Fun_People Archive
13 Apr
Fun_People Updates 4/12/98 (part 2)

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 13 Apr 98 01:13:36 -0700
To: Fun_People
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Subject: Fun_People Updates 4/12/98 (part 2)

X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649
[Oops!  This should have been part of the 4/12 article.  Sorry... -psl]

Forwarded-by: Dan Tenenbaum <>
Re: No Means No and Yes Means Yes --Steinem on Jones
Excerpted-from: The Nation - Selected Editorial

 [ Selected Editorial]

 Sex and the Times

 For the first time in this reader's memory, I picked up my New York Times
 to find an editorial decrying an Op-Ed piece the newspaper had run two days
 earlier. What opinion could be so noxious and threatening that the Times
 found it necessary to excoriate it within forty-eight hours? A paean to a
 convicted criminal? A venomous rant against the homeless? A broadside
 filled with cunning lies and personal malice? No, this editorial emergency
 was warranted by an article by Gloria Steinem in which the nation's most
 admired feminist had the temerity to say that sexual harassment and
 consensual sex were not the same thing. She also drew distinctions between
 what is legally sexual harassment and what is just "gross" behavior but
 not actionable: Quid pro quo sexual demands or sexual harassment that
 amounts to a pervasively hostile work climate are legal grounds; sexual
 misunderstandings or one-time doltish behavior are not.  Steinem was simply
 summarizing the established body of law on sexual harassment--and making
 the reasonable observation that there are shades of gray in sexual
 encounters, and we should all be grown up enough to recognize them.

 Yet, to read the Times response, you'd think she'd suggested that the
 nation's workplaces declare open season on office virgins. Steinem "misses
 the danger involved," the Times intoned with grave alarm. If Clinton gets
 away with sexual improprieties, the paper warned, then restrictions on
 "sexual talk" in the office may collapse and bosses will "feel free to
 behave abominably" toward their maiden underlings.

 While I was still trying to figure out what Steinem had said that had hit
 the panic button at the Times, columnist Abe Rosenthal weighed in with a
 bizarre leap of illogic in which he linked the death of his sister Bess
 from pneumonia to Steinem's comments on what constitutes sexual harassment.
 Evidently, his sister had been on her long slog back from a secretarial
 job in Manhattan to the Rosenthal home in the Bronx some six decades ago
 when a flasher jumped out of the bushes and unveiled the family jewels.
 She ran home, got pneumonia and died. "I understood that by standing there
 exposing himself, that man had killed her as surely as if he had stabbed
 her," Rosenthal wrote, "and that God would certainly find him guilty when
 He captured him at last." It would seem more likely that she contracted
 pneumonia from the sort of exhaustion and lowered immunities that come from
 working a cruddy, low-paid secretarial job that required long travel hours
 on germ-filled subways. I could well understand that: Years earlier, in my
 first low-paid job out of college, I had to haul my boss's briefcase to
 his New York City apartment at night by foot and subway so that he would
 not be encumbered when he headed out for the theater in a taxi. I had to
 dodge a mugger on occasion, but I never did charge my boss with attempted
 murder as a result. The boss, by the way, was Abe Rosenthal.

 Now, editorializers have long accused feminists of being rigid sex police
 guarding a P.C. orthodoxy and filling the workplace with unwarranted
 tension between the sexes. But let a feminist come out on their pages with
 a nuanced and nonpolemical statement and watch how they react--in shrieking
 Comstockian register. It turns out that these editorial writers were the
 true sex hysterics all along, preferring to see sexual encounters in
 Victorian terms. In their landscape of sexual predation, there is no middle
 ground: All men in heat are a "danger" to all women, who are evidently
 never in heat. This was the view of one typical reporter who called me,
 supposedly to get my opinion on the Clinton-Lewinsky front, while demanding
 to know how there could be any difference between this alleged consensual
 dalliance and, in his words, the "night manager" at a greasy-spoon diner
 coercing sexual favors from his waitress.  Already the President had been
 reduced to a they-only-come-out-at-night molester in a pulp drama, and
 Lewinsky to a shocked maiden in a starched candy-stripe skirt. In this way,
 the editorial writers substitute a defense of pubescent purity for what
 women really could use--a true defense of their status in the workplace.
 Feminists aren't asking for working women to be treated like Little Orphan
 Annies in need of guardianship; we are asking to be treated like working

