Beyond Jones V. Clinton: Sexual Harassment Law and Social Work

Article excerpt

In the wake of the Jones v. Clinton case, there has been a renewed interest in sexual harassment issues, particularly the chaotic case law in this important field of practice. The author urges the social work profession to resurrect its commitment to achieving social justice by participating in the current efforts to unravel the complexities of sexual harassment law. Toward this end, the article presents an analysis of the concept of sexual harassment by providing an overview of the legal issues and case law to highlight the statutory questions that have left the judicial system confounded by the difficulties of practical application of the law. Furthermore, the article deals with the relevance of this topic for the professional mission and suggests the utility of some conceptual frameworks and key concepts that might help social workers to address the clinical, administrative, and advocacy concerns in this substantive area.

Key words: advocacy; feminist theory; law; sexual harassment; social work practice

The furor surrounding U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright's dismissal of Paula Corbin Jones's sexual harassment suit against President Clinton has prevented the discourse in this important legal area from proceeding beyond these specific personalities. On rare occasions, the suit has been examined in its broader context to illustrate the "chaotic case law in this important field of practice" (Greenhouse, 1998a, p. A11). Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that public interest in the complexities of applying sexual harassment law has grown in the wake of the Paula Jones suit. Otherwise, there was very little publicity given to the fact that since 1991, "juries have returned well over 500 verdicts on sexual harassment"--decisions that have often contradicted one another (Cloud, 1998, p. 49). Recently this was summarized succinctly in a statement attributed to Turley when he said, "Sexual harassment victims are by far the victims with the most lasting injury and the most tentative ability to pursue the li tigation" (Mansnerus, 1998, p. 16 WK).

This article presents an analysis of the concept of sexual harassment and its legal permutations to demonstrate the complexity of this issue, which at times has been lost in the adversarial politics surrounding Jones v. Clinton. More important, the legal review uncovers some compelling reasons why social workers should be active participants in the emerging debate on sexual harassment. Specifically, the background information presents an overview of the legal issues and case law to highlight the statutory questions that have contributed to the law's intricacies. I suggest that social work--the "female dominated profession"--live up to its name and confront the challenge of sexual harassment, in which 90 percent of all plaintiffs and the predominance of victims are women (Cloud, 1998). To facilitate this initiative, this article delineates the relevance of this topic for the professional mission and explores the utility of some conceptual frameworks and key concepts that might help social workers to address t he clinical, administrative, and advocacy concerns in this substantive area.

Overview

Legal Issues

The wording of the sexual harassment law and the level of evidence required to prove a case has left the judicial system confounded by the difficulties of practical application of the law. Although the statute does not include the term "sexual harassment," Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (P.L. 98-433) prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender. The Supreme Court has interpreted sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. In 1976 a Federal District Court in Williams v. Saxbe "first granted a right of action for sexual harassment" (Hill, 1998, p. A23). Individuals in educational settings could turn to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (P.L. 92-318), which prohibits sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal money. …

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