October 28, 2009

The times they are a’changin’

More news on the David Letterman and playing bouncy bouncy with the staff story. Nell Scovell, who worked as a writer for the show in the 90s, talks about the atmosphere that led her to quit in Vanity Fair.

Scovell’s point is not that she was sexually harassed directly, far from it. Letterman paid her a little attention (as men are wont to do with young women) but certainly nothing objectionable. Similarly, no other manager forced themselves upon her nor made lewd suggestions. However, she does say that she felt she had to quit because of the atmosphere of sexual harassment. The problem, as she saw it, was that managers were indeed conducting affairs with the younger female staff. Nothing particularly objectionable about that: wives might object but that’s a personal matter, not one for public policy. Similarly, as long as the affairs are between consulting adults not really anyone else’s business as long as no one tells the pastor.

No, her point is that those young women who were having affairs were privileged in the workplace. They got more leeway, more power, over those who were not doing the horizontal rhumba with the bosses. And that in itself is, in the modern formulation, sexual harassment.

Now I’m not all that in love with many elements of the modern world myself and I’m sure most here agree. But some rules about what is and is not allowable really rather do need to be worked out. It’s entirely clear and obvious that men and women working together is going to lead to at least some of them deciding to play Doctors and Nurses whether on a temporary or permanent basis, exclusively or in a rather more secret manner. It woiuld seem absurd to insist that no one can ever date a co-worker. But that is indeed the implication of this description of what constitutes sexual harassment.

In one way, the complaint is that if someone does attempt to sleep with me at work then that is harassment: and if they don’t attempt to do so this is also harassment.

Perhaps the way out is simply to ask that everyone behaves as an adult?

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