guess I had the element of surprise on him because I was able to shove him up against a bank of elevators and, pinning him there, tell him if he ever dared speak to me like that again I'd haul him into our boss' office and make such trouble for him he'd never forget it.

I think I threatened to call his wife, too.

Anyway, my point -- not particularly subtle -- was apparently received loud and clear. He may have honestly thought he was being funny or just treating me like "one of the guys." But in any event there were no more problems, and subsequently we actually became friends.

My response to this fellow might not be exactly what Joan Kennedy Taylor had in mind when she wrote her new book"What to do When You Don't Want to Call the Cops: A Non-Adversarial Approach to Sexual Harassment" (a Cato Institute book published by New York University Press.) But perhaps she'd at least consider it a step in the right direction.

Taylor, a refreshingly unorthodox feminist, argues in her book that everyone is ill-served by a culture that teaches women to think of sexual harassment primarily as a legal issue. Taylor doesn't deny the reality of such harassment. She notes it can be real, just as it can sometimes be an issue of miscommunication. But either way, she says problem behavior can often be handled without calling the "police."

Taylor researched sexual harassment complaints and sensitivity training courses, and interviewed managers, labor experts and workers in construction, engineering, business and other male-dominated fields. She found that sexual harassment cases can be life-changing events for all involved where everyone loses -- even if the plaintiff wins her case in the end. She notes that this fear of devastating accusations and litigation has led to greater efforts on the part of companies to patrol behavior and speech in the office and mandate things like sensitivity training, and all of this has resulted in greater hostility, suspicion and polarization between the sexes in the workplace.

The current approach has failed, Taylor says, because the focus is on a myriad of often Byzantine, contradictory rules usually based on the assumption that the problem is a male one. Most ominously, this broadcasts the message loud and clear that women are passive victims who can't possibly stand up for themselves or make their desires known in the workplace.
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But Taylor says dialing the "police" need hardly be the first response. For starters, she says, don't assume the worst. She found workplaces often have a group identity, one which makes a newcomer feel unwelcome until he's proved himself. In traditionally male dominated fields, women may perceive this behavior as sexual harassment when it would be directed for a time at any outsider. Conversely, she may feel sexually harassed when there's a crude attempt to include her by making her feel like "one of the guys." Sometimes, nothing is meant at all by seemingly offensive behavior or language. Or yes, it could really be that a woman is the subject of unwanted sexual advances.

In any event, Taylor says, direct, clear, non-hostile but assertive communication about the offensive conduct will often solve the problem, whether it changes the behavior or reveals a benign motive behind it -- or both. (Taylor also includes a number of other constructive prescriptions for how businesses and individuals on every side of this issue can better handle or forestall such situations.)

Now I suppose my response to my coworker was a bit late in coming and OK, a bit hostile. And yes, he was a colleague and not a supervisor, and I did have the luxury of a boss who would back me up.

Still the fact remains that people will often respond amazingly well when someone communicates clearly, directly, and consistently with them. But perhaps most importantly, Taylor emphasizes that women are rarely encouraged or taught, say in company sensitivity training programs, how to effectively handle such situations themselves. Far from it. Our culture, including the feminist sisterhood and the business place, have imbued women with the notion that they are powerless in such circumstances.

So everyone loses. Except, of course, all those people with a lot invested in training women to be victims and keeping the war between the sexes alive and well.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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