NATION THAT BANNED FLIRTING; American Sexual Harassment Laws Are So Harsh That Now Even Women Complain They're Damaging Relations with Men. Ironically, It Is the Lecherous Promiscuity of Bill Clinton That Could End This Politically Correct Madness

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Byline: ANN LESLIE

WHAT California does today, the rest of the Western industrialised world does tomorrow. Here, in her concluding dispatch on the new backlash against political correctness in the state which gave birth to it, Ann Leslie describes how ordinary people are rejecting the trendy liberal policies that created the so-called victim culture.

LINDA Garcia left her last secretarial job in downtown Los Angeles because she had a problem with men. Not surprisingly really.

After all, 26-year-old Linda is a pretty, long-legged, bronzed young Californian with big hair and perfect teeth, so you'd expect a bit of 'man-trouble'.

But what drove her out was not her male colleagues' oafish tendency to fondle her breasts or leer at her from behind the water-cooler. On the contrary. Her male colleagues were, it seems, rigid - not with lust - but with fear.

A paralysing fear of losing their jobs if overheard by some busybody complimenting Linda on her dress, her smile, or her startlingly silver-peach nails.

'My God, life was so boring there. That company had a "zero-tolerance" policy on sexual harassment in the workplace, which meant even a bit of harmless flirting wasn't allowed - especially not if the man had a higher salary grade than you!

'I'm not saying I wanted to go round having office affairs, but I kinda felt like I was in a seminary of castrated monks!' But surely if Linda actually welcomed a few flirtatious remarks, then no 'sexual-harassment' issues arose?

'Oh my, you're so wrong!

Under "zero-tolerance" policies, if some other woman overhears the remarks and feels offended, she can complain to supervisors that she feels uncomfortable and "harassed" and take the company to court!' SOUNDS absurd.

But it happens: one firm was sued for sexual harassment because a woman overheard a male colleague telling a female co-worker a mildly dirty joke in the office.

The woman at whom the remarks were directed said she certainly wasn't offended, and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about - but her views were considered irrelevant. 'Sexual harassment' was deemed to have occurred because a bystander decided that it had.

In a 'victim' culture, anyone can declare themselves to be a victim, merely on the grounds that they believe they are. (As one sceptic here put it to me: 'It's tantamount to declaring that someone who says they're Napoleon actually is Napoleon, because they believe that they are.') 'Zero-tolerance' codes have been brought in because, thanks to the growth in 'sexual-harassment' cases often based on little more than the odd sexy joke in the office - companies daren't take a legal risk, however remote.

They have, for example, been sued by embittered women who, in the wake of a long and consensual affair with a colleague, have taken the companies to court for 'allowing' such a relationship to occur in the first place.

Sexual harassment cases are a highly lucrative boom-industry in American legal circles.

As, alas, they increasingly are now in Britain.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal government agency in charge of discrimination issues, presided over 6,127 cases in 1991, with damages awards totalling $7.7 million.

By last year, that figure had risen to 15,889 cases, with awards of $49.4 million. And that is the tip of the iceberg: innumerable other cases have been brought under individual state laws.

Mostly, though, the firms simply pay up out of court: even if they feel they have a strong case, the legal costs, the disruption, and the bad publicity make it too expensive to fight. The Land of the Free now has such rigid rules about the interaction of men and women in the workplace that it almost rivals fundamentalist Islam.

A graduate student in Nebraska was ordered to remove a holiday snapshot of his wife in a bikini from his study cubicle because a woman student found it 'offensive'. …