Sexual Separatism

I FIND IT DIFFICULT TO THINK ABOUT THE ISSUE OF SEXUAL harassment without recalling my mother's account of her first job in America. At 18 she had come to this country alone, from Poland. With no knowledge of English, but a good figure, she had become a model in the New York City garment district. But she soon wearied of having to fend off the advances of the male buyers. She gave up modeling to become a milliner's apprentice.

There was no note of insult or injury in my mother's report of this experience. She even seemed to have been mildly flattered by the overtures that had been made to her. But she had found them a nuisance to handle.

The distinction between sexual nuisance and harassment is a crucial one, but it has all but disappeared in a feminist culture which appears to be bent upon raising always-new and higher barriers between men and women. While there are many forms of male behavior which legitimately call for censure and even for the intervention of law -- they include not only any imposition of physical force but the kind of indignity which our female naval officers at Tailhook were made to suffer -- the legitimate effort to guard women against gender-initiated mistreatment now reaches the point where the most casual expression of male interest in women, whistling at a woman on the street or remarking on her dress, is taken to be an infringement of her ""personhood.'' She has been made into a mere ""object.''

Yet one wonders what enterprise there is in our society to which women are more universally and urgently dedicated than to being the objects of male notice and desire. A first imperative of our society is that women make themselves attractive to men. Our cosmetic and clothing industries are driven by it; our newly thriving fitness industry depends upon it. Indeed, sex has come to displace sport as our national obsession. Slyly or overtly, it rid-dles our fiction, our television and movies, our advertising.

In the past, because of our country's background in Puritanism, Americans were often accused of sexual hypocrisy. Today, we are less guilty of sexual hypocrisy than of sexual paradox and disingenuousness. Even while our college campuses ring with the cry of date rape, our female students cheerily invite male students to all-night study sessions in their rooms. In a culture which demands that women have equal access with men to positions of authority and power in business and the professions, we encourage women to feel that they need the protection of society against a man who tells them a dirty joke.

We recall, for instance, Anita Hill's remarkable appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the hearings for Clarence Thomas and her account of Judge Thomas's pursuit of her with dirty stories. Charming in speech and manner, backed by parents of incontestable respectability, Miss Hill was the very image of maidenly modesty. Yet the forthrightness with which she repeated to the Committee and to an audience of untold millions of television listeners Judge Thomas's dirty jokes in all their tasteless detail would have done credit to a truck driver.

A half century ago, the gifted humorist James Thurber created a cartoon series ""The War Between Men and Women'' in which he satirized the often-bizarre marital struggle between the sexes. We have only to compare Thurber's bloodless war with the death-dealing spirit which animates the sexual manual which was recently drafted by the students of Antioch College to recognize the dangerous distance we have traveled in the relation of men and women. According to the Antioch rules, verbal permission must be requested and received before one's sexual partner may proceed from one ""level'' (their word) to the next in sexual intimacy. Although the manual is at pains to address itself to men as well as women, it does a poor job of disguising its basic assumption that men are natural predators and that women are at one and the same time sacred vessels, shatterable at a touch, and the traffic managers of love.

This is scarcely a useful axiom to disseminate in our society, but for several years now it has been establishing itself in our sexual culture, and it accounts, of course, for the increase in charges now being brought by women against men, the most recent and unpleasant of them the charge of sexual harassment brought by Paula Jones against President Clinton. A woman who doesn't flinch at alleging that the president of the United States attempted to seduce her by letting down his pants demands legal and financial recompense for the damage which this is supposed to have done to her delicate sensibility!

We live in a world which runs with the blood of hostility between racial and religious groups, between ethnic and national groups. To these lamentable separations among people, we now add another division, a separatism of the sexes. Where it used to be that the act of love (as it was then called) was regarded as an aspect, and even a celebration, of our shared humanity, it now becomes a dehumanized exercise and a new arena for conflict.

Black separatism came into existence in this country in the late '60s as an effort of prideful self-assertion. In claiming its separate identity, the black minority undertook to assert its equality with the white majority. At the time, the program may perhaps have had its symbolic use, but with the passage of the years we see its sorry consequences. Far from contributing to racial harmony, it has produced only a spiraling racial antagonism. Is this what we are aiming for in the relation of men and women: a spiraling discord?

It is still possible for this trend to be reversed in our society if feminism will take warning from all the other separatisms which now divide our world. Surely nothing is gained for society, nothing is gained for either men or women, by fostering the idea that men are ruthless aggressors against women and that women need to keep themselves in cautionary command of any relation which they have with men. Ours is not a moment in history in which to widen the divisions among people.