OK. I admit it: I’m a guy. Not only that, but apparently a guy who likes to flirt with professional suicide, as evidenced by my willingness to traipse through the minefield of commenting about sexual harassment by us cavemen in the workplace.
A lot of women are speaking out and writing about the subject following the release of excerpts from the book “Off the Sidelines” by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — that’s United States senator. So why put forth a male perspective, particularly when it is such a dangerously touchy (pardon the pun) topic? Maybe I’m a masochist. Or maybe it’s because we men and women need to get past the millennia worth of hang-ups so we can work together without all the awkwardness and worse.
Let’s stir the pot right away by stating that a huge number of men think that Sen. Gillibrand is very pretty. And, in my opinion, she’s not the only female member of the Senate who is. But the question is “SO WHAT?” A lot of females think Congressman Paul Ryan is hot, but chances are, he doesn’t usually endure the same kind of verbal or sometimes physical mauling.
Why is it that it’s so tough for a woman to go about her work without having to dodge sexual harassment, both the milder, ignorant stuff and the overt, malignant come-ons? She should be able to, even in a Senate that is a social anachronism from the get-go, populated mostly by male members who are fuddy-duddies, even the younger ones.
So they think little of their outrageous conduct. According to Gillibrand’s book, one of them had no compunction about expressing his concern about her getting “porky,” and another grabbed her waist after she had shed some pounds after a pregnancy, while saying: “Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby.”
Remember that the United States Senate, above all else, values its decorum. Unfortunately, through most of its history, treating women like objects has passed for decorum with the dirty old men who prowl its baronial hallways. Some of the members’ gross misbehavior is the stuff of legend. In Sen. Gillibrand’s case, she’s decided not to identify her boorish colleagues, because they are colleagues and she has to work with them.
Of course, women have to work in the ordinary workplace with men who just don’t get it. We males don’t have to be senators to act like oafs. Let’s be honest: Confusion still is a big factor. A lot us of have trouble deciphering the line between camaraderie and cloddishness, between the innocent remark and the insensitive. I’m forced to conclude that I need to make sure I don’t cross that line. As I think about it, maybe a good new rule of thumb should be that if I have to wonder whether something I say or do is acceptable, then it isn’t. Chances are, even the women with whom I work, who laugh at my clever double entendres, probably are humoring me much of the time, painful as that is to admit to myself.
Surely I can come up with other one-liners if I feel a compulsion to be funny. As for the guys who go further and make unwelcome advances, they need to pay a price. Unwelcome touching needs to be punished. That’s an argument for Gillibrand to identify the ones she described.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Any female in the workplace has to endure scrutiny of her appearance and clothing. Just ask Hillary Clinton. But now we guys see that one of us has gone through the same thing.
When President Barack Obama held his news conference about dangerous problems around the world, the first thing people focused on was his tan suit. Maybe that’s progress.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.