Seen solely through a political lens, the timing of HBO’s upcoming movie about Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings—and particularly Anita Hill’s accusations that he sexually harassed her—seems suspicious. Presumably this film will paint 1991 as a much-needed turning point: Feminist groups and liberals stood up against a backward, Mad-Men-esque 80s culture, raised awareness about how women are mistreated in American workplaces, and ushered in an era of progress for women. If the Thomas hearings helped set the stage for Bill Clinton’s election the following year, the people behind this film may hope nostalgia for the 1990s will bolster Mrs. Clinton’s presidential prospects now.
Yet some viewers—many too young to recall the Thomas hearings and Anita Hill—may react differently and wonder how much better off our society really is today.
Certainly, Americans are more aware now of the concept of sexual harassment. New laws and workplace protocols have undoubtedly helped curtail the most egregious behavior, such as offering a sexual quid-pro-quo or penalizing an employee who rebuffs an invitation. Employees also know that intra-office relationships and comments of a sexual nature could be grounds for legal action. Mostly, that’s a good thing—workplaces ought to be free of sexually graphic content, and ideally sexual relationships should be kept out of the office.
Of course, this heightened awareness of sexual harassment rules doesn’t mean that the workplace is free of innuendo. In 2014, more than one-third of workers surveyed admitted to having dated a coworker. Crude conversations abound, but one is likely also to hear references to potential lawsuits as part of the banter. In fact, our culture has devolved so much in the last twenty-five years that some viewers may scratch their heads at the alleged behavior that got Thomas in trouble. Jokes about a pubic hair? That seems rather PG-rated in our modern era, when the so-called TV “family hour” features shows about the porn industry, bigamy, and all-manner of reality TV laced with references to kinky sex.
Those who lived through the Thomas hearings will recall competing tales about Anita Hill’s veracity. Two women were said to support her characterization of Thomas and a hostile office environment. Others who worked for Thomas (including Ricky Silberman, a founder of the organization I work for, the Independent Women’s Forum) vehemently disputed the allegations; in addition to attesting to their own positive experiences of working for Thomas, they noted that Anita Hill chose to follow Thomas after a job change—not exactly the behavior of someone suffering in an unbearably sexist workplace.
Yet the confirmation battle demonstrated that the accuracy of such charges hardly matters: The allegation itself was incredibly damaging to Thomas. America learned that the charge of harassment is a powerful weapon—what Thomas characterized as a “high-tech lynching”—for anyone who wanted to use it.
People who exploit their power, harass, or coerce an employee into an unwanted sexual relationship should always face serious ramifications. Yet defining what constitutes harassment is difficult and the standards often arbitrary. The joke is that whether something is sexual harassment depends on how good looking the guy doing the “harassing” is. And certainly there is truth to that. Whether a coworker is out of bounds in asking a woman out or making crude jokes depends entirely on how someone perceives him.
The standards used for judging public officials was also quickly revealed to be elastic. The feminists who had suggested that sexual jokes and relationships have no place in a work environment weren’t so keen to apply those standards a few years later to President Bill Clinton. His relationship with Monica Lewinsky—the ultimate exploitative power arrangement, with an intern servicing her boss, the world’s most powerful man—could easily have been cast as creating a hostile work environment for her and for other staffers. But, not surprisingly, women’s groups and their allies in the mainstream media never made that case.
While sensitivity about respecting women workers has helped more rise to positions of power, women also face costs from the understandable paranoia among high-powered men. Today, female staffers complain about bosses with a “no-closed-door” policy: Powerful men want to protect themselves against charges of misconduct by never being alone with a female staffer. That can be limiting for women who want to be trusted advisors and move up in an organization.
The grey guidelines created for our workplaces were also a prelude to what’s now happened on college campuses. Male students today can find themselves before a campus tribunal, struggling to prove themselves innocent of misconduct after a relationship has gone bad. The legal deck seems frequently stacked against the “he” in any “he-said-she-said” situation, and there is no recourse for the reputational damage experienced by the falsely accused. Liberal campuses and professors are also ironically struggling to navigate the command to shield students from anything that could be construed as creating a hostile environment, while covering increasingly sexualized course content. Somehow Shakespeare and Mark Twain are too upsetting for many students, but soft porn is worthy of deep analysis and a place in modern curricula.
In the almost 25 years since the Thomas hearings, we have become more coarse and sexualized while at the same time more fragile and litigious about comments or actions that offend. These two trends inevitably collide, benefiting no one but lawyers and those who believe themselves empowered by being labelled victims. We will have to see how HBO handles the many issues that emerged during the Thomas hearings and its impact. Certainly much has changed for the better, but any honest analysis will also acknowledge that much has also changed for the worse.