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FIELDS: Morass of sexual harassment

It’s hard to stay on the right side of fuzzy behavior lines

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The accusations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain are so far small potatoes, and badly baked at that. On a scale of 1 to 10, they're hovering around 2. Looking back, the accusations of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas weren't so weighty, either. They were about a few suggestive remarks about a movie and a hair on a can of Coke.

Context is everything, of course. It's about the hierarchy in the workplace.

But when you remember that a sitting president with a reputation as an aspiring lady killer survived in office after he was impeached for lying about sex with a White House intern, we haven't yet defined sexual harassment. It probably depends on what the meaning of "is" is.

When the issue of harassment first splashed into the news two decades ago, the pundits and politicians (and everybody else who read a newspaper or watched television) played parlor games with the line "Is this harassment?" It resembled the old television show "What's My Line?" when a panel tried to discern a guest's occupation by asking questions. Sort of like charades: "Bigger than a breadbox?"

Defining harassment at the office is a guessing game, too. Is it harassment when an employer and employee flirt over cocktails at the office Christmas party? Or when they have too much to drink at a dinner at a convention far from home and slur their compliments? The New York Times reports that one of the Herman Cain episodes took place at a "work outing during which there was heavy drinking," which seems about par for an organization representing the hospitality industry. Dining and drinking are what restaurants and taverns are about.

The rules are loosely defined today when so much office socializing goes on over alcohol. Who's responsible if the lady starts the flirting with her boss? Now that the movies and television shows are saturated with cheap sexuality, what's OK in discussing them? What if being "one of the boys" seems to require laughing at suggestive jokes? Sexual signals aren't what they used to be.

Once women were liberated to be the equal to men and heir to all the perks and privileges in boardroom - and bedroom - the rules grew vague and murky. Justice Stewart Potter's famous definition of pornography, "I know it when I see it," became the working definition of sexual harassment. The mere accusation, whether proved or not, is worth a "settlement" rather than an expensive and messy trial, as one of the cases against Mr. Cain suggests. The lawyers call it "damage control." Any chief executive officer would tell you that "settling," even when he believes the accused party is innocent, is usually the easy way out. That's what his attorneys are telling him, too.

"Harassment" has taken a permanent place in the vocabulary of both work life and private life, filtering down to the conversations of schoolchildren. Substantial money is spent teaching the young about harassment and abusive relationships. Batteries of counselors enter even the early grades to conduct "exercises" in identifying harassment in abusive relationships, even among children in their early teens.

The Los Angeles Times reports an exercise where students had to decide what constitutes reasons for ending a bad relationship. In one script, a girl pinches a boy for looking at another girl. Is that a relationship breaker? Such an exercise may be verging on the ridiculous, but it's nevertheless typical. There's a push to put such programs like this in schools across the country.

It may seem a reach to go from the accusations against Mr. Cain to issues of harassment among teenagers, but we've so trivialized and sexualized the meaning of responsible behavior between teenagers and adults alike that nobody knows what's permissible and what's not. We don't know all the facts of the accusations against Mr. Cain, and the early story lacks vital specifics. If he's telling the truth - and it sounds like he is - given his "recollections," we've diverted public attention from more serious issues in an important presidential campaign. These were, after all, accusations that the parties involved thought they had laid to rest more than a decade ago. The early indications are that the accusations are taken more seriously in the newsrooms of Washington than in Iowa, where the citizen caucuses finally will replace the "pundit primary" on Jan. 3.

Gloria Cain, Herman's wife of 43 years, mother of their two grown children and grandmother of three, will sit down with her husband for a rare interview on Fox News on Friday night. Maybe we'll learn if she should have pinched her man.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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