THE steam from the showers that swirled into the locker room of the New England Patriots nearly four weeks ago has not lifted yet. It still obscures the details of what happened between Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson and the football players who allegedly harassed her. Worse, the real issues at stake remain befogged, even as an investigation of the incident by the National Football League continues. The fact that this drama is being played out in a sports setting, where life divides too neatly into winners and losers, good guys and bad guys, has produced a false simplicity. It has also lent a macho boys-will-be-boys air to the situation, obscuring the degree to which sexual harassment is a daily fact of life even in more refined, less sweaty settings.
Last month, the first major study of sexual harassment in the military revealed that nearly two out of three women in the armed services have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment. Similarly, 60 percent of women lawyers responding to a 1989 survey said they had experienced sexual harassment on the job. For women in business, the figure is at 30 to 40 percent.
But from the boardroom to the barracks, the problem remains shrouded in silence by women who are too embarrassed - or too afraid - to report humiliating encounters. Even Ms. Olson initially tried to keep her locker-room intimidation - ``mind rape,'' she calls it - private, hoping instead to confront the players directly.
Nor do women need to go to work to be harassed or abused. Domestic violence affects an estimated 4 to 5 million women a year. Every 15 seconds, an American woman is abused by her partner. And ``Date rape'' has become one of the top social issues in college communities. A study conducted at 32 colleges in the United States found that a quarter of all college women had been victims of date rape or attempted date rape.
The grim statistics march on. Yet too often they get muddied - or dismissed - when perpetrators and their defenders try to argue that women are at fault. Even Patriots owner Victor Kiam, in his initial response to the locker-room incident, allegedly criticized Olson rather than the football players.
This blame-the-victim attitude surfaced again when Patriots' fans booed Olson early last week. The next day, 1,500 miles to the south, jurors in a Florida courtroom sent a similar ``you asked for it'' message to a rape victim. They acquitted an escaped convict who broke into the woman's home in the middle of the night and raped her at knifepoint. After the man threatened to kill her, the woman submitted to sex with him. In her terror, she even suggested one act. The intruder claimed she was living out a fantasy, and his attorney called the sex encounter ``something she did to him.''
Guilty until proven innocent. This is the distinctly un-American bias that all too often skewers cases of sexual harassment.
There is an emerging recognition that a problem exists. In response, hot lines operate for victims of rape and domestic violence. Shelters offer refuge to battered women. And October has been designated Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
But awareness is precisely what does not exist, except in a dim and general way. The resolutions thought appropriate to the Olson-Patriots episode illustrate how the point is being missed.
Whatever the outcome of the NFL investigation, simply locking women reporters out of the locker room, as the Cincinnati Bengals coach did to a female reporter from USA Today, will not solve the problem. Nor will boycotting Kiam-owned Remington Products, as women's groups have suggested. Nor will levying fines against Zeke Mowatt, the Patriots' player who allegedly was the first to make lewd comments to Olson.
A drama appears to be playing itself out in which the innocent are being punished, or the guilty are being punished for the wrong reasons. A little of the fog in the locker room lifts when it become apparent what the Lisa Olson case is not about.
It is not about sports. It is not about the rights of journalists. It is not about issues of privacy.
It is about behavior. In an age famous for rudeness, it is a test of civility - an opportunity to demand that the distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable behavior remain clear.