Groping toward Sanity: Why the Clinton Sex Scandals Are Changing How We Talk about Sexual Harassment

By Young, Cathy | Reason, August-September 1998 | Go to article overview

Groping toward Sanity: Why the Clinton Sex Scandals Are Changing How We Talk about Sexual Harassment


Young, Cathy, Reason


"This is the death of sexual harassment," Susan Carpenter-MacMillan, the flamboyant adviser to Paula Jones, announced on TV - meaning, of course, sexual harassment as a cause, not as behavior, and referring to feminists' failure to support her protege. That was a few days before Jones's sexual harassment suit against President Clinton was dismissed on summary judgment in March. Since then, there has been a good deal of talk about what the case will mean for the legal system and for the American workplace, with many conservatives in the unaccustomed role of lamenting that women will be discouraged from complaining and many feminists in the equally unaccustomed role of decrying frivolous lawsuits.

As legal precedent, the ruling by Judge Susan Webber Wright in Jones v. Clinton probably won't mean much. But the case and its ramifications may have a lasting effect on the cultural climate-an impact that could ultimately translate into legal change. If Anita Hill's testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings seven years ago turned into a "teach-in" that mainstreamed much of the radical feminist ideology on sexual harassment, then the Clinton sex scandals may become a counter-teach-in that brings us a step closer to a more balanced view of the sexual dynamics between men and women in the workplace.

The concept of sexual harassment was around before Anita Hill. It was coined in the mid-1970s, most likely by feminist legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon, and soon gained recognition in the courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court gave its unanimous blessing to sexual harassment law in Meritor v. Vinson, a case in which a bank teller alleged that her supervisor pressured her into a sexual relationship. But the issue remained on the cultural periphery until the "national consciousness raising" of October 1991, when the country was riveted by Hill's claim that as her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thomas had occasionally asked her out, talked about X-rated movies, and once joked about a pubic hair on a Coke can. Maybe, as journalist Christopher Hitchens suggested in his review of Hill's dreary recent memoir, Speaking Truth to Power, "Everyone was slightly out of their skull that week."

The "teach-in" succeeded: The Thomas-Hill episode established a dominant paradigm of sexual harassment. In this paradigm, any manifestation of sexuality in the workplace, from romantic pursuit to racy humor, is abusive if someone decides - perhaps long after the fact - that it was "unwelcome." Even if they don't mean harm, men who "just don't get it" bear all the blame for sexual conflicts. To question a charge of harassment is grossly insensitive, even if the behavior of the "victim," such as remaining friendly with the alleged harasser, seems to contradict her claims. (Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter had to work hard to live down his "grilling" of Anita Hill.)

When the dust had settled, the new awareness of sexual harassment remained a part of the landscape. "Every time a man and a woman meet at the water cooler now, Anita Hill [is] right there between them," Wayne State University anthropologist Andrea Sankar told Newsweek a year after the hearings - and it speaks volumes about the social climate that this was supposed to be a good thing.

On Nexis, references to sexual harassment grew from fewer than 1,500 in 1990 to more than 8,000 in 1992 and nearly 15,000 in 1994. Every week, some new sexual harassment story was in the headlines. In 1993, New York State legislator Earlene Hill was able to cause a furor by revealing that a few years earlier, a male colleague had failed to move to let her get to her seat and jocularly invited her to climb over his legs, while another had said "sex" instead of "six" while reeling off numbers in a speech and then joked, "Whenever I think of Earlene, I think of sex."

Yet from the moment former Arkansas state worker Paula Corbin Jones came forward in May 1994 with her claim of indecent advances by then-Gov.

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