Sexual Harassment

Salon magazine: Laura Miller on two new books that explore the ambiguous terrain of sexual harassment.

By Laura Miller
May 14, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)
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few contemporary controversies resemble the legendary Gordian Knot so much as the issue of sexual harassment, but beware anyone who claims the ability to cut through it with the sharp swords of law or theory. Alexander the Great died 2,300 years ago -- and besides, sorting this one out is no job for a soldier.

The American military's own inability to cope with the intricate shiftings of modern sexual politics proves that. One day the drill sergeants in Aberdeen, Md., are carrying on as if their trainees are some kind of commissioned personal harem, the next Staff Sgt. Delmar Simpson is being sentenced to 25 years of military prison for "raping" several women who admit to having "consented" to sex with him. For everyone who considers that penalty extreme, there's someone else who believes that boot camp is an artificial environment where ordinary notions of autonomy and responsibility don't apply, and therefore the Army is entitled to its own peculiar definition of rape.


Of course, in this case, there's also the matter of race (Simpson is black and some, but not all, of his accusers are white), the Army's recent history of embarrassing sexual harassment scandals, the quarrel over whether women belong in combat units to begin with, the possibility that the women involved might have used their relationships with Simpson to advance their standing in his unit, and so on. Every sexual harassment case seems to resemble a Talmudic text, a puzzle of multiple facets and infinite complexity, something that could be studied for years and still yield new angles, insights and interpretations. Freud observed that every time a couple goes to bed, six people actually participate -- phantoms of the lover's parents play a role in the tryst, as well. Sexual harassment cases multiply this crowd: By the time a charge goes public, the entire citizenry has piled into the room, ready to duke it out in earnest.

Confronted with such a mess, sensible people are likely to tear their hair, toss up their hands and despair of ever finding a way to apply the law fairly. But in case you haven't noticed, sensible people are rarely consulted in these matters. They're so much less entertaining than the ranters and grousers, the feminist ideologues with their hothouse analyses and the coot pundits with their soft spot for the Bad Ol' Days. Universities, in particular, have seen some pitched battles over sexual harassment, and as a result, it's in academia that reasoning feminists are colliding with their more fanatical sisters. Those tortuous collisions are sparking some fascinating new books.

"i've become a spectacle," writes Jane Gallop, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and the author of "Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment," a slim volume describing her response to finding herself in that odd situation. Gallop, a veteran of the Women's Studies movement of the 1970s, was found innocent of harassing the two female students who accused her, but still censured for engaging with one of them in a "consensual amorous relation." (Her university, like an increasing number of others, prohibits any such relationship between teachers and students.) That relation consisted of flirtation and sexual bantering, culminating in one passionate, exhibitionistic kiss before a group of colleagues in a lesbian bar.


Gallop argues that the teacher-student relationship, especially at its most fertile and exciting, is by nature one with erotic qualities. Like the dynamic between a therapist and her patient, it stirs up intense, often infantile emotions (what psychologists call "transference"). She believes that the campus feminists and affirmative action administrators who reprimanded her seek to divorce the intellect from the libido, a prospect she finds dehumanizing and dull.

This argument initially makes Gallop a sympathetic figure; she's the lone proponent of passionate, risky, vital teaching squared off against a passel of life-denying PC puritans. And the charges leveled against her were ludicrous and overwrought, smelling suspiciously of sour grapes and hurt pride. But Gallop's personality, as revealed in "Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment," is disturbingly reminiscent of the professor's in David Mamet's play "Oleanna," about a female student who accuses her male professor of sexual harassment. In the play, it's clear that the professor never did hit on the student, but it's also clear that he handled the girl's emotions with a thoughtless brutality that shattered her already fragile ego. She had a legitimate gripe, but one she could never prosecute; her sexual harassment charge is metaphorically appropriate.

Although Gallop also never technically seduced her students, she evinces much of Mamet's professor's complacency, with her sense of her own importance, her smug assumption of her flawlessness. She's the kind of swashbuckling, provocative academic theory "star" post-structuralist graduate students swoon over almost as breathlessly as teenage girls sigh for pop idols. She's not so much angered that anyone could be charged with sexual harassment on such flimsy pretexts as she is outraged that she should be. She mostly seems irritated at being interrupted in the act of contemplating her own "bold," "clever," "sassy," "smart," "sexy" baaad feminist self. Although her memories of being "turned on" -- intellectually, socially and sexually -- by her adventures in the early women's movement are tonic reminders of headier times, she never ponders why so many young academic women today are gravitating toward a grim, fearful, "protectionist" version of feminism instead. She never asks herself why the field of women's studies -- the institution she helped build -- attracts such personalities and fosters such behavior, and what her own responsibility might therefore be. Not a whiff of self-questioning ever enters the hermetically sealed righteousness of "Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment."


