Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sexual Harrassment: Do you say, "thanks, no thanks" or do you sue?

A friend likes to tease me that while working as a secretary in Hollywood, I looked at sexual harassment as a job perk. There was profanity, to be sure, and off-color jokes, but I was involved with comedy, where schmoozing and quipping are background noise. I was never called a “bitch” or “ho”, which would have, I’m sure, gotten my attention.

I’m not clear if I’d have made a distinction between whether it had been said by a black or white man, an issue raised in the $10 million sexual harassment suit filed by Anucha Browne Sanders, a Knicks’ vice president before being fired, against Isiah Thomas. Thomas admits he’d be more accepting of a black man calling a woman a “bitch” while a white man doing that, “would have violated my code of conduct”.

I, too, would respond differently to the same remark, depending on the source. It might be a function of race, religion or gender, or reflect what I know about the person’s value system. Context, intent and tone enter into if I'd be amused or offended. What overrides everything else is if a joke's not funny, in which case it's irritating across the board.

Each profession has its own moral code and traditions, more ambiguous to outsiders than if you’ve had personal experience in the field. Several years ago a female assistant on a sit-com series filed suit against the show, claiming that the atmosphere in the writers’ room was hostile to women.

I’ve been in many, many writers’ rooms, both as the assistant and later as the sole woman writer among a large group of men. Comedy writers don’t expect to be taken seriously, and the understanding in the room is everyone needs to feel free to spit out whatever comes to mind without editing or censoring. There may have been something extraordinary that supported this law suit, but my suspicion is the assistant reacted to things that might not have troubled someone else.

What does this all mean? That it’s cheaper to laugh than to sue. That it's hard to judge what's been said or done if you've not witnessed it. I was lucky in being quick enough on my feet to spritz back at a spritzer. A writer once hit on me by saying, "I'm horny, why don't you come over?"

My response was, "I'm hungry. Why don't you eat something?"

Not every ho has the capacity to come up with a quick retort, but every bitch can make an effort to speak up and try to create a comfortable work environment before things get out of hand.

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