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Definitions of Harassment

PERSPECTIVES

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

He claimed that she wanted him to do it; she complained to the authorities about what he had done to her. Sound like the classic formula of acquaintance rape? The difference, however, is that this case involved an innocent act of affection between two first-graders in Lexington, North Carolina. When six-year-old Jonathan Prevette planted a kiss on the cheek of the girl he liked, he could not have known how great an effect it would have. Prevette was promptly suspended from school in a case that quickly became the object of public scrutiny. A week later, a New York City school suspended a seven-year-old boy for kissing a girl in class. In both of these recent cases, charges were brought against the boys for sexual harassment, provoking the question: What exactly constitutes sexual harassment?

We must not be fooled by the fact that the scripts of these cases sound like those of many other sexual harassment cases. Using the term sexual harassment" here can only be harmful. In fact, to label these cases as such subverts the very purpose of sexual harassment laws. These laws are about making sure that circumstances do not put women at a disadvantage, not for the protection of women in general. To make special laws protecting women is to institutionalize their status as victims. Extending the umbrella of sexual harassment to include the kisses of six-year-olds employs a set of laws that aim at promoting certain gender roles of inherent inequality. To see why this is so, we must recognize the roots of sexual harassment law and see what its ramifications have been.

Sexual harassment laws originated in the workplace, where they were necessary to curb the power men had over their female employees. As women entered the work force in greater numbers, they found themselves under the supervision of men. This created a situation in which men had an inherent advantage they could use to pressure women for sexual favors. The government instituted laws so that men and women could relate in the workplace on equal terms.

Thus, cases of sexual harassment are, or at least were at the laws' inception, situations in which guidelines are required to protect one of the sexes from the advantages enjoyed by the other. The law does not mean that all infractions somehow related to sex should fall under a different heading. Rather, it is a protection of one of the sexes, not of sexuality, that originally inspired sexual harassment laws.

In the past decade, the topic of sexual harassment has become an issue in universities and high schools. In schools, however, it becomes more difficult to determine which male offenses against women should be merely condemned and which should be classified under the rubric of sexual harassment.

In schools, unlike in the workplace, men do not start with an advantage based on an accepted hierarchy. Whereas in the workplace, the preexisting advantage of male superiors over female workers makes intervention a necessity, interactions between students are expected to begin, for the most part, on a more equal footing. There is a difference between harassment and sexual harassment.

Thus, determinations of what constitutes sexual harassment must differ between workplaces and schools. It is more difficult for employees to combat the actions of their superiors, for fear of professional ramifications, than it is for students to react to unacceptable advances of fellow students. We expect students to stand up for themselves. Only when a preexisting advantage among the sexes interferes with this can we justify calling an act sexual harassment rather than simply recognizing it as reprehensible behavior.

Such cases of male advantage certainly exist. Date rape, the most predominant form of sexual harassment on campus, involves a claim to a type of dominance which requires redress. While such an advantage is not derivative of any corporate hierarchy, it is nevertheless apparent and therefore requires special laws to protect women.

At many schools, however, the definition of sexual harassment has been extended beyond cases where the law is required to remedy a fundamental advantage between the sexes. For example, at the University of Michigan, sexual harassment charges were filed against a student who slipped the following joke under a female student's door: "Q. How many men does it take to mop a floor? A. None, it's a woman's job." While such behavior is inappropriate and unconscionable, it is not based on any clear advantage which renders women unable to respond. To call this a case of sexual harassment is to say that women need special protection under the law from even such things as the childish pranks of immature men.

Extending sexual harassment laws to all conflicts that make reference to sexuality promotes the conception that women are inherently inferior within the realm of sex. Giving women incentives to appeal directly to the law whenever sex is even marginally involved institutionalizes a view of women as inherent victims.

It is on these grounds that we must recognize the danger of applying sexual harassment laws to the recent cases of young boys kissing female classmates. Neither of these cases involve an overpowering physical aggressor or any other kind of dominative advantage on the part of the boy. Indeed, it is doubtful that six-year-old boys kiss girls in their classes any more than six-year-old girls kiss boys. The difference is that the parents of boys who have been kissed see no reason to bring suit for the "harassment" of their sons. These cases should be judged solely on the grounds of propriety; that is, whether this kind of act should be sanctioned.

Even if boys were found to be typically more affectionate at such an age, it would still not be in our best interests to call the kisses of first-graders acts of sexual harassment. We could decry the boys' actions without appealing to sexual harassment laws. When we do make such an appeal, we teach young girls that they are, even in the most egalitarian of situations, victims by default. To call such behavior inappropriate is one thing; to impose preconceived notions about gender roles upon innocent six-year-olds is another. Ironically, the law that was designed to promote equality in the workplace is now being used to teach inequality in the schools.

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