He Said, She Said, We Shrug

Article excerpt

Byline: Kathleen Parker

Why Americans can't make up their minds on sexual harassment.

Recent reports of Herman Cain's alleged acts of sexual harassment in the 1990s while he was head of the National Restaurant Association have prompted a furious defense of Cain from the right and cast a light on Americans' confusion about what sexual harassment really means, if anything.

In fact, a majority of Americans don't much believe in sexual harassment, even though they do tend to believe that the charges against Cain are probably true. A new Newsweek poll conducted by Douglas E. Schoen, LLC, found that 85 percent of those surveyed think that people are accused unfairly in sexual-harassment cases some, most, or all of the time. The same poll found that 52 percent think the charges against Cain are probably or definitely true, and 73 percent care somewhat or a great deal when a public figure is accused of harassment. Only 18 percent said they don't care very much, 7 percent not at all, and 3 percent were unsure.

So people care about sexual harassment and think it's an important window into someone's character. They just don't think that most charges are true or that the accused generally get a fair shake. Those surveyed were about evenly divided on whether sexual harassment is overreported (37 percent) or underreported (35 percent).

Which is to say, people are somewhat or very confused much of the time when it comes to sexual harassment, as well they might be. In the absence of witnesses, sexual harassment is necessarily subjective, even though the criteria for the legal definition don't allow for frivolous complaints. An errant remark or jokes told in poor taste are not sufficient to meet the legal standard.

Moreover, the accusers in such cases are not always such sympathetic characters. They may have a record of repeated claims, as is the case with one of those accusing Cain. Or they profit monetarily, which too easily allows critics to dismiss them as troublemakers looking to make an easy buck. Here, for example, is former presidential candidate Fred Thompson commenting on current events: "These alleged victims and their lawyers--no matter what they may say publicly--are champing at the bit to come forward for their day in the limelight and the inevitable book deal. …