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Sexual Harassment? It Ranges From Blatant to Highly Subtle

July 28, 1988|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

What constitutes sexual harassment?

At its most obvious, it is the act of touching without consent areas of another person's body that are usually considered erogenous, according to Ted Herzberg, district administrator at the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which investigates such complaints.

But it can also include touching people elsewhere--even in such gestures as a "friendly" back rub--especially if the action is repeated and unwanted, Herzberg said.

Then there are verbal advances, such as propositions of a sexual nature or even repeated requests for dates. Telling offensive jokes to an unwilling party may also constitute verbal harassment, Herzberg said.

Today, most unions have clauses that prohibit sexual harassment, and more and more companies have policy guidelines regarding it. Employers who are aware of sexual harassment but do nothing to stop it also violate the law, Herzberg said, as do those who retaliate against an employee who has filed a sexual harassment complaint.

In the wake of Fillmore's case, in which the city manager has been accused by three female employees--including the city clerk--of sexual harassment, the Fillmore City Council last week approved a policy that barred employee harassment of a physical, sexual or verbal nature.

'Matter of Recognition'

"It's a matter of recognition. The more publicity there has been, the more progress has been made in stopping it," said Marie Cain, a senior consultant at the state Department of Fair Employment.

Still, such cases are difficult to prove. Of 116 cases settled by the agency in 1987, 86 were dismissed because of insufficient evidence.

Cain said the first sexual harassment case was probably in 1960. But only in the last decade have women grown aware of what constitutes it and how to combat it, Cain said.

Last year, 1,422 cases of sexual harassment were reported statewide to the Department of Fair Employment, with 68 of those from Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties collectively.

But Cain said many more cases go unreported.

When sexual harassment occurs, Cain said women often wonder: What have I done wrong? It must be my fault; I must have done something to cause this person to do this to me.

"When they get angry enough," Cain said, "they try to resolve it internally, or they come to us."

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