MAXWELL:  The chill of sexual harassment

3/22/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I do not know about other men, but all of the fallout from the alleged sexual misconduct involving President Clinton and his women is changing my relationships with women in the workplace and how I view the opposite sex in general.

On the big front, I no longer know what we mean by “sexual harassment.” I have given up on trying to understand it. And given today’s supercharged rhetoric, amorphous definitions and razor-thin attitudes about interpersonal propriety, I would wager that the average man in the workplace, even here in the St. Petersburg Times newsroom, is often guilty of sexual harassment.

The bottom line is that I am more careful than ever about what I say. I am particularly wary of my body language in the presence of women. Much of this change has occurred during the last six months, mostly during the last few weeks.

As an ex-Marine and a former high school and college athlete who was reared in rough-and-tumble black neighborhoods, I have been immersed in the profane _ cursing, off-color jokes, practical jokes, loud talk, “playing the dozens,” braggadocio. All are liabilities in my workplace; some are career-ending if colleagues, especially women, complain.

I can share a bawdy joke with only a handful of women, most of them older, without worrying about getting in big-time trouble. You could argue that a bawdy joke has no place in the workplace. I disagree. Adult friends have every right, for example, to share a Slick Willie joke. The problem, of course, is that a woman may overhear the exchange and report it.

As I have said, my relationships with females in the workplace are changing in ways that I do not like. Some readers may scoff, but I no longer compliment women on their attire, their hair or other traits (I still compliment men).

I no longer invite women to lunch. My favorite activity is going to a bookstore or the University of South Florida library in St. Petersburg at noon a couple of times a week. In the past, I regularly invited male and female colleagues along. Today, I would think twice before asking a female to accompany me.

A few friends argue that I am overreacting. Perhaps. But overreacting is better than being accused of sexual harassment and being fired. Until the courts and society at large define sexual harassment to my satisfaction, I intend to play it safe.

In a column for the New York Times that was reprinted by this newspaper, Anita Hill, the woman who unwittingly started the modern sexual harassment movement, points out that “in our new national conversation on sex, including our discussions of the Paula Jones lawsuit and the resulting revelations from Monica Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey, the references to sexual harassment have expanded far beyond the legal prescriptions. The term has become cliche, and the perception of sexual harassment as a civil rights violation is now diminished.”

Hill is right. The perception of sexual harassment as a civil rights violation, a legal matter, is diminished, which is too bad. But the perception that sexual harassment is an interpersonal menace in the workplace is not diminished but is growing.

I do not mean to suggest that I dismiss the seriousness of sexual harassment, because I do not. At the same time, though, I want to be perfectly clear that many men believe that our new hypersensitivity is corrosive and will hurt us in the long run.

Although some of my colleagues disagree, I believe that our workplace is not as healthy as it was when I arrived four years ago. I feel a chill. I feel uncertain. Frankly, I am confused. And angry.

Again, Hill is on target in saying that “the inordinate amount of attention to incidents of overzealous enforcement of sexual harassment rules, like those cases where a young child is suspended from school for kissing a classmate, further expands the reach of the term and misinforms the public discussion.”

In the end, everyone is left confused, and the workplace becomes a minefield to be negotiated at one’s peril. As for me, I intend to sanitize my language (outside of the editorial board room). I most certainly will keep my hands to myself.

And my female colleagues can rest assured that Bill Maxwell will give them all of the personal space they demand.