The Roots of Sexual Harassment

SEXUAL harassment has become a prominent issue in American politics and American life, and it will not soon go away. Yet too often it remains a subject men "don't get."

At its most obvious, sexual harassment is physical, as in the Tailhook incident when victimized women ran the gauntlet of pawing Navy fliers in a hotel corridor. This kind of sexual harassment all women and most men find abhorrent. Even so, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, who has led the fight against sexual harassment in the armed services and elsewhere, recently received an obscene message from a Marine Corps fax machine.

Sexual harassment may be less blatant in verbal form, but the insensitivity of dirty talking - the crude joke and leering come-on - only suggests the appalling depth of misunderstanding. Those who kid about sexual harassment really "don't get it."

And then there is a third, more subtle level of violation. The Anita Hill case made activists out of women on the sidelines, not only because of her allegations of sexual harassment, but also because of the public bullying she received from the more inquisitorial senators on the all-male committee. This behavior - oblivious and obtuse in a way few men would experience - had witnesses by the millions. If 1992 turns out to be the "year of the woman" in politics, the prosecutorial badgering of Anita Hill wi ll have played a significant part.

But to treat sexual harassment only on the headlinemaking levels is to miss a fundamental point. Harassment exists at these three visible levels only because it exists at a fourth, invisible level, in secret places of the heart.

The behavior comes out of an attitude - a failure on the part of men to recognize the complete humanity of women, thus failing to recognize their own complete humanity as well. What many men "don't get" are the inner, spiritual dimensions of manhood as well as womanhood, something a lot of women "don't get" either.

Laws and social pressure can reduce the various practices of sexual harassment, but the final healing will take place only as the full identity of both men and women is appreciated beyond the shapes and characteristics of their bodies.

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