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Talking About Harassment

By Madhavi Sunder

AS ACCUSATIONS of harassment, sexism, dirty politics and old-boys' networks fly around the capital, I can't help but sit back and smile. It's about time somebody's talking.

The sad truth is that it takes something like Anita Hill's accusations against Clarence Thomas for people to acknowledge that sexual harassment is a real problem that society will no longer tolerate.

Thus far, the Senate has saved face. Although the decision got off to a shaky start, and some senators participated less willingly than others in delaying the Thomas vote to continue hearings this week, the message was sent loud and clear: Watch your mouth.

Just as the Ginsberg hearings left people with high ambitions scared about smoking pot, the Thomas hearings this week will likely prompt a few lawyers and judges to consult their books and think before they speak. It has become clear that too many lawyers do not know what constitutes sexual harassment under the law.

ALTHOUGH THOMAS told the Senate yesterday that "no job is worth this," and that he didn't want the job if it meant having everyone know about his personal life, his appeal should not be taken as a mandate to sweep such accusations under the rug for the fear that if not, everyone would be running scared.

Maybe a little running will teach the old and young boys alike a lesson. To do so would be a major turnaround: Statistics continue to show that 40 to 70 percent of all working women experience some form of sexual harassment.

What's undebatable in this case is the fact that everybody needs a little educating. Yale Law School Dean Guido Calabresi told The New York Times, "Given the complexity of sexual harassment, I could conceive of a situation in which Clarence Thomas thought he was doing nothing abusive, and Anita Hill thought that what he did was terribly threatening."

Like Calabresi's other statements on the matter, which Harvard Law School Professor Christopher F. Edley described as "mealy-mouthed," Calabresi concluded, "Which perception is correct is something we all, women and men, will have to decide."

What shocks me about Calabresi's wimpy stance is that it begs one of the underlying questions in this whole debate: Shouldn't a Supreme Court nominee--particularly one who headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--know exactly what constitutes sexual harassment under the law? The law is unequivocal in its definition of sexual harassment.

If Thomas talked to Hill the way she alleges he did, he broke it, whatever his intentions. It is frightening and sickening to think that a potential Supreme Court justice could misconstrue the very codes he is expected to uphold.

Of course, the dean of Thomas' alma mater does not set a shining example for the nominee, or his fellow alums in the Senate. Judging from his remarks, the dean of Yale Law School sounds just as ignorant about the law of sexual harassment as Thomas. Is Anita Hill the only one of the bunch who learned the law at Yale?

IF SHE IS, it speaks strongly to the need to educate everyone--even lawyers--about the complexities of sexual harassment. The issue is too often shunted aside as "women's issues," a.k.a. whiny nonsense.

I have faith, however, that people learn from their mistakes, and progress will be made from the debacle unfolding before us. The New York Times, still reeling from the criticisms of its publishing a sexist profile of the alleged Palm Beach rape victim last spring, has made an effort to handle the Hill case in a more sensitive manner. A male-dominated organization, The Times has given serious play to Hill's allegations and the issue of sexual harassment.

Is the press treating Hill with respect because she is a tenured law professor and not a high school dropout? Probably. Is that the only reason behind the media's new attitude? Probably not. The Times took to heart people's criticisms of its Kennedy coverage. So, too, will the Senate learn that issues like sexual harassment must be taken seriously.

And maybe in the future the Senate and the press will do so not simply out of fear of losing votes or readers, but because they recognize for themselves that sexual harassment is a real crime. And when this

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