KEVIN LEININGER: Even Allen County Republicans are thinking about sex, but they aren’t the only ones who are confused

Some forms of sexual misconduct are obvious, but some are more open to interpretation and personal preference. Where do we draw the line? (AP photo)
Tom Harris
Steve Shine
Kevin Leininger

John asks Mary to have a drink with him after work. Was that proper?

When Mary politely declines, John sends a note asking her to reconsider. Should he be rewarded for his romantic persistence — or reported for his unwanted advance?

Navigating the nuances of interpersonal relationships has never been easy, but the recent wave of serious and mostly credible sexual harassment claims against Hollywood icons, journalists and other prominent figures and the resulting “me too” movement has a lot of people reexamining the limits of acceptable behavior. That’s especially true in politics, where an alleged indiscretion by even a low-level staffer or volunteer can scuttle an entire campaign.

The Allen County Republican Party wants to help its candidates in the May primary and beyond avoid such complications, which is why it will stage its first — but probably not last — sexual harassment prevention seminar at party headquarters Saturday. But where Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously quipped he would know obscenity “when I see it,” the perception of what constitutes sexual harassment today is more fluid, defined by individual attitudes and ever-shifting cultural boundaries. It’s easy to condemn a Hollywood producer who demands sex in exchange for a role, but what about the poor schlub who’s just looking for a date, or the overly friendly sort who prefers a hug to a handshake?

County Councilman Tom Harris and attorney Sam Bolinger will explore just such scenarios Saturday, but not even Harris’ background as a human resources executive can anticipate or prevent every conceivable flashpoint.

“The bottom line is we want to raise awareness and to talk about things candidates can do to prevent sexual harassment and bad behavior in their campaigns. I don’t want to freak candidates out. They may think they’re the only ones (to worry about), but they may have high school and college kids working on their campaigns” Harris said. I know what I was thinking about in high school and college, and what a lot of females were thinking, too, and human nature hasn’t changed much since.

So Harris and GOP Chairman Steve Shine want to do more than raise awareness. They will urge candidates to establish standards for behavior and accountability, and to establish procedures for dealing with people who violate those standards. It’s more than good advice; it’s good politics.

“The Allen County GOP does not tolerate sexual harassment by anyone,” Shine said last month in a statement announcing the seminar. “The increasing number of sexual harassment claims nationwide has become a moral scourge, leaving its victims emotionally scarred.” Just this week, Shine told me it’s important not only to prevent bad behavior but to avoid even the appearance of harassment. “We won’t just sit back and see what happens,” he said.

Such pro-active caution is both necessary and wise, I suppose, but also implies something not very complimentary about the supposed enlightenment of our post-sexual revolution age.

There have always been people who rejected societal norms — it happened even in the Garden of Eden — but there was a time such seminars would have been considered unnecessarily redundant because most people were brought up to behave as “ladies and gentlemen,” and were able and willing to acknowledge the gradations between courtship, flirtation, seduction, harassment, coercion and outright criminality. If we now have to ask professionals to explain how, when or if it’s OK to ask a co-worker out, men and women alike have made things far too complicated for their own good.

Was it really only a few months ago that Vice President and former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as being widely mocked for admitting his reluctance to meet privately with female staffers or women other than his wife in order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety? This so-called “Billy Graham rule,” Andrew Exum wrote in the Atlantic, is “increasingly recognized as sexist in practice if not in theory.”

Earlier this month, however, The New York Post reported on a growing backlash against the “Me Too” movement, noting how female staffers and lobbyists in Florida have found “many male legislators will no longer meet with them privately” because “Anyone can say anything with the door shut.”

“I’m getting the feeling we’re going back 20 years as female professionals,” lobbyist Jennifer Green told the Post.

Such gender segregation is unfortunate but probably also inevitable when old rules of behavior are discarded but nobody can agree on what the new rules are, or if they even exist. The Republicans aren’t going to change that in a couple of hours, but the Golden Rule is still a pretty good place to start, no matter how old-fashioned it seems to some.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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