Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Anita Hill's legacy

For a while, we were hearing a lot of stories about how the crusade against sexual harassment had gone a bit over the top. A first-grader got disciplined for "sexual harassment" in school for kissing a girl on the cheek. A manager got fired over an office discussion of the previous night's Seinfeld episode featuring some risqué humor. A guy got in trouble for bringing to work Esquire's annual "Women We Love" issue with a cover shot of some actress in lingerie. Etc., etc. Well, those stories have largely faded from view, but if you think they've gone away, think again.

Via Overlawyered today, with an excerpt from the Press of Atlantic City:

Two secretaries will share a settlement of around $450,000 from the Atlantic City, N.J. school district and its insurer after filing sexual-harassment charges. Carol Lee and Jennifer Torres sued following

a comment Assistant Superintendent Thomas J. Kirschling made to them and two others in July 2002. At some point mid-month, Kirschling said "I ride them hard and put them away wet."

The two secretaries sent him a memo saying they were outraged. He later explained and apologized, according to a subsequent memo.

Kirschling was apparently using a rural idiom that means someone is tired or worked hard. The phrase is taken from the need to cool down a horse after strenuous exercise. Only a mistreated horse is stabled while it is still sweating.

After the women complained, the district assigned an outside attorney to investigate, but that probe inadvertently lapsed....

The school board approved the settlement at a meeting last month, although some members considered the amount excessive. "Board member John Devlin said 'It's nuts, though, just for that comment.'"

Harassment hysteria: still crazy after all these years.

As with many other things, feminists identified a real problem when they spoke up about sexual harassment. Of course it's good that women -- and men -- now have a legal recourse if they face a "sleep with me or you're fired" situation, or an intolerable atmosphere of sexual insults at work. But in the wake of the Anita Hill episode (a turning point, by the way, in my alienation from "mainstream" feminism), the War on Sexual Harassment turned into a ridiculous hysteria preoccupied with petty or imagined slights and hostile, in strangely neo-Victorian fashion, to any sexual expression -- even sexual humor -- in the workplace.

The damage is still with us. Damage to human interaction in the workplace, of course, and to companies and institutions that have to field these absurd complaints -- but also to women's equality. Because if you ask me, the image of women promoted by such stories is not a very flattering one.

By the way, the best book ever written on sexual harassment is Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism by Daphne Patai. See my review here. And my own 1998 article on sexual harassment, politics and culture here.


Revenant said...

From "Newsradio" (which I shamefully admit to having watched occasionally):

Jimmy: See, Dave and I, we could talk about... guy stuff.

Lisa: Guy stuff? I can do that.
Jimmy: No.
Lisa: Yes, I can, try me.
Jimmy: You think?
Lisa: Yes.
Jimmy: ...that Lisa's sure got some cute ass, huh?

Revenant said...

Oops, hit post too soon. I just thought that was a funny example of the problem with hostile-environment law. Guys tend to talk to their friends that way.

Pooh said...

"the War on Sexual Harassment turned into a ridiculous hysteria preoccupied with petty or imagined slights and hostile, in strangely neo-Victorian fashion, to any sexual expression -- even sexual humor -- in the workplace."

As always, you turn a fine phrase. As I understand it, isn't part of the feminist movement to 'own' your own sexuality? Does that include owning mine? Of course there are some lines that shouldn't be crossed. (Obviously, quid pro quo and actively 'hostile', in the dictionary sense of the word, work environments.) But this seems to be another case where the line was drawn with too much deference to those suffering 'offense'.

mary said...


Have you spent any time reading about pro-sex feminism - and especially this book which, if I recall correctly, caused quite a stir on the WMST listserv?

William R. Barker said...

As Dick the Butcher so aptly put it, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

What a system! God help this once great nation. Any action that merits a $450,000 legal settlement should also merit serious jail time. Now since it would be assinine to suggust that Superintendent Thomas J. Kirschling should have been sent to break rocks in the Big House for a number of years, so it also seems to me that it's absolutely ridiculous and a sign of a sick society that Carol Lee and Jennifer Torres were awarded an almost half-million dollar settlement because their boss made a piggish remark.

In a sane country Kirschling would have been forced to make a public apology and perhaps been docked a month's pay with the threat of being fired if anything like this were to ever happen again.

In our country... the taxpayers pay for Kirschling's stupidity.

Anonymous said...

I find it odd that our blogstress uses Anita Hill as a bad example of hostile-environment law. I don't know the facts of that case any better than anyone else here, but I thought her testimony against Clarence Thomas had the ring of truth.

To this day I regard both Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton as living proof that people can be grossly immoral and yet function well in extremely high-level jobs.

Vanessa said...

For corporate employees, the annual appearance of the sexual-harassment consultant is a familiar sight. Everyone goes to a meeting to watch an inane educational film that preaches to grown adults about appropriate work behavior.

