There are insults, and then there's harrassment
February 2, 2001 11:47 AM   Subscribe

There are insults, and then there's harrassment and apparently, a judge thinks that being referred to repeatedly as Monica Lewinsky crosses the line into sexual harassment. A woman's lawsuit against a (now retired) SUNY New Paltz professor may go forward after he called her by the infamous intern's name and made Lewinsky-related jokes towards her throughout a semester. What do you think -- was this just the prof being a mean old jerk, or was this really the creation of a "sexually hostile environment?"
posted by Dreama (30 comments total)
the prof being a mean old jerk, or was this really the creation of a "sexually hostile environment?

What's the difference (why the "or")? Both seem to be true. There's nothing contradictory (or even surprising) in a mean old jerk creating a sexually hostile environemnt...

posted by andrew cooke at 11:56 AM on February 2, 2001

Not that it answers the question, but the story reminds me of this (via
posted by idiolect at 12:08 PM on February 2, 2001

``Young observed that (Hayut) wore the same color lipstick as Monica Lewinsky, and made comments such as, 'How was your weekend with Bill,' and 'Shut up, Monica. I'll give you a cigar later.' All these comments were made in front of the entire class,''

Regardless what kind of environment this prof was making, these remarks can't be seen as anything but uncalled for...
posted by Neb at 12:33 PM on February 2, 2001

From the New York Times:

Inbal Hayut filed suit last May against the State University of New York at New Paltz and professor Alex Young, claiming Young created a "sexually hostile environment'' by repeatedly calling her by the name of the former White House intern.

Young observed that (Hayut) wore the same color lipstick as Monica Lewinsky, and made comments such as, 'How was your weekend with Bill,' and 'Shut up, Monica. I'll give you a cigar later.' All these comments were made in front of the entire class,'' Northern District Judge David Hurd wrote in his Dec. 18 decision that allowed the suit to continue.

Young's lawyer, Kenneth J. Kelly, called the charges "ridiculous.''

"This is not sexual harassment,'' Kelly said Friday.

In his ruling, Hurd granted defense motions to dismiss parts of the lawsuit, including the allegations of intentional infliction of emotional pain and discrimination based on origin. But he denied a defense motion to dismiss the sexual harassment charges.

Hayut, now 23, said the professor, who taught two of her classes in 1998, ignored her pleas to stop the name-calling and that the school refused to take any action. She said the humiliation eventually affected her grades, and she left the school in the spring.

"She's a sweet, shy girl and this was very difficult for her,'' said her lawyer, William Martin. "Some of the students didn't know her by any other name but Monica.''

I'm with Mr. Cooke. The prof's a jerk and his conduct sure sounds like harassment to me (though there's no sign of the teacher hitting on her or asking her for sex, it looks to me like he created an environment inimical to her educational experience). If I were her, I'd sue the school as well for not responding to her request for help.

Dreama, do you think she's crying wolf?
posted by allaboutgeorge at 12:33 PM on February 2, 2001

Check the New York and federal statutes. It is harassment. The lack of response by the school, which should already have a policy in place to handle these types of complaints, will also be taken into account when arguing the case.
posted by dante at 12:39 PM on February 2, 2001

First, this judge's ruling doesn't mean that this is necessarily a case of sexual harassment. He merely ruled that the case could continue, and that a judge would be allowed to make that determination.

Second, a statement like "Shut up, I'll give you a cigar later" is pretty heinous, given what a cigar represented in the scandal. What if he'd said "Shut up, I'll give you a dildo later"? Clearly, his comments were inappropriate for the classroom.

