Facebook Twitter



Sex arrived in the workplace when women did, and ever since, men have been unsure just what women believe its boundaries are.

Over the past 20 years I have seen a steady increase in frank language and sexual innuendo, much of it coming from the women, no matter whether they were my boss or the lowest subordinate.The tougher the job and the greater the pressure, the franker the language and the more intense the sexual atmosphere.

Wherever I have worked, sexual relationships among co-workers have been a fact of life. The law can't eliminate sex at work; it can only try to keep it within reasonable boundaries.

During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, the senators fell over themselves to express their horror at the language Clarence Thomas was alleged to have used in asking Anita Hill out - language unfortunately not that different from the average hit rec-ord, movie or TV show, where jokes about male anatomy, suggestive language, double entendres and frank sexuality have become commonplace.

This pervasiveness of sex in our public life makes determining standards of acceptable behavior much more difficult.

If a man asks a co-worker out, discusses personal matters with her and in other ways tries to advance the relationship, he can be responsible through the same actions for consequences ranging from sexual harassment to beginning a relationship that could last a lifetime.

What is offensive to one woman may be obnoxious, amusing or even endearing to another. Where men and women are together, there is misunderstanding and mystery.

I have seen highly professional, otherwise respectable men commit sexual harassment, just as I have seen highly professional, otherwise capable women imagine relationships that did not exist (this happened, in fact, to me) and contrive harassment charges to revenge other slights or to advance themselves.

It's crucial to legally define sexual harassment as clearly as possible so that the true victims of sexual abuse and discrimination don't have their suffering trivialized.

Otherwise we will be treated in our courts to interchanges every bit as bizarre as Sen. Joseph Biden and John Doggett arguing over how to ask a woman out. This is not and should never be a matter of law or public policy.

The confusion comes when law meets courtship, whose shadows extend deep into the irrational corners of the heart. Desire and attraction are not matters of contract in the statute book.

History is filled with great men and women who have been fools for love and whose foolishness has mercifully remained mostly private.

The man usually initiates relationships and therefore subjects himself to embarrassment, rejection and misunderstanding, particularly because these matters are not always conducted in straightforward, businesslike ways.

Men don't get it. That's what the professional feminists tell us. And they are right, we don't.

We may get some of it, but not all - not even many of us who have promoted and encouraged our women subordinates and oppose any form of sexual discrimination or harassment.

And that's because the rules of sexual harassment are not objective but determined by the reactions of the woman involved. Each woman makes her own law. Women want to be treated equally but don't want to be considered sexless.

They want to be sexually attractive but only to the right man and only with the proper approach. That leaves considerable possibility for error.

The man must read the woman's signals; the woman must make those signals clear.

Women today enrich the workplace at all levels and in all jobs. They work in traditional male professions, police the streets, fight fires.

Women want to be respected, capable workers without losing their sexual identities, and they should be able to have it both ways.

But if a man wants to ask a co-worker out, he shouldn't have to bring his lawyer along.