The Breakfast Table

The Fine Line Between Flirting and Harassment

Dear Neal,

Congratulations on completing your dissertation! Just as you were held back by an academic meeting yesterday, I’m running a little late because of the weekly deadline for my column in the Detroit News.

Sounds like you and I were both blessed with fathers who were actively involved in our upbringing. On occasion, people who take umbrage at my arguments for equal parenting (and they’re as likely to be feminists as conservatives!) tell me that since I have no kids, I don’t know anything about the bond between mothers and children. To which I always reply that I do have a father, so I know something about the bond between fathers and children.

I hope we can discuss of the Ehrenreich-Tiger exchange after you’ve read it. In the meantime, there’s the Supreme Court ruling on sexual harassment. The case was clearly an egregious one, involving not only a barrage of obscene remarks but physical assaults that the school apparently didn’t even try to stop despite repeated complaints; indeed, the boy was eventually convicted of sexual battery in juvenile court. And the ruling did emphasize that only severe misbehavior should be actionable (presumably to avoid repetitions of the infamous incident in which a 6-year-old was branded a harasser for kissing a female classmate on the cheek).

The problem is that liability-shy schools, just like workplaces, have a strong incentive to err on the side of caution and crack down on far more trivial and ambiguous behavior. In a high-school workshop on sexual harassment that I attended a few years ago, the only distinction made between “flirting” (OK) and “sexual harassment” (not OK) was that the former is welcome and makes you feel good, while the latter is unwelcome and makes you feel bad. But even adults, let alone adolescents, may have a hard time sorting out their feelings about sexual interactions. In her excellent recent book Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, University of Massachusetts professor Daphne Patai points out that “the experience of sexual interest and sexual play … is an ordinary part of human life,” and argues that except for truly egregious offenses, “the petty annoyance of occasional misplaced sexual attentions” should be tolerated–because “the type of vigilance necessary to inhibit it would create a social climate so unpleasant, and ultimately so repressive, that the cure would be much worse than the disease.” So far, the courts have not drawn an adequately clear line between the illegal and the annoying–in the workplace or in schools.

I also wonder why cases like the one before the Supreme Court should be treated as issues of civil rights rather than school discipline. Shouldn’t the schools have a legal obligation to protect students from any gross mistreatment, be it sexual harassment or nonsexual bullying (of which boys are more frequent victims)?

As for school vouchers, I’m inclined to support them, and I think the Op-Ed by Charles Whelan in the New York Times made excellent points about the flaws in the Democrats’ arguments against school choice. The argument that if vouchers are allowed, all the good students will flee the public schools has always struck me as rather damning toward the very public schools these arguments are meant to defend.

Where do you stand?