From the April-May 1995 issue of TLD


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Girls just don't wanna have fun


Once again I've survived our semiannual sexual-harassment lessons at the office. This jolly treat has been our lot ever since the second harassment complaint was filed against our company two years ago. Before that complaint was adjudicated, or whatever the procedure is called when a commission hears only the statements of the plaintiff and makes up its mind accordingly, our employees had been required only to sign, annually, an impenetrable document, the gist of which seemed to be that our company was against all sorts of biased treatment towards its employees (a crock of organic mulch if ever I heard one, O Best Beloved, seeing as how there are departments where you can't get promoted to a managerial position unless you're of the African persuasion).

Anyhow, with our corporate entity being a repeat offender, despite the fact that neither of the gentlemen against whom complaints were filed has worked for the firm for three years, we were notified that five sessions, some for supervisors and others for nonsupervisory troops, were being organized over the course of two days, and that attendance was mandatory. Those who missed a scheduled session were responsible for arranging another. It was unclear what would happen to refuseniks, but a company that sends female employees home in the summer for refusing to wear pantyhose in 90-degree heat is unpredictable enough that it doesn't do to buck the system.

Accordingly, I lockstepped into the session with the rest of the herd and sat through a 15-minute lecture delivered by our corporate trainer, a man-hating, hand-wringing FemLib type whose first official act was to organize women-only karate classes for our staff and whose second was to circulate a memo suggesting that no female employee should walk through the parking lot after dark without a male escort. I presume that the female employees were supposed to use their newly acquired training to deck the male escort if he got out of line. It was a very sensitive lecture, oozing with compassion for women who were encountering vile treatment all over the workplaces of America, as well as for the poor ignorant slobs who were making sexist remarks handed down from their daddies without understanding How Things Have Changed.

Afterwards we suffered through a videotape consisting of 15 little playlets of guys making lewd remarks to women working for them, women flirting with guys in the stockroom, guys leaving mash notes to other guys in the interoffice mail, and so on. After each deathless vignette, the tape was stopped while we were asked a set of discussion questions and the lessons were pounded home to us with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. We watched all bloody 15 of them, and after about the third, one of the guys in the back row started reeling off the PC answer to each of the questions in a semicomatose tone of voice, just to keep the session moving. It was deadly. I was actually tempted to ask a serious question about one of the playlets, the one where three guys (one white, one black, one Hispanic) call a woman over to their table in the lunchroom and start telling blond jokes, at which point, instead of telling them to get a life, she gets terribly flustered and escapes. My question would have been, Since Kato Kaelin burst into the media on Court TV, can blond jokes still be classified as sexist? But no matter.

I do believe that sexual harassment exists. Most women do. I was subjected to some pretty heavy-handed tactics in my first couple of jobs, when I was still in my teens, and it wasn't comfortable. But I learned how to make very firm statements and how to avoid dangerous situations. And let's get serious. Three guys telling blond jokes in a crowded cafeteria may be annoying as hell (unless, of course, they're really good jokes), but dangerous, it's not.

On the other hand, learning by watching a videotape that the way to deal with harassment, real or imaginary, is to go running to your supervisor or your personnel officer is really fraught with peril. The eventual erosion of free speech, independence, and other civil virtues will very much outweigh any benefits of protection from harassment. While a complaint against a particular offender might eventually be necessary, under no normal circumstances should an entire company be held liable for the act of an individual long after that individual departs its employ. And in the vast majority of circumstances, a moderately intelligent person should be able to recognize situations that might turn out to be distasteful.


In 1988, I was staffing a convention headquartered at the Las Vegas Hilton. The event was to open on Saturday afternoon, and on Thursday night, I was checking in to the hotel, anticipating something like a 16-hour workday on Friday. The registration lobby was packed with naval officers in dress whites who were being checked in through an accelerated line at the far end of the desk. They were getting ready to blow the roof off the place, whooping, hollering, and carrying on in that particularly obnoxious fashion that is characteristic of the super macho. When I got to the head of the line, I asked the clerk, "What in God's name is that group?" and he replied that it was the Tailhook Convention: "Guys who fly planes off aircraft carriers, y'know."

I knew. It's hazardous work, because the runway needed to land a fighter plane is longer than the one on an aircraft carrier, and unless the ground crew and the pilots are very sharp, the planes have this unfortunate propensity to fall off the end of the carrier and sink like rocks. That very few of them do is a testimony to the training of all concerned, and that anybody would fly under those conditions is a testimony to the sanity quotient of the pilots.

I mean, there are ways that Nature has of saying, Don't touch. Forget being female with the possibility of being molested. Anybody who wanted to get any sleep would have known better than to get within five blocks of those bozos, who were getting ready to blow off their accumulated tensions and Party Down in no uncertain terms.

As the clerk processed my registration, I asked him how far away he could get me from the room bloc reserved for the flyboys. I had in mind the opposite end of Clark County, but we compromised on the opposite wing of the hotel and about 20 floors up.

The point of this anecdote is that, even jet-lagged — and jet lag, incidentally, is now a bona fide mental illness, the treatment for which is fully reimbursable under most medical insurance policies — I could tell instantly and positively that these guys were not going to be good to hang out with. I was not a female naval officer who presumably had heard stories about Tailhook Conventions Past. I was not an employee of the hotel who had rebuilt entire suites after past conventions. But there was no way I was going to be in the same part of the hotel with those crazies, and you couldn't have paid me enough to walk down a corridor full of them. I have to assume that any woman who did walk down a corridor filled with them was hoping, in some mercenary recess of her mind, that somebody would pay enough. To the eternal discredit of the American judicial system, several years later, the Las Vegas Hilton, on behalf of its stockholders and guests (who will be stuck with higher room rates), did.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, where a woman knows what to expect when she lets someone else shave her legs, and where a lady shaves her own.

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