 Seeing all women as mortally vulnerable to any sexual approach is the flip
 side of the coin from seeing all women as something to harass and molest
 sexually--both rely on a presumption of female frailty. What women want is
 sufficient power so that they are not patronized by protectors or preyed
 upon by predators. One hallmark of having true power is not having to be
 reflexive in your responses. Because along with the other powers comes the
 power to forgive men--to see one's grievance in proportion and not in the
 garish caricatures of Gothic romance.

 Many male opinion-makers are willing to go along with feminists as long as
 they stick to the old playbook, framing all sexual encounters as
 ravishments. But here they have run into a big problem, and not just with
 feminists. As evidenced by the polls on the Clinton "sex scandals," they're
 also in trouble with the majority of women in this country. Perhaps this
 is why they are in such high dudgeon over a perfectly sensible piece by
 Gloria Steinem. They cannot face that, as much as they have painted
 feminists as such, we are not prune-faced Puritans disgusted by the very
 thought of male sex organs. (It was long ago when suffragists needed to
 play that game to be heard.) As a recent biography relates, Steinem
 delighted in her discovery of sexual pleasure. Naomi Wolf's last book,
 Promiscuities, argues for female sexual assertiveness. And plenty of
 feminists, myself included, have taken a look at porn without moralizing.

 In Re-Making Love, feminist authors Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and
 Gloria Jacobs studied the consequences of the sexual revolution--and
 concluded that American women, not men, have been the real and lasting sex
 rebels of the modern era. Women no longer see themselves as the preservers
 of female chastity; they no longer think of themselves as bad girls for
 having sexual desires; they no longer think they should be punished with
 unwanted pregnancy, disease or death for expressing their sexuality; they
 see sexual encounters as occurring across a spectrum and understand that
 there's a large territory between freely given sexual love and rape.
 Feminists like Steinem are struggling honestly to explore that territory,
 acknowledging that sexual encounters are often muddy and fumbled affairs
 and that, in the case of sexual harassment, the response should be nuanced
 and in scale to the offense.

 Every working woman learns this early on. I did, at no less a school than
 The New York Times, where I chose not to report the gropings of one
 high-level editor. (Not that it would have mattered; he'd already been
 reported by another copy girl--to no apparent punitive effect.) Yet, even
 while they are oblivious to the conditions of women working in their own
 office, the same editors become downright Victorian on the abstract issue
 of women's virtue. Rosenthal and the Times editorialists, and their
 confreres elsewhere, seem to prefer the dishonest, blinkered approach, in
 which sex for women in that vast territory beyond the borders of love 'n'
 marriage is all "danger" and violated vestal virginity. As a result, they
 shut down the very discussion we so desperately need; they replace candor
 and analysis with cliched morality plays that don't begin to describe real
 human sexual experience.

 Steinem suggested that "perhaps we have a responsibility to make it O.K.
 for politicians to tell the truth--providing they are respectful of 'no
 means no.'" This proposal elicited another operatic round of outrage from
 Rosenthal, who gasped that "we are talking about acts that could terrorize
 some women, and lead them to horrified flight, even to their death." I
 think we can safely conclude that Paula Jones will not expire from whatever
 a brief brush with Clinton might have entailed all those years ago; so far,
 she seems in the pink of health. Maybe Rosenthal's real fear, and that of
 his like-minded pundits, is that women aren't always quivering in the
 corner over sex; that women, slowly but surely, are crafting a whole
 alternative approach to sexual morality that recognizes subtleties and
 grapples openly with the differences between a sexual blunder between two
 adults who know each other, a boss who should know better but who makes a
 boorish slip and a climate of harassment intended to drive women from the
 workplace. Women apply a sense of proportion to these issues. If only some
 men would learn to be a little less hysterical.

 Susan Faludi

 Susan Faludi is the author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American
 Women (Anchor).

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