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Sexual Harassment as Pulp Fiction

ROBIN ABCARIAN

November 20, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Question: When did men become extremely concerned about sexual harassment ?

Answer: About the time women gave the phenomenon a name and it became an actionable offense.

If you immerse yourself in the latest paperback and movie discussions of sexual harassment, you risk being knocked flat by a tidal wave of men's anger, a force that has been gathering for some time now.

Having just seen David Mamet's movie adaptation of his play, "Oleanna," and read Michael Crichton's novel "Disclosure," both of which turn on the abuse of power expressed in sexual terms, I am feeling slightly disoriented, experiencing what is known in the shrink trade as cognitive dissonance.

"Oleanna" takes place on a college campus, where a male professor is visited by a female student in distress over a failing grade. The dialogue is ambiguous, open to interpretation and misinterpretation, and what seems to be an intense, elliptical, semi-Socratic exchange results in a formal complaint lodged by the student against the professor, maybe signaling a criminal case, certainly the end of his career.

"Disclosure" is highfalutin trash, a great airplane read, coming to a theater near you next month. In this Seattle-based tale, an oddly innocent, apolitical computer company executive is bumped for promotion by a gorgeous, scheming former flame, who proceeds to wreck his life. Or tries to, anyway.

The computer executive could teach a thing or two about self-preservation to Mamet's befuddled professor.

In any case, what one is left with after both stories close is the sense that men are imperfect, confused, but essentially noble. Women are confused, too, but the confusions masks more dangerous qualities--anger, ambition, psychosis and a dangerous propensity for dishonesty as represented by plastic surgery.

*

I think I know something about sexual harassment--having encountered it, having reported on it, having been sentient for most of the past two decades. But had I known nothing (and believe me, some have accused me of just that), this is what I might have gleaned of the topic from "Oleanna" and "Disclosure":

* Women sexually harass men, and men cannot help but become sexually aroused by abusive women because they have no control over their physical responses to stimulation.

* Even when men are in the power positions, women turn tables and ruin men's lives with false accusations, which scandal-fearing institutions are only too willing to believe.

* Women torture men psychologically, leaving men no choice--none whatsoever--but to fight back in any way they can--with lawsuits, with fists, with whatever works.

There is no doubt that women are capable of sexually harassing men and, sure, other women. No doubt about it, women have been known to strike blows in domestic disputes and to engage in emotional abuse with the best of them.

But.

If, as reported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, fewer than 10% of harassment complaints are filed by men (and no one knows how many of those are complaints against other men), doesn't that mean that more than 90% of them are filed by women?

Doesn't the ratio suggest that the archetypal harassment situation--the paradigm, as the smug professor of "Oleanna" would put it --is a woman victimized by a man with more power than she?

That, students, was a rhetorical question.

*

What does it mean when the fictional offerings on a subject so huge it almost derailed a Supreme Court nomination present this lopsided view of sexual harassment?

Nothing much, I wager, except that two talented writers, who happen to be men, have tackled the issue in a way that resonates for them.

Most people have encountered the theory that everyone you dream is you, that the characters dredged up from your subconscious are extensions of yourself. Your scary monsters, in other words, say a whole lot about more about you than about them. They are your truth. You own them.

And the truth revealed by these stories is not that scary-monster women harass men.

The \o7 truth \f7 is that men feel threatened by this new public accountability (harassment laws) for actions that once remained strictly in the private realm (professor-student sex or boss-subordinate sex), and they are batting it around (the male as victim), attempting to forge a new understanding of this \o7 slight \f7 equalizing of power between men and women.

Their concerns are totally understandable.

And powerfully expressed. As fiction.

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