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Scholar sees laws on harassment as feminists' weapon

THE WASHINGTON TIMES, October 1999, By Julia Duin

Feminism has latched onto sexual-harassment laws as a successful way of bringing men to heel, says a University of Massachusetts professor and sometime feminist in a new book.

In "Heterophobia," Daphne Patai says that sexual-harassment law, once a useful tool to identify outrageous behavior, is now an albatross.

"Sexual harassment seems often to be little more than a label for excoriating men," she writes. "It has become the synecdoche for general male awfulness."

University students are schooled in "the patriarchy" and "compulsory heterosexualism," she says, and schools, such as her own, hire "sexual-harassment consultants" to help them avoid lawsuits. One of her footnotes details how one firm charged her school rates of $1,250 to $1,800 per trainer per day, plus $10,000 for hotel, travel and meals, to offer courses in sexual-harassment prevention and risk management.

Empowered by court rulings and legions of academicians, harassment law has become a tool for implementing the most bizarre feminist world views, she adds, such as the suggestion that heterosexuality is not natural.

"I believe that heterosexuality is natural," she said during a recent lecture in Washington, D.C. to the Independent Women's Forum. "Now that seems like a fairly obvious thing to say, doesn't it? I mean, are you wondering why I'm bothering to say it? Isn't that what everyone knows? Well, no. It's not what you know in women's studies and within feminism."

Ms. Patai spent 10 years in women's studies, bringing to the fore feminist scholars such as law professor Catharine McKinnon, who equates all sexual intercourse with rape. "That was quite a shock to newly married women in my feminist-theory class," Ms. Patai said.

She was often invited to speak at women's studies programs until 1994, when she co-authored "Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women's Studies."

This internal critique of the feminist movement effectively blacklisted her. This past July 2, she won the dubious honor of being featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece about "academic pariah" professors shunned because of their unorthodox views.

"In women's studies, there's very little respect or tolerance for divergence," she says. "There are people who tell me to go to hell or shut up because I am the enemy."

And so Ms. Patai, who is married, dedicates her book "To the men in my life . . . all of them as much sinned against as sinning, who made it impossible for me to abide grotesque caricatures of manhood, even when asserted by feminists."

She adds: "I've met a lot of nice men. There's no way one can agree with the general tenor of the comments made about men in feminist literature -- comments no one could make about blacks or Jews."

Were she to pinpoint the origin of the sexual-harassment "industry," it would be during the Senate confirmation hearings and the vote on Clarence Thomas to be an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the period of Oct. 1-15, 1991.

Those hearings, which gripped the nation for several days, were the trigger of a movement that she says seeks to drive a wedge between women and men.

That, in turn, has led to heterophobia, which has worked itself out in a hatred of marriage. She remembers one telling incident at a university she visited.

"One day, a member of the group announced she was going to be married," she writes. "There was an absolute dead silence in the room. Obviously as feminists, both lesbian and straight, we were far too sophisticated to shriek and gush happiness, and no one knew what response to make as an alternative.

"So stunned silence for far too long greeted her declaration. She did, incidentally, redeem herself by getting divorced a couple of years later. I have no doubt that if her news had been that she'd fallen in love with a woman and was about to move in with her, the reaction would have been quite different."

This "passionate rejection of men" is the one thing that unites feminists, a group normally splintered by lesser identities: white vs. black, straight vs. lesbian, Western vs. Third World.

Ms. Patai lists Ms. McKinnon, writer Andrea Dworkin and Boston College professor Mary Daly as the most notorious heterophobes because, she writes, "they manifest a pathological aversion to men."

For 25 years, Miss Daly refused to take in male students, a situation the college allowed to transpire until a male student threatened to sue them over it. In response, the college ousted the 70-year-old professor. Thus, "a political movement that holds half the human race in contempt . . . cannot seriously aspire to succeed in the long run," Ms. Patai writes.

What has succeeded are several court decisions that have codified sexual harassment. These include Meritor Savings Bank vs. Vinson, a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case that established how a working environment may be hostile to women. A 1991 case, Elison vs. Brady, established a "reasonable woman" standard in sexual-harassment cases.

What became at issue was not the man's intent to offend or discriminate, but whatever a "reasonable woman" feels is discriminatory toward her.

"In sexual-harassment law, therefore, the 'authority of experience' has been given a place of honor," Ms. Patai writes. "Such a move should have caused feminists everywhere to rejoice, for a fundamental tool of feminist analysis --the concept of subjective experience -- was thereby elevated to law."

Two Supreme Court cases handed down last year have added to the mix. In Faragher vs. City of Boca Raton, Fla., employers were made liable for sexual misconduct of their employees, even if the employer knew nothing about it.

Then in Burlington Industries vs. Ellerth, the court declared that employers were not liable for on-the-job harassment if the employee had not pursued the right complaint policies.

What these rulings create, Ms. Patai says, is a paranoid atmosphere in the workplace. Employers find themselves prohibiting the most innocent words and deeds and employees, who might have ignored the occasional word or gesture, now feel bound to complain immediately at the slightest hint of harassment.

And the typical university campus is worse, she says, because it offers latter-day versions of the Grand Inquisition, where heretics were tortured for their disagreement with the prevailing mentality.

The result, she says, is not increased freedom for women; it's more the advent of Big Sister ruling over a 20th-century totalitarianism of thought.

"These institutions are trying to change the fabric of our social life," she says. "All this stuff is not treated as fringe ideas, but serious suggestions. I am amazed Americans are voluntarily throwing away precious freedoms in the name of comfort."