American Offices Once Playgrounds for Bad Behavior

The key factor that defines a sexual behavior as sexual harassment is that it is unwanted by the victim.

But, what if an employee welcomes the jokes and gestures, the flirting and innuendo, the bodily contact?

Oops, that wasn't politically correct. Rewind from 2007 back to 1977.

At 25, Debby was the lone female on an all-male sales force for one of the nation's top computer companies. Most of her female colleagues were relegated to order processing and secretarial work.

"I worked in a man's world," said Debby, now a 55-year-old Silicon Valley sales person. "My father taught me about the old boys' network, and I carried a little brown book of jokes, most of them with filthy punch lines.

"After work, we'd meet at the Rusty Scupper bar, and we'd all keep the jokes going and going," said Debby, who did not want to use her last name for fear that her current bosses and colleagues would find her remarks sexually offensive.

When she changed companies and sold cell phones, Debby hung out with the technicians, offering free back massages, so her orders were first in line. The guys loved her, and she welcomed all of their advances.

But, by 2001, after sexual harassment policies began to take a firm grip on American industry, Debby found the casual approach that made her so successful for three decades, was now frowned upon.

'I'm a Married Man

"I went up to one guy who was a bit nerdy and homely, but I had known him for years, and began to massage his shoulders," she said. "A couple of weeks later, he came up to me and told me, 'I was really uncomfortable with you rubbing my back. I'm a married man!'"

In California, where Debby lives, and around the rest of the country, sexual harassment — and much of the sexual innuendo and colorful banter that goes with it — is mostly a thing of the past. And when it does happen, victims quickly seek redress.

Just this week, New York Knicks coach and president Isiah Thomas took the stand in his own defense against charges of sexual harassment made against him by his vice president of marketing, Anucha Browne Sanders.

In California, the most common type of sexual harassment complaint is filed when an employee is fired or denied a job or benefit, because he or she refused to grant sexual favors, or complained about harassment, according to that state's department of fair employment and housing.

Sometimes, an employee quits, because he or she can no longer tolerate sexual harassment or an offensive work environment.

In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that sexual harassment of an employee by a supervisor violates federal law. The case, though much more extreme than Debby's behavior, set in motion much of the policies in place today.

Sexual harassment that is ''sufficiently severe or pervasive'' to create ''a hostile or abusive work environment,'' is a violation, even if the unwelcome sexual demands are not linked to concrete employment benefits, the court ruled.

The landmark case arose from a suit by Mechelle Vinson, a former employee of the Meritor Savings Bank of Washington, against the bank and a branch manager. Vinson said that her supervisor had forced her to have sexual relations many times, and that he had raped her, and fondled her and other women who worked at the branch.

For many workers of a different generation, behavior like Debby's was not sexual harassment at the time. But today, touching a co-worker is taboo, if it is unwelcome.

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