Topic: Society

The Ethics of Sexual Harassment
(2/26/2006)

Human assessments of what is right and what is wrong change. The changes are sparked by evolution within our culture, and the changes contribute to further evolution, and more adjustments in the ways we measure certain kinds of conduct against ethical values. Denying a culture's ability to alter its understanding of what is right and wrong is ultimately futile; it is also profoundly arrogant. Life is complicated. Human beings have not figured it out yet, and the odds on us figuring it out before the sun cools are not encouraging. Still, we make progress, impeded though it is by those who insist that we received all the answers centuries ago, and can learn nothing from the lessons of history and daily experience.

One area that has seen ethical evolution is the treatment of women in the workplace. It isn't surprising that the standards of appropriate treatment have changed from the time, not so long ago, when a job was regarded as a temporary necessity for a young woman before she was married and settled down to a lifetime of domesticity, or an unfortunate lifetime burden for other women whose economic status made employment mandatory. Those standards, we have learned, were myopic, demeaning, unfair, and undemocratic.

Part of the process of changing our understanding of what is right and wrong in the treatment of women in the workplace involves changing the laws, as it often must. The philosophy underlying sexual harassment laws are pretty obvious to most people: a woman has the right to earn a living, advance in her profession and pursue a career without being treated as a sexual commodity by superiors and co-workers. Some people, many of them with attitudes rooted in that earlier time when such treatment was commonplace and considered benign, don't understand that society has learned that the old attitudes were harmful. They think they are just the victims of "political correctness."

An effective remedy is available to such individuals, who are not "bad" but merely unwilling to abandon an outdated and invalid definition of what is "good." The remedy is the Golden Rule, objectively and frankly applied. The fact that the Golden Rule hasn't ended all controversy over sexual harassment is proof of how deceptively difficult the principle of reciprocity can be to apply. Some men cannot imagine themselves in a woman's position. Some men don't believe that the Golden Rule is applicable; they see it as an absurd exercise, like imagining how they would want to be treated if they were a duck. And some men don't apply the Golden Rule because they know they won't like the answer they'll get if they do.

This brings us to the recent controversy involving William Donald Schaeffer, Maryland's colorful and cantankerous octogenarian comptroller whose thick resume includes being Governor of the state and Mayor of Baltimore. At a public meeting with over 100 people in attendance, Schaefer pointedly ogled a 24-year-old female assistant who had just brought him some tea, then beckoned her back and asked her to "walk again." This is textbook sexual harassment:

  • She was made to feel uncomfortable because of inappropriate, unwelcome treatment based on her gender. The standard evasive response to this, "It was a compliment," is no excuse. With the exception of a runway model or an exhibitionist, how many people would not feel uncomfortable being asked to walk in front of a crowd of strangers so someone could enjoy their comely gait? Wouldn't you? Wouldn't Schaefer?
  • The treatment immediately placed the assistant in a position of humiliating submission to a superior due to his abuse of power. Nobody would have tolerated Schaefer asking the young woman to do a strip tease, a belly dance or a lap dance. But his "request" (a request by a superior in front of a crowd is called "a command," as Schaefer well knows) was the first step in that wrongful direction.
  • Schaefer placed the woman in a role that was detrimental to her status in the workplace. Designating a female employee as a source of sexual titillation reduces her status and ability to be taken seriously for her abilities and job performance.

Obvious, blatant, and unacceptable. Not necessarily catastrophic: few court decisions would support a judgement for sexual harassment based on one incident (sexual harassment has to be "repeated" and "pervasive"). But such conduct as Schaefer's requires an acknowledgement, an apology, and a change of behavior. His immediate reaction, however, was classic denial. "That's so goddamn dumb I can't believe it," he replied to questions about the issue. "I look at one of the girls as she walked out. Big deal. . . . I look at the girls every time they walk out. The day I don't look at pretty girls, I die."

But nobody's saying that he can't look at "pretty girls," or that it's wrong for him to do so. Similarly, he is free to indulge in whatever fantasies he likes, as long as he keeps them in his head and they don't affect his conduct or the welfare of others. The lesson of sexual harassment is not that it is wrong for men to like and appreciate the physical attributes of women or for women to do the same regarding men. It is that when these impulses are acted upon in the workplace to such a degree that it threatens an employee's comfort level, self-esteem, status, dignity, and prospects of advancement, it is wrongful conduct that must be recognized, acknowledged, and stopped.

If people like Schaefer would only apply the Golden Rule and act accordingly, we wouldn't need sexual harassment laws. But his attitudes are stuck in an earlier time, before society learned that regarding and treating women as if their sole purpose on earth is to give pleasure to men violates basic ethical principles like respect, fairness, kindness and caring.

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