The Unwanted Touch

It is a scene Carmen Dieguez has witnessed again and again, always the same circumstance, the man and the woman standing next to the Xerox machine, casually eyeing one another, waiting for copies. Each time as Dieguez watches, the man asks the woman to join him for lunch. Each time, she demurs. He makes a comment about her figure, says something suggestive, issues the request again - except this time for after-hours drinks. When she tries to leave, he blocks her exit and presses her hand against the copier, sliding his gaze down her shoulders and hips. And each time, Carmen Dieguez stands on silently. She does not intercede on behalf of the woman. She does not contact a superior to investigate. She simply watches the ordeal proceed.

In most cases Dieguez's nonchalance would be construed as complicity, the Kitty Genovese stabbing writ small. But here Dieguez is blameless: the copy-machine scene is illuminated not by the flickering fluorescent of an office supply room but by the thin beacon of a projector bulb. It's film fiction, a dramatic vignette played out by actors. The encounter, and others like it, are part of Impact vs. Intent, a 45-minute educational film currently making the rounds through Dade County's Department of Housing and Urban Development, where Dieguez, an investigator with Dade County's Affirmative Action office, is conducting an intensive training program about sexual harassment.

The HUD sexual harassment training, undertaken in July, marks the latest attempt by the agency to repair the cracks that nearly broke the department apart in recent years - the federal indictment of former director James Baugh, the court order issued by the Florida State Attorney's Office that called for better conditions in the housing projects, the frequent reorganizations and reforms. Those demands not only weakened the department politically, but also adversely affected the psychological and emotional security of employees. In an environment of such radical instability, employee discontent skyrockets. "Employees out there are very uncomfortable," says Marcia Saunders, director of Dade's Affirmative Action office, the county agency that investigates cases of alleged sexual harassment. "Through all this chaos, through all these ups and downs, we would get a lot of questions in all areas at HUD - and we're trying to keep a real presence over there."

The two-and-a-half-hour educational sessions, which should run through January, begin with a test designed to explode common misconceptions, after which Dieguez screens the instructional film and leads a discussion. Workplace sexual harassment, she suggests, is a phrase the employment world has accepted into its everyday parlance without clearly understanding its terms.

First Dieguez must clarify "the myth of the typical victim," the fallacy that sexual harassment is merely a matter of dirty old executives depositing their decrepit fingerprints on the tight miniskirts of their secretaries. The National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City estimates that between 50 and 75 percent of all employed women have experienced some sort of sexual harassment on the job, from low-intensity offenses such as ogling to atrocities such as rape. "I don't know who tracks how many claims get into court," says Alison Wetherfield, the NOW fund's legal director, "but I would say thousands rather than hundreds, and it's certainly thousands who file nationally with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission." And for all those who file formal claims, Wetherfield notes, there are thousands more who withhold allegations, afraid to lower the boom on their employers for fear of retaliation.

Dieguez believes that the triply crippling effects of sexual harassment - the humiliation of undesired touch, the fear of job loss, and the consequent decrease in enthusiasm for work - is more than sufficient reason for candid discussion about when acceptable flirting verges on illegal harassment. "We try to stress that when these things happen, they usually begin with what might be deemed acceptable behavior, or at worst somewhat questionable, and then they escalate," she says. "In the copier scene, we go over it stage by stage, talk about when the woman first communicates that the advances are unwelcome and she is uncomfortable, when the man steps over the line, when the behavior first becomes harassment."

Also addressed are such issues as cultural differences, gender attitudes, and the difficulty of maintaining a sexual identity in the workplace. "We don't try to tell people how to conduct themselves sexually," says Dieguez. "The most important thing to keep in mind is that in the workplace we must retain a standard of professional behavior, that we must respect the bodies of others, and that we cannot send out messages that link sexual response and workplace evaluation." If employees feel they have been harassed, the training program suggests a host of strategies, most involving candid confrontation of the problem. "We recommend that people record incidents," Dieguez says, "and that if there is a problem, they deliver a formal letter detailing the problem to the alleged offender. That way no one can say they didn't know about it, and no one can say they didn't know it was bothering an employee."