Virginia Thomas recently left an out-of-the-blue voice mail message for Anita Hill. In it, she asked Hill to apologize for accusing her husband, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment nearly two decades ago. As The New York Times reported in its front-page story yesterday, Hill (a professor at Brandeis University) at first thought the caller might have been a prankster. No. It was Thomas. And she should not expect any mea culpas from Hill, who told the Times that the Supreme Court justice's wife "can't ask for an apology without suggesting that I did something wrong, and that is offensive."
Today, in a Washington Post story called "It's not Ginni Thomas who deserves an apology," journalist Ruth Marcus notes that Hill complained to friends at the time about Thomas's behavior. She also writes that another former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission employee said Thomas showed up uninvited at her apartment and asked her breast size — and that journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson found two other people who recalled a pubic hair-Coke can comment at the EEOC.
Here's how you can use this famous case to discuss sexual harassment with your kids:
Define it. Officially, the EEOC says that it's "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature…when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating hostile, or offense work environment." The National Center for Victims of Crime notes that sexual harassment can include physical contact ("grabbing, pinching, touching your breast or butt or other body parts, or kissing you against your will"), lewd comments such as name calling ("slut," "whore," "fag"), sexual gestures, sexual propositions, and unwanted communication (phone calls, letters, or emails) that makes you feel uncomfortable.
Know the law. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII, employers may not retaliate against someone who refuses to submit to it. As the American Bar Association notes, some states (such as Illinois, Michigan, North Dakota) also have laws that expressly prohibit sexual harassment.
Discuss how girls and guys can both be victims. Girls may say to boys, "nice pecs," or "you've got a tight ass," says clinical psychologist Christine Nicholson, an adolescent specialist.
Talk to teens about how to respond. "Kids should be taught to say, 'That's not cool to say that,'" says Nicholson. It's also a good idea to "try to get away from those people," she says. "If you fuel them with some kind of reaction, they may think they've got a target. Just walk away. If it happens again, you just don't want to overreact." The first time, a child should walk away, the second time, he or she should say, "cut it out," and the third time, he or she can complain, says Nicholson. "You have to say 'no' first—unless you're scared to say no. Then you go tell someone you're scared to say no. Usually what the school is supposed to do is call that person in and put him on a warning system. If they hear another report of this, they should be suspended." Encourage your child to be firm. "Other kids will go after the nice ones," says Nicholson. "I'm always trying to see if I can't have my patients be a little bit less nice!"
Raise the issue of same-sex harassment. This fall several gay teens, including Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, committed suicide after being bullied and harassed. In a WebMD Q&A on this topic, Dr. Monica Michell, former chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, notes the humiliation factor and says gay boys may be most likely to be harassed "because heterosexual boys feel more threatened by the fact that all people have bisexual fantasies and tendencies. Heterosexual boys can feel very scared of those impulses within themselves and become very anti-gay. The psychological basis of homophobia is fear of having those feelings oneself."
Bring up school scenarios. Adolescent girls tell Nicholson that someone grabbed their crotch or that an older guy, such as a coach, wants to "be around them a little too much" and "do some private training with them." It's tricky for girls whose soccer coaches ask, "Why don't you stay after practice?" she says. Be aware that harassers are often people the family knows. If your child is in college, talk about school prohibitions against sexual harassment. Many universities prominently post their policies. (Click here to see Princeton's comprehensive anti-harassment write-up.)
Mention steps to take. As the EEOC notes, it's good for the victim to tell the harasser that the conduct "is unwelcome and must stop." If the harassment happens on the job, use employer grievance systems. If it happens at school, you can help your child make a formal complaint. "A child's right to an education is a constitutional right," says Nicholson.
Prevent it. The EEOC urges employers to "clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated." School administrators can take the same approach. If they're not, you and your teen can bring it up with them.
Talk to your teens about inappropriate behavior. For 12- to 18-year-olds, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends setting aside time each week to chat about "good, bad, and confusing experiences," including types of sexual abuse (date rape, sexual harassment in chat rooms or schools), pornography, and people who ask for sex through the internet.
Explain the effects of drugs and alcohol. They can make inappropriate comments and behavior more likely since they reduce users' inhibitions. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that employee drinking has been associated with sexual harassment — along with verbal and physical aggression and disrespectful behavior. In 2002, a study by the NIAAA's task force on college drinking found that alcohol use by students ages 18 to 24 contributes to an estimated 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape each year.
Discuss honoring other people's wishes. As the AAP notes, "a person should have to say 'no' only once" to the way people are treating them or touching them.
Start a neighborhood parent-child discussion group. With other mothers and daughters in their neighborhood, Nicholson and her child formed a group that met for dinner once a month and each time talked about a different topic — including sexual harassment, eating disorders, abortions, self-image, and boyfriends. Before each gathering, one family would take on research.