In August, California amended its sexual harassment laws to add this sentence to the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act:
“Sexually harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire.”
The legislature was responding to a decision by a California appeals court in a same-sex harassment case. The plaintiff employee in that case, Patrick Kelley, alleged that his male supervisor called him a bitch and a punk, made crude comments about having sex with him, and laughed when another employee did the same. This behavior followed Kelley to other worksites after he asked to be transferred, as the story spread among his coworkers. The Court tossed Kelley’s claim because he couldn’t prove that his supervisor acted out of genuine sexual desire or interest. In other words, the case turned on whether Kelley’s supervisor actually, in his heart, wanted to have sex with Kelley (in ways he graphically described), or just said so in front of others in order to demean him.
If all sexual harassment cases turned on the question of sexual interest, you can imagine the problems of proof. How do you show that a harasser “really” felt desire toward his victim? Would the harasser’s sexual orientation be an issue in the case? Setting that aside, sexual interest shouldn’t matter. It’s just as illegal for a supervisor to make demeaning, sexist comments as to make unwanted sexual propositions (whether or not the harasser “genuinely” wanted to follow through on them). The reason why sexual harassment is illegal is that it limits job opportunities. When all is said and done, sexual harassment is about power, not desire.
In the context of opposite-sex harassment, there are certainly some ugly cases involving sexual come-ons, groping, and even assault. But some of the ugliest situations arise when women enter traditionally male fields. In these cases, there are no expressions of “desire” or “sexual interest.” Instead, women are threatened (with rape, assault, and more), endangered, and frightened. Their tools and vehicles are sabotaged; they are called horrible names; they are stranded without support. Although some courts had trouble seeing the harassment when it was so decidedly unsexy, most have now come around.
At least in opposite-sex cases. That the California case issued its decision in a same-sex case isn’t surprising. Courts have not known what to do with homophobic behavior on male-dominated worksites. Is it okay if none of the employees are actually gay? Or if the supervisor threatens to have sex with all the guys, not just those who are ridiculed in gendered ways? If there are no women present, is this behavior really “sex-based”? But the answer seems pretty simple. In this case, Kelley’s work environment was poisoned by a supervisor’s crude sexual comments and behavior. Those comments were sex-based, in that they were about Kelley’s masculinity and sexual orientation. The case shouldn’t have turned on whether the supervisor was sincere when he said he want to have sex with him.