This was written the day after Paula Jones’ sexual-harassment suit against Bill Clinton was thrown out of court by Judge Susan Webber Wright and shortly after Gloria Steinem, Ellen Goodman Molly Ivins, and several other women known for their traditional support of feminist causes and attacks on male piggishness had written columns explaining why Paula Jones was not a victim of sexual harassment. I believe Judge Wright (and the others) was correct on the law; that, to me, is more disheartening than if she had been wrong.
The essay was submitted to the San Jose Mercury News, which declined to publish it.
One note in my own defense: I’d uttered (and written down) the phrase “One free grope” before I heard it anywhere else; that doesn’t make me particularly clever, but it means I’m not a plagiarist.
3 April 1998
Imagine yourself a working-class twenty-something woman, a low-pay, low-respect, low-opportunity receptionist at an obscure government office in a backwater state. You are ambivalent about your job. It doesn’t nurture your mind or your soul, nor does it seem like a career. It is not glamorous, not impressive, not consequential — except that it pays your rent and grocery bill and it’s far better than the checkout-counter jobs most of your friends have managed to find.
One day you are assigned to hand out name tags to attendees at a conference at a big hotel. Many important people are there, people whose names you’ve seen in the newspaper and on TV, people who pull the strings of power in the state capitol. Even the Governor is there and it seems a thrill, an honor, to be part of something so obviously important and powerful.
Near the end of the day a state trooper, 6-foot 6 and 250 pounds, crisp and proper in his uniform, all hard muscle and harder demeanor, approaches you, addresses you, tells you the Governor would like to speak with you so would you please follow him.
You are stunned. The Governor! What could the Governor want with you? You were trying extra hard to do well, treating the guests with respect and warmth, answering their questions, directing them to the right meeting rooms at the right times, very efficient and cheerful. Maybe he noticed and wants to reward such fine work. Or maybe there is some special project that needs doing — nothing complex or difficult, of course, but he is traveling, without his normal staff to help him. Maybe he needs someone quick and competent to prepare a document or a speech or to organize a reception. As the trooper leads you on you note idly that he seems to be taking you to one of the guest rooms in the hotel but, of course, the Governor is traveling so he has no office to use; it’s only natural that he has to conduct business in his hotel room.
And when you get to the room you meet the Governor, himself, and he’s just as charming and sincere as you remember from his television commercials during the election, and he asks you how you’re enjoying the conference, and seems to listen when you answer, and then he tells the trooper to leave so he can talk to you in privacy so it must be very important indeed, and then you’re alone with him.
And he drops his pants.
Perhaps you should have seen this coming. Perhaps you did see it coming but didn’t want to believe it. Perhaps you both saw and believed but felt trapped, or even held out some hope this was still about something else, about your dedication and skill. It doesn’t matter because right here, right now, you have to decide: This man is important. This man has power. He could fire me. Or, if not fire me, tell my boss to fire me, or to not promote me, or to make my life miserable until I quit, and if I complained who would back me up, or even believe me? Or, instead, he could pull me out of this dead-end receptionist job and make fortune smile on me. He could do any of those — and he could decide which of those to do based on my answer to his unspoken but unambiguous proposition.
He hasn’t said so. He hasn’t threatened or promised. He’s said nothing about my job. But he has the power, and he brought me here — he sent the state police to bring me here — and he could, and I don’t know whether he will or not, and I can’t afford to lose this job, and how far am I willing to go to protect it, and what do I do?
What do you do?
If you are Paula Jones, you decide you’re not willing to go that far; you say “No!” and leave, and that’s the end of it. As it turns out, he doesn’t hold it against you. It was all bluff and life goes on.
But what if she’d said “yes”?
That question has haunted me since President Clinton’s defenders began their campaign to convince us that this was all a minor incident, blown out of proportion, not sexual harassment even if it did happen, and anyway no harm was done. “Look”, they say, “there was no quid pro quo, he took “no” for an answer and her career went on. No threat, no follow-through, no harassment.”
But how could she have known that at the time? And what if, not knowing, her fear had given him the opportunity to take “yes” for an answer instead?
During the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas debacle, a great communal cry swept the country, led by powerful women — well-known feminists and elected officials and journalists and scholars — then picked up and repeated like a mantra by women on the front lines, women with no power but hard experience and moral certitude, a cry directed at the men who questioned how such a minor thing could be so important: “You just don’t get it! This is not about sex, it’s about power! It isn’t only about what is said, or even implied, but about what may be reasonably inferred! It’s not about whether you say “No”, it’s about whether you are even in a position to say “No”.
And the country, even men, listened. We paid attention. We tried to change. We tried, honestly and sympathetically, to “get it”.
And as one who “got it”, I can declare of a moral certainty that if the behavior Paula Jones described was not legally sexual harassment then it damned-well ought to be!
But now Judge Wright, with the blessing of Gloria Steinem and Ellen Goodman and a host of other female friends-of-Bill, has declared a new bedrock principle of sexual harassment law:
Provided you aren’t explicit either about threatening retaliation or promising reward, and provided you accept “No” as an answer with no further action, you are legally entitled to One Free Grope.
Now I really don’t get it.
© Copyright 1998, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell