Issue 219 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US: green light for gropers

Sharon Smith

When Paula Jones's sexual harassment charges against President Bill Clinton were thrown out of court last month, most people breathed a collective sigh of relief. The public had quickly reached saturation point with the media's endless obsession with the graphic details of Clinton's sexual encounters. And right wing Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who somehow managed to find a criminal link between his original investigation of an Arkansas real estate scandal and Clinton's most private sexual encounters as he aired them before the public, rightfully alienated the mass of the population.

But the dismissal of the Paula Jones sexual harassment case handed sexist bosses a major legal victory. This precedent setting decision has given them the green light to grope, grab and fondle their female employees without fear of repercussions as long as they do not threaten to demote or fire them. They can even drop their pants and ask women workers for oral sex during work hours as long as they eventually take no for an answer.

Judge Susan Webber Wright's decision had nothing to do with whether or not Jones was telling the truth that Clinton harassed her in 1991, when she was a clerical worker for the state of Arkansas. Wright ruled that, even if Jones were telling the truth, she had no legal grounds that even though then Governor Clinton's lewd advances to Paula Jones were 'boorish and offensive', they were just 'brief and isolated' episodes which are acceptable between an employer and an employee.

These 'brief and isolated' episodes, according to Jones, included Clinton calling Jones into his hotel room during a working conference and, after pointedly describing Jones's boss as his 'close friend', groping her and exposing himself to her as she sat horrified; then fondling his penis and asking her to 'kiss it'; then telling her after she rebuffed him, 'You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves.' Clinton also sent a state police officer, Jones said, to proposition her on his behalf on more than one occasion.

The impact of the Paula Jones dismissal was immediate. 'The president has been vindicated,' rejoiced fellow groper Senator Edward Kennedy. Management lawyer Bettina Plevan expressed hope that the Jones case would discourage employees from filing similar lawsuits.

The Detroit News praised Wright for giving 'the back of her hand to the "hostile work environment" test for sexual harassment. Congress should revise the law to permit plaintiffs to go to court only when they can demonstrate findings of tangible harm not just when some lout has a history of politically incorrect behavior that grown-ups should be expected to handle on their own.'

Unfortunately, feminist supporters of the Democratic Party such as Gloria Steinem have refused to even consider support for Jones since she first raised the sexual harassment accusation against Clinton in 1994. Their principles have only weakened with the passage of time. As a result, women workers' right to respectful treatment on the job a quite reasonable request has been completely lost in the debate. Women workers should have the right to a workplace free of unwanted sexual advances and insulting sexist attitudes.

Women should also have the right to control their own bodies including who touches them and where they are touched. 'Yes means yes, no means no' was a slogan of the 1960s women's movement which gave rise to mass awareness of rape and sexual harassment as aspects of women's oppression.

But some of the same feminists who coined this slogan have turned their backs on its intent. Steinem recently argued in the New York Times that 'President Clinton may be a candidate for sex addiction therapy', but he deserves the continued uncritical support of feminists because Clinton is 'vital' to 'preserving reproductive freedom' and because he eventually 'accepted rejection' from Jones.

With a dash of irony, Anita Hill whose own fame stems from sexual harassment charges she raised against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 said in the New York Times that Clinton was not guilty of sexual harassment, even if Jones's charges were true, because 'there is little evidence that Ms Jones suffered employment-related repercussions as a result of the incident.'

Even author Susan Faludi, whose book Backlash decried sexism in the workplace, has changed her tune. She applauded the judge's decision in the liberal magazine The Nation because 'along with the other powers [feminists seek] comes the power to forgive men to see one's grievance in proportion and not in the garish caricatures of Gothic romance.'

Meanwhile Jones has built a wall of support among right wing Clinton haters. The Rutherford Institute, with a score to settle against Clinton, was more than happy to spend millions to underwrite Jones's lawsuit for reasons which have nothing to do with fighting sexual harassment. Anti-abortion zealot Randall Terry an outspoken opponent of women's rights joined Jones's entourage. And Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Jones's spokeswoman, spent ten years as a media rep for the anti-abortion Right to Life League of Southern California.

This political table turning has clouded the issues in the Paula Jones case. If Newt Gingrich had been the one to drop his pants and ask a clerical worker for sex, the sides would be much clearer.

But none of this changes the impact of the judge's decision. The dismissal of Paula Jones's case only showed the futility of working class women trying to use the courts to get justice. Few working class women would find the millionaire backers to pay their legal bills. Fewer still would want to appear on the national news or be the subject of daily ridicule by comics and talk show hosts, as Jones has.

Most importantly, the kind of sexual harassment faced most commonly by women workers is not the stuff embraced by supermarket tabloids or money hungry lawyers, but a sexist work environment in which they may be subjected to anything from degrading jokes and comments to unwanted sexual advances.

The best way to fight against sexual harassment is not in the courts, but in the workplace. The Paula Jones ruling may have been a legal setback, but it has also angered millions of working class women who have experienced the humiliation of sexual harassment themselves.

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