In my view, this does cross the line. Often, in sexual harassment cases, it comes down to how the victim viewed the environment. That's very subjective, and another student may not have considered the professor's comments as offensive. But the fact (if it is a fact) that the professor "ignored her pleas to stop the name-calling and that the school refused to take any action" makes a huge difference. By asking him to stop, and by going to the school, she is telling them "I consider this unacceptable." Not only should that be enough to make the professor stop, but it should tell the school that his comments constitute harassment.
posted by jpoulos at 12:52 PM on February 2, 2001

Speaking as another professor (from SUNY, no less!), I'd say that the charge of sexual harassment was perfectly justified in this case. If a) he had stopped when asked to do so by the student, and/or b) the department chair/administration had told him to halt after a single incident, then there would be no case. Repeated public humiliation is a different kettle of fish. (And somehow I don't think a cigar was just a cigar here...) The professor's behavior was totally unprofessional. You _don't_ treat your students like this. Ever.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:54 PM on February 2, 2001

If any of her allegations about this teacher's behaviour prove to be true, he should at the very least lose his job, even if a court finds him innocent of harassment. Not as a result of a court order, but any school with any respect for its students should fire a teacher who behaves this way.
posted by donkeymon at 1:14 PM on February 2, 2001

Ooh, he's already retired? What can be done now? What could this school do to redeem itself in the eyes of potential students? (I am sure this is what school board is thinking right now as well.)
posted by donkeymon at 1:17 PM on February 2, 2001

Why in the hell is the AP going to a Lewinsky spokesperson for comment? This is really dumb reporting:

Lewinsky's spokeswoman, Juli Nadler, said Lewinsky is dismayed, "but that was in 1998, when her name was linked to presidential scandal.'' Nowadays, she added, people think of Lewinsky as "handbag designer, e-commerce entrepreneur, Yahoo Internet Life cover girl. ... Clearly, she has moved on and taken her good name with her.''
posted by amanda at 2:13 PM on February 2, 2001

people think of Lewinsky as "handbag designer...etc.

Hmmm...someone's living in denial. Sorry Monica, you'll always be our favorite Presidential Fellatrix. Getting a bad rep really blows.

That prof was way out of line, how humiliating.
posted by ritualdevice at 3:14 PM on February 2, 2001

Hmm. This is a weird one. To me, I'd have to say that the prof was definitely way out of line, but I don't really think sexual harassment is the thing to call it. Don't get me wrong, I think he should definitely be guilty of something, and the school should be too for not taking any action. I know if something like this happened in my high school, the teacher would be gone in a second and the problem would never reach a court.

Sexual harassment seems kinda different than what happened here, though. I can't really think of a specific word to describe it.
posted by swank6 at 3:27 PM on February 2, 2001

I hope Young gets fried. Incidentally, it was a collage professor that gave me my tag name of *velvett* [nope, he didn't *get any*] and it wasn't because of any fabric fetish. Good, bad or otherwise the name has stuck for nearly ten years.

Regardless of Monica, the President or red lipstick the cigar crack was without taste, coming from a professor or your less educated garden variety asshole.
posted by velvett at 3:32 PM on February 2, 2001

I don't know, Swank. Would the professor have called a boy "Monica Lewinsky"? It seems pretty targeted form of harassment.

It's too bad there is nothing public about why the professor would target this woman in the first place. That seems awfully fishy to me. Did he call all women in his class Monica? It doesn't sound like it. Why would he pick on her in this way?
posted by amanda at 3:38 PM on February 2, 2001

swank6: I think it's plain ol' harassment. He repeatedly humiliated her in public even after she asked (or told) him to stop.

I can't even imagine a professor telling me to "shut up" much less appending a sexual innuendo to it as well.

Moreover, I can't imagine a college administration that doesn't react to exactly this sort of incident in a heavy-handed, knee-jerk way. My college probably would have suspended the professor at the accusation, firing him when they had collected more evidence.
posted by bbrown at 3:48 PM on February 2, 2001

Some pictures might enable us to make an objective judgement
posted by Postroad at 4:01 PM on February 2, 2001

I don't believe that she's crying wolf, but like others, I question whether or not this is sexual harassment. While it's true that he would not have called her Monica if she had been a male, that doesn't necessarily mean that this was creating a sexually hostile environment. It was a hostile environment, but the spectre of sex is only there if his "cigar" comment was clearly indicated to mean that he'd use that cigar in the Bill & Monica fashion, as opposed to the general correlation of cigars in the Lewinsky story. The rest of it was just mean and out of place and should have been stopped, but I stop short of saying that it was sexual.
posted by Dreama at 4:45 PM on February 2, 2001

Yeah, what Dreama said. It's not like he came out and said "I wanna take a cigar and stick it up your Bleep". The whole cigar thing has been sort of just a general running joke, and though it originated from that.. stuff, now it's just become a simple crack at the whole situation.