I've found that virtually across the board, employees are disdainful of this authoritarian garbage. Aside from one or two friendless, generally disagreeable people, almost everyone agrees that a workplace that allows for a little flirtation and bawdy humor now and then is a desirable thing! Joking with your colleagues is what gets you through the day. In my experience, there a fairly solid consensus among both men and women that sexual harassment laws just cater to the most over-sensitive, annoying person at work.

Then of course there's the dirty secret that many women (and men!) actually enjoy being admired and flirted with. And that it often seems to be jealous, unattractive women that want to take away everyone else's harmless fun. That's an un-PC statement, I know, but I call it like I see it.

If nothing else, businesses should be allowed to decide whether or not to honor sexual harrasment codes (at least the non-quid pro quo variety), and then let the labor market sort it out. As long as every new employee was informed up front, and signed a contract agreeing to the terms, there should be some workplaces reserved for those of us who are grown-up enough not to run crying about a little sexual banter. My guess is that many people would even prefer to work in a place where sexual harassment laws didn't apply.

beenaround said...

Vanessa said:

My guess is that many people would even prefer to work in a place where sexual harassment laws didn't apply.

Probably not, actually.

The presence of laws does tend to reduce the propensity for too much sexual behavior at work, which is very unproductive.

The trick is to find the right balance.

peter hoh said...

I would like my obit to note that back in 1984, I came in second when my female coworkers voted on which guy had the cutest ass.

By the way, did any of you see the Saturday Night Live version of a corporate training video about sexual harassment? They ran it last spring -- Tom Brady (New England quaterback) ws the host.

Cathy Young said...

To the "anonymous" who uses the interesting word "blogstress":

Actually, I didn't think Anita Hill was lying. If she had wanted to slander Clarence Thomas, I'm sure she would have made up something much more damaging -- e.g., that he tried to pressure her for sexual favors, or groped her. I just found her allegations unbelievably trivial, and I thought it was ludicrous that the nation was paralyzed over the issue of whether a Supreme Court nominee had mentioned Long Dong Silver or joked about a pubic hair on a Coke.

Judging by the fact that Hill maintained cordial relations with Thomas at the time, and even invited him over to her place to help her install a stereo system (really, would a woman want to be alone in her apartment with someone she considers a sexual harasser?), my impression was that they had a sexualized friendship which, years later, Hill somehow reinterpreted as harassment.

Cathy Young said...

Oh, and in response to Mary -- yes, I'm certain familiar with pro-sex feminism (among other things, I have fond memories of attending a lecture by Carol Vance at Rutgers), though I haven't seen this particular book. I'll check it out.

William R. Barker said...

Unlike Anonymous and Cathy, I did not find Anita Hill's testimony credible. According to polls at the time, most Americans shared my view. Within a year or two of the hearings those polls had reversed themselves to show most Americans did tend to believe Hill. Hmm... since I doubt the average American took that time to research the issue the only explanation I can come up with is that a year or two of overwhelming media indoctrination along the lines of "Thomas bad, Hill good" had its intended effect. Not to go too far afield, but I think we've seen a similar effect with regard to the Iraq War.

Slocum said...

Well, the settlement amount (or any amount) is beyond absurd, but let's not go overboard and pretend that the sexual interpretation of 'ride them hard and put them away wet' is not pretty obvious to anyone who hears the phrase -- regardless of whether or not they're aware it's nominally about horses. It's a double entendre and, let's face it, probably was meant that way. But, of course, hearing comments like that certainly should not be grounds for 6-figure harrassment suits.

Cathy Young said...

slocum -- yeah, of course it's pretty obvious. But really, the guy apologized. It should have ended right there.

Revenant said...

Well, the settlement amount (or any amount) is beyond absurd, but let's not go overboard and pretend that the sexual interpretation of 'ride them hard and put them away wet' is not pretty obvious to anyone who hears the phrase -- regardless of whether or not they're aware it's nominally about horses.

Personally, I had never heard the expression "rode hard and put away wet" used in a sexual context until fairly recently, so I can believe the man who said it meant it innocently. I'd always heard it used as slang for "overworked", in my childhood in the South.

Johnny said...

Interesting post. I'm not quite sure I agree, specifically, I have a problem:

The Seinfeld episode. It was a national beer company, and the individual was not fired for repeating the joke as many assert. He was fired for what he did with a yellow hi-lighter and a dictionary later in the day AFTER telling the joke.

My ex is a carpenter here in Chicago, and requests for oral favors are sop, both from co-workers and supervisors.

As you can guess, as I trust her, and as she bsasically laughs it off (although years of martial arts training may infulunce her reactions), I am inclined to the thought that really, our society is just bizarre.

Although to be honest, my grandaddy would have fired anyone making that kind of a horse reference. As someone who grew up with horses, that is also often used "rurally" as a "euphism" for sex. As well in hard work, and traditionally would not be used out of context in mixed company.

beenaround said...

Hmmm, I would like to suggest that all the moral outrage being expressed here is actually because the two women cited managed to game the system to the tune of $450,000, and people are pissed because they don't see a similar opportunity for themselves.

:-) :-)

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