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Sexual Harassment Vs ‘The Real Issues’

The Cain-Bialek scandal highlights the dismissive way in which society looks at sexual harassment.

world Updated: Nov 12, 2011 22:35 IST

Maybe the most telling thing Herman Cain’s accuser, Sharon Bialek, said in front of the TV cameras on Monday was: Tell the truth, she implored her fellow Republican, “so that you and the country can move forward and focus on the real issues at hand.”

Even a woman willing to step in front of a camera and talk about sexual harassment fell back on language that suggests it’s not a real issue, but one that ought to be hurried past on our way to more substantive matters.

Bialek was still standing behind her famous lawyer at Monday’s news conference, looking like she’d like to disappear behind her hair, when Cain’s Presidential campaign issued a blanket denial: “All allegations of harassment against Mr Cain are completely false.” If Bialek is telling the truth, Cain did not harass but assaulted her, skipping right past hostile work environment to unwanted touching and a textbook quid pro quo: “You want a job, right?”

Let’s say Cain was telling the truth last week when he told Greta van Susteren that he was guilty of nothing worse than occasionally, in the company of his wife, telling a woman that her hairstyle was becoming. Cain and his campaign aside, the way politicians and the press, too, have been talking about the allegations against him in the past week suggest that sexual harassment is this exotic, rarely glimpsed phenomenon difficult to distinguish, and not worth the effort.

“I think at some point, the substance does matter,” GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr said on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ in answer to a question about whether he was more concerned about the sexual allegations against Cain or questions about his foreign policy experience. “We’ve got some real issues to discuss in this campaign.”

It’s “frustrating,” to be hearing so much about harassment, Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, said on ‘Face the Nation’, when “what the American voters really care about is the substance.”

This is a conversation we have mostly not been having in the two decades since Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of creeping her out at work. And if we have no practice talking about sexual harassment, it's not because it so seldom happens. I asked half a dozen writers for the women’s blog The Post is soon launching to ask the first few women they happened to run into today, at the gym, on the street or in line for coffee, whether they’d ever been sexually harassed at work. Of 23 women in eight different cities, 16 said yes and seven no. Those who said yes included a 76-year-old Iowan who told Suzi Parker she used to work for a doctor “who petted my behind,” and a 50-year-old who’d been fired from her first part-time high school job because she refused to kiss her “greasy-haired” boss.

A publicist in Kansas City told Donna Trussell that as a young temp at a public utility company, “my boss used to lean very close over my shoulder when he was training me and within the first week asked me if I wanted to go for a weekend trip out of town to the horse races. I would come home from work very upset and was told by my mother not to make a big deal out of it. The only thing that made it better was that he was also doing it to two other women in the office that he supervised and I could talk about it with them.”

Only one woman, a 24-year-old in Dallas, said she had lodged a formal complaint. She told Judith Ellis Howard that when she was interviewing for a job three years ago, the interviewer asked whether she had a boyfriend. When the woman, whose first name is Amber, said she was married, the interviewer said her husband was lucky and mused aloud about a specific sexual act between them. He said Amber’s husband “has the best of both worlds with me because I’m bi-racial.”

Amber accepted the job anyway, “because I obviously had to have a job. He worked out of the Atlanta office and I really didn’t have to deal with him, but then it carried on through e-mail and when he would come to town, so I turned him in. And he does not work there anymore. He thought because I was young, it was a great opportunity and that I wouldn’t push the issue. I did. And there were older women who didn’t.”

Those women who said they had never experienced harassment included a young nanny I spoke to at the post office, where she was mailing her wedding invitations. One employer “did like to watch me sleep,” she said, but no, she’d never been harassed unlike her sister, who works for the government and reported unwanted advances and “had it swept under the rug.”

A retired meat-packing employee from Kansas who said that though she was frequently “hit on” in the plant, said that in her view, “It was normal. A lot of us girls flirted back. We didn’t think too much about it. I think everyone makes too much of a big deal about everything these days.”

A 50-year-old gas station owner who ran a bar for years told me that in her experience, women can easily prevent inappropriate behavior. “If you’re confident in yourself, you can handle it,” she said. “I’m a tough cookie and nobody messes with me.”

Several of the women who will be contributing to the blog also described on-the-job experiences ranging from an unwanted kiss at a holiday party to a long coerced affair to attempted rape. Another, Washington Radio reporter Jamila Bey, remembers the Saturday morning early in her career, when she asked the only other person in the newsroom that day to look over a script. When he called her over into his office to talk about the changes, she said, “I realised that his pants were down and he was masturbating. I backed out and locked myself in the studio.”

Though not a student herself, the station was located on a college campus. “I lodged a complaint to campus police who took my statement. By Monday, when I went back to campus police, I was blamed for going into his office alone.” The man in question soon quit, she said, but he is now a successful television reporter who “has never had to account for anything about that day.”

Mary Curtis said it bothers her, too, to hear commentators behave as though harassment is just too darned hard to define: “I might have been young and naive, away from home for the first time, but there was no mistaking the intentions of the professor who promised an A if I delivered my term paper to his apartment and stayed for dinner and drinks. I might have been new to the job, but I knew a supervisor’s groping was more than a clumsy attempt to make me feel welcome. That instance might have qualified as assault.”

Did she report it? “No, to my regret, I never did. Each time, I did the calculation and decided I was afraid of the price I might pay. But the anger that has shaken me as I occasionally recall details years later ended up costing me plenty.” I’m not sure that men who sexually harass women ever see their own actions as harassment.

In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post

First Published: Nov 12, 2011 22:32 IST