Sexual harassment implies some type of direct suggestion of having sex, and the professor wasn't really doing that. He was being an asshole, yes, but did it by comparing her to Monica, not asking her to do what Monica did.
posted by swank6 at 5:28 PM on February 2, 2001

If the prof had put up nude pics of women, that wouldn't be a direct suggestion of having sex either, but it creates a hostile environment, and does so in a sexual manner. These comments fall into the same category. There can be little doubt that the comments were sexual in nature, and were used to intimidate a student. That makes it sexual harassment.
posted by frykitty at 6:07 PM on February 2, 2001

No, swank, the sexual in "sexual harassment" is misleading. It should really be gender harassment.

There are two legal avenues under the sexual harassment laws. The first one developed was the one you're thinking of, which is called quid pro quo harassment -- where someone is asked to perform sexually in order to receive a benefit such as a higher grade. That type of argument was developed in the 1970s. But the second type of harassment, which has been federally recognized since the 1980s, is the hostile workplace or in this case environment. It refers to things as blatant as nudie pictures on a break room wall, sexual jokes circulated via e-mail, and sexually-related comments. The point of the hostile environment avenue is that constantly being exposed to this type of harassment, whether or not it's intentinoally conspiratorial or just plain jackassed, prevents women (or minorities) from fully and equally participating in the job or other environment.

A woman getting Monica jokes isn't just being exposed to a moron or embarassed in class; she's being distracted from her schoolwork, perhaps cowed against speaking up in class, and will get a substandard benefit from the experience.

That said, I believe sometimes the "hostile environment" clause is understood (not so much by the courts, but by untrained people) as being a way to protect women from anything offensive, as if they were Victorian frailties prone to fainting. A ribald joke in the breakroom or two shouldn't be something anybody need panic about, and handling it by intiating a disciplinary process wastes resources and distracts from other more substantive issues (like advancement and pay). In this case, though, the individual was in a position of power and both should have known better AND been subject to a clear policy. Given both those facts, the school is almost certain to lose.

Merely developing and actually using a harassment and discrimination policy has turned out to be a very effective way to short-circuit future lawsuits.
posted by dhartung at 6:14 PM on February 2, 2001

Who would he have been harassing if he'd put up nude pictures of men? And would it depend on the pictures?
If it's gender harassment why is it still called sexual harassment?
posted by davidgentle at 6:32 PM on February 2, 2001

Thanks frykitty and dhartung for the explanation. I admit I'm no law expert, and what I know about sexual harassment is pretty much through the media. The second case definitely does apply here, so I guess "sexual harassment" really is the term to describe it. It's a pretty bad one... should be changed. :)

David, you bring up an interesting twist. I don't know this for sure, but it seems like most if not all cases of sexual harassment are charges against a male. How come you never hear about women harassing men? I never saw the movie Disclosure but I think that's what it was about. I find it hard to believe that no woman has ever put up nude male pictures of the workplace, or done any of the number of different things men have been charged with.
posted by swank6 at 6:41 PM on February 2, 2001

I used to have a friend who was horribly harassed by a female co-worker. She made inappropriate comments on a constant basis, she even pinched him. I urged him to complain or file suit. He never did.

There are plenty of women who never report, nonetheless it is still much more accepted in society for them to report. My friend would have faced a great amount of ridicule and disbelief if he'd reported (though I still think he should have).