Quite the opposite is true of Helen Garner's "The First Stone," an account of a sexual harassment scandal that roiled the exclusive Ormond College at the University of Melbourne. The Australian novelist and journalist's book is subtitled "Some Questions About Sex and Power," and mostly that's what it is: a squirming mass of meditations that eat their own tails -- reactions, second thoughts, third thoughts, probing interviews, bitter arguments, soul searching and confession. In that, it feels both closer to the daunting realities of the sexual harassment controversy and -- in its fearless commitment to expressing the truth and fostering a just relationship between the sexes -- more feminist than anything I've read in a long time. Garner strikes me as trustworthy precisely because she doesn't pretend to have figured it all out, to have a one-size-fits-all theory for what sexual harassment is and what should be done about it.

Briefly, the Ormond College scandal ignited when two female students accused a male administrator at the school of harassing them (touching their breasts and, in one case, talking suggestively) during a somewhat drunken campus party. For months after the party, various officials bumbled around with the charges while the man himself, Colin Shepard, remained uninformed. Long after the event, he was brought into the local police station and charged with "indecent assault."


When Garner read about Shepard's arrest, she felt a "jolt" at the rage and severity of the response to what sounded like a "clumsy pass" by a "poor blunderer," the kind of thing feminists of her generation (now "pushing 50") shrugged off. Shepard's career was ruined, and his family (who Garner found decent and unembittered) traumatized by the trial and its aftermath. To Garner, who had spent her youth campaigning for abortion rights and against sexual discrimination, the case felt like a "destructive, priggish and pitiless" travesty of feminism's original, expansive quest for social justice.

Garner's investigation of the case introduced her to the tut-tutting old boys' network that once reigned supreme in Ormond's pre-coed era, and to a new breed of feminists, "cold-faced, punitive girls" bent on, in their own words, "retribution," like the vengeful God of the Old Testament. She had long, surprising talks with her friends, filled with revelations of past rapes and sexually predatory teachers and bosses. She worried about being out-of-date politically, of inviting the "scorn" of her daughter's generation for her soft position on the vagaries of sexual power. She juxtaposes Shepard's offense with the horrific reports of sexual violence that studded the daily papers at the time. But one thing she never did was talk to Colin Shepard's accusers. The two women, and nearly all of their supporters, utterly stonewalled Garner after branding her as unsympathetic.

Much of "The First Stone" relates Garner's multifarious, exasperating efforts to get these women to tell their side of the story. She writes letters that plead and others that fulminate about the need for "open discourse," all to no avail. Even so, the case grows whole new annexes of possible meaning as she goes. Did the college fail to back Shepard up because he was considered a somewhat gauche outsider, and a relatively painless sacrifice to a troublesome and vocal campus minority? Could the conflict have been resolved without the police if the college had had a mandated procedure for such cases? Who circulated the inflammatory anonymous leaflets suggesting that Shepard was a potential rapist and urging women students not to "panic"?


Garner raises many intriguing questions, but perhaps the most pressing is this: What causes "the mysterious passivity that can incapacitate a woman at a moment of unexpected, unwanted sexual pressure"? At the party in question, after being allegedly fondled by Shepard, one complainant quietly retreated to a group of friends. "The spontaneous collective response was to make it look as if nothing untoward had happened ... Everything they did was directed at protecting him from knowing that he had offended her." Was the wrath finally unleashed on Shepard the pent-up result of dozens of other incidents with many other men, none of whom were confronted with the disagreeableness of their advances? Does vanishing into a group -- whether friends on a dance floor or a cadre of anti-sexual harassment activists -- ever help a young woman achieve the kind of self-possession that makes deflecting unwanted passes less than a federal case?

When "The First Stone" was originally published in Australia, it raised what Garner calls (in the afterword to the American edition) a "primal" furor, and, predictably, Garner was falsely accused of making all sorts of ridiculous statements. The book, she observes, "declines -- or is unable to present itself as -- one big clonking armour-clad monolithic certainty." This inflames readers who "located their sense of worth in holding to an already worked-out political position ... permanently primed for battle, they read like tanks." Fortunately, the book found many more readers who were "relieved that ambiguity might be re-admitted to the analysis of thought and action."

Perhaps it's no coincidence that, as these passages indicate, Garner writes with so much more fluidity, color and eloquence than Gallop, whose stilted prose suggests a jargon-jockey awkwardly playing to the bleachers. One writer trusts the average, intelligent reader with the raw, confusing truth; the other simply seeks to consolidate her position as prophet of the One True Feminism. One demonstrates the strength of her convictions by her willingness to re-examine her politics; the other is miffed at being challenged at all. To help us find our way to just, humane policies on sexual harassment, we need thinkers able to describe the terrain as it really is.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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