"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 protegé. 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. Clinton, feminists were remarkably quick to abandon the Anita Hill paradigm. On CNN, legal scholar and former Democratic strategist Susan Estrich declared that it was healthy for feminists to make the point that "not all women necessarily are telling the truth, and not every complaint deserves to be used in a way which destroys a man." (Trying to neutralize charges of partisan hypocrisy, Estrich also noted, "Maybe we show it in the case of a friend of ours, but so be it.")
Others who had supported wide-ranging definitions of sexual harassment in the past suggested that if Clinton indeed had Jones escorted to his hotel room, displayed his distinguishing characteristics, and asked for oral sex, it was no big deal. Katha Pollitt, the acid-tongued commentator for The Nation, noted that Jones lost no pay or promotions for rebuffing him. Eleanor Smeal, former head of the National Organization for Women and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, opined that it was "a marginal sexual harassment case at best."
Many feminists feebly argued that Jones didn't need their help. She was going to have her day in court, they said, whereas Anita Hill would not have been allowed to testify without feminist pressure. The dismissal of Jones's lawsuit took away this excuse; interestingly, some of the people who had used it, including ex-Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), applauded Judge Wright's ruling. On ABC's This Week, NOW President Patricia Ireland couldn't give a straight answer to the question, "If Paula Jones's allegations are true, was she harassed?" A number of feminist commentators asserted that a case of harassment must involve some economic or psychological harm to the plaintiff. In fact, that hasn't been the law since 1993--though Wright did cite the absence of tangible damage in dismissing Jones's claim of outrage under Arkansas state law.
At the time Jones's suit was dismissed, allegations of sexual misconduct involving Clinton dominated the national scene as much as the Hill-Thomas circus did, with the post-Jones cases seemingly tailor-made for feminist outrage. Although White House intern Monica Lewinsky's alleged Oval Office trysts were fully consensual by her own account, they appear to involve the sort of vast "power differentials" between participants that many feminists have argued preclude valid consent. (In the topsy-turvy world of the Clinton scandals, it was left to conservatives such as Linda Chavez to take this position.) The charge by volunteer Kathleen Willey that Clinton kissed and groped her when she came to see him about a job had overtones of a quid pro quo shakedown.
While Willey's 60 Minutes appearance finally prompted strong words from Ireland, most feminists still took a "so what?" view of the whole thing. Gloria Steinem published an op-ed piece in The New York Times advancing what has become known as the "one free grope" theory: Clinton's alleged overtures to Jones and Willey, while boorish, did not amount to sexual harassment because he backed off when they said no.
It's getting harder and harder to tell the feminists from critics of "sexual correctness" like Katie Roiphe or Camille Paglia--the ones whom Susan Faludi derided a few years ago as "pod feminists," à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Susan Estrich scoffs that if every come-on in the workplace led to a lawsuit, "We'd all be in court all the time." Anita Hill laments "the use of the term sexual harassment to describe any and every kind of sexually related transgression." Faludi herself seems to have been body-snatched: She writes that women who are true adults "acknowledg[e] that sexual encounters are often muddy and fumbled affairs and that, in the case of sexual harassment, the response should be nuanced and in scale to the offense," which sometimes means not reporting it.
The accusations of hypocrisy are well-earned. Faludi, who now mocks the neo-Victorian view of working women as "shocked maiden[s]" horrified by a sexual advance, blames this image on paternalistic male pundits--though she herself once paid homage to that quintessential shocked maiden, Anita Hill. When Susan Estrich stresses that sex with one's subordinate may reflect poor judgment but is not against the law, she conveniently forgets to mention that in her 1991 law review article "Sex and Work" she argued that it should be against the law. But the ironic fact is that the new feminist perspective on men, women, and sex at work is mostly quite sensible.
Of course, this isn't systematic revisionism: Most likely, Clinton's feminist apologists want a one-time exception for a president whom, despite reservations, they regard as supportive of their issues and who is under attack from conservatives. NOW spokeswomen are as hawkish as ever on sexual harassment, except when they hide behind an uncharacteristic deference to judicial decisions in the Paula Jones case. Steinem, who protests that feminists are not against sex in the workplace and certainly not against sex, recently gave a glowing endorsement to a sympathetic book about Andrea Dworkin, the feminist writer who is best known for her belief that all sexual intercourse subjugates women and whom Steinem called "one of the finest writers and minds of our time."
Still, all this twisting and turning by feminists is likely to have a ripple effect they won't be able to control, as farsighted harassment hawks realize. Marie-Jose Ragab, president of a breakaway chapter of NOW in Virginia, told me that the national leadership's attitude was emboldening people to say that laws against sexual harassment have gone too far, a development she described as "inches away from hate speech." The New York Times editorial page, too, warns that feminist excuses for Clinton may erode the effort to restrict "sexual talk or gestures by men in the workplace."