I do think cases of female aggression are rarer, still, my opinion is that no one should be harassed in this manner. What I'd really like to see is a man complaining because the women in the office continually told "stupid man" jokes. I hate those jokes, and consider them an insidious form of harassment. That would fall nicely into the area of "hostile environment."
posted by frykitty at 7:13 PM on February 2, 2001

If it's gender harassment why is it still called sexual harassment?

because gender harassment would be "hah! you didn't know all words ending in '-keit' are feminine? you need to go back to German 101!"

(though "cunning linguist" remarks might cross over the line)
posted by dagnyscott at 8:10 PM on February 2, 2001

David, I think that it could be harassing if he put up nude pictures of men. But, it's silly to put out all sorts of "what ifs" to invalidate the current discussion. I think that is a big barrier to understanding what sexual harassment is and why it is a problem.
posted by amanda at 8:56 PM on February 2, 2001

I'm not attempting to invalidate anything. I'm attempting to explore a wider question than "are Monica jokes harassment".
The point I was getting at is the question of who would be offended by the sight of a naked man. I wouldn't. I don't believe that nudity (male or female) is offensive. It's the intent with which the behaviour (making jokes, physical contact) is displayed that is the issue. If harassment is about disempowering people then surely the question is whether the prof. intended to disempower her. And also why. Was he being an asshole or was he responding to something she said?
posted by davidgentle at 10:04 PM on February 2, 2001

As a Law Firm employee that works frequently with the Labor and Employment group, I can confirm that there are men who feel sexually harrassed (sometimes, but certainly not always, by women), and that they do, in fact, sue.

The problem with Sexual Harrassment lawsuits is the potential for misuse (ie. crying sexual harrassment every time someone cracks a crude joke within earshot), but this example seems like a slam dunk. The comments seem clearly inappropriate, she felt harrassed, and neither the prof nor the school were responsive to her pleas for remedy. A much more complex example of defining and responding to sexual harassment would be the firings at Dow Chemical. 39 workers were fired and another 200 disciplined for forwarding lewd email using company internet terminals. They were no warnings issued so no one was given a chance to correct their behaviour, and the entire sweep occurred as the result of a single complaint. This wasn't a case of supervisors making blowjob jokes to/about their employees, it was factory workers sending each other dirty jokes.

posted by CrazyUncleJoe at 11:35 PM on February 2, 2001

It really doesn't matter intent, David. What does matter is that when the issue was brought up to the professor and the administration, the professor did not stop his ridicule. At that point, the professor knows that the girl is uncomfortable and yet he continues. Doesn't it confirm that his actions were meant to be harassment at that point?
posted by amanda at 9:40 AM on February 3, 2001

So many posts are clearly men vs women. Let's look at a different angle. Was this professor, in his 70s, a part-timer brought to the college as so many are these days without proper qualifications and background check? Why did he suddenly retire? was he full-time and tenured? Now I do not suggest that if he is tenured what he did as ok (what he did was not ok but rather that over and over our colleges are dum;ing full-time positions for qualified people and staffing courses with dregs that they pick up who are willing to work for low pay. This saves colleges a great deal of money. But tuition remains not only high but goes up each year. You know: you get what you pay for.
Did this "professor" have a Ph.D in his field? such questions and their answers might indicate why such terrible things are allowed to happen.
In no way am I defending the teacher's actions, of course, but I think it would be helpful to note that at allo levels of schooling, we are willing to hire non-qualified people. Just look at the public school system in New Yolrk, for example.
I have seen the and am familiar with the college scene in my area and there are many teaching who ought not be allowed to teach. But they work cheap. Going gets tough they split or are not re-hired.
There is not a college I know of that does not have a legal staff on hand to deal with such issues, and just about all schools do have policies in place. of course the "prof" will be sued but if she wins her case it will be not the college but the state system that will pay her off. Deep pockets.
posted by Postroad at 7:00 AM on February 4, 2001

Going by the quotes from the professor, from the articles on this which I read above in this thread., this is clearly sexual harrrassment. It is beyond the pale. Its mostly federal statute controling this. The university (U. Maryland) where I work has a posted by Akaky at 9:20 AM on February 4, 2001

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