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COLUMN LEFT/ RUTH ROSEN : 'Boys Will Be Boys' No Longer Cuts It : Bob Packwood shouldn't be crucified for what many men have done, but neither should his behavior be trivialized.

April 29, 1993|RUTH ROSEN | Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at UC Davis, writes regularly on political culture.

For the first time in its history, the U.S. Senate will probably try one of its members for "sexual misconduct." To be found guilty, Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican accused of sexual harassment and assault by more than 20 women, must be found in violation of a law or of "engaging in improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate." Will Packwood become a national scapegoat for all men's sins or, in the grand old tradition of men's clubs, will the Senate exonerate him with the unquestioned defense that, after all, boys will be boys?

For two years, a flurry of sex scandals and controversies have titillated a public baffled by changing ideas about "appropriate" private and public sexual behavior. Once considered a private matter, sexual conduct has suddenly spilled into the arena of public policy. The Clarence Thomas hearings, the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson date rape trials, the Navy's Tailhook sex scandal, the "Spur Posse's" sexual athleticism in Lakewood, Calif., the gang rape of a retarded girl in Glen Ridge, N.J., new regulations at the University of Virginia that forbid faculty sexual involvement with all undergraduates and the furious debate over homosexuals in the military--have all turned into national debates over proper sexual behavior.

For two decades the sexual wars have simmered, occasionally erupting into public life. As a critical mass of women entered the labor force, feminists coined the term sexual harassment to describe unwanted sexual attention in the workplace. In the wake of the sexual revolution, they named coercive sex between acquaintances date rape. Meanwhile, gays and lesbians struggled to persuade society that sexual orientation was an individual right, not a cause for discrimination.

The "good" old days when men could abuse or harass women with impunity are fast disappearing. But a new national consensus has not yet been reached. When does sexual interest cross the line and turn into harassment? When does no really mean no? Can and should a society legislate affairs of the heart? Men are confused; they no longer know how to behave with women. Women are baffled as well. Even feminists sharply debate whether new policies should protect women or safeguard their newfound sexual freedom.

Enter the case of Bob Packwood. Nearly two dozen women have come forward to charge that the senator, over a 20-year span, engaged in various kinds of sexually assaultive behavior. Seemingly out of control, he surprised reporters or staffers by suddenly fondling or kissing them. At present the Senate Ethics Committee is investigating their charges.

Initially Packwood denied the charges. (As a result, some Oregon citizens have charged that he defrauded the voters by lying about his alleged sexual misconduct). Now he no longer evades the charges or denies them. But neither does he take full responsibility for his behavior. At times he blames drinking for blurring his judgment. (Twenty years can hardly be considered a momentary lapse of judgment.) At times he apologizes for not realizing he offended women. But his behavior involved more than a breach in etiquette. As law professor Stephen Gillers recently observed, "Grabbing someone by surprise, pressing her against you, pushing your tongue into her mouth and putting your hands on her buttocks is not ambiguous conduct subject to different interpretation depending on a person's age and gender. Penal codes have names for these acts: They're called sexual assault in Washington D.C. and sexual abuse in Oregon."

We don't need Bob Packwood to be crucified for what countless other senators--and American men--have done with impunity. But neither should the Senate trivialize or exonerate his behavior. Depending on the severity of the women's testimony, his colleagues can either censure or expel him from the Senate. Let the punishment fit the crime.

At the very least, the Senate must publicly and unequivocally denounce his behavior "as improper conduct" that does indeed "reflect upon the Senate." They must also put every member of the Congress on notice that sexual abuse and assault are no longer socially acceptable behavior and that sexual misconduct will result in expulsion from public office.

Packwood, for his part, should stop waffling, take full responsibility for his behavior, and seize his 15 minutes of fame to expiate his past sins. To those young men in awe of the Spur Posse, he should explain that sexual abuse of girls and women is not only wrong, but illegal. In short, he should teach a new generation of young teen-agers that real men don't behave like boys.

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