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Sexual jokes, touches give way to a whole new era

When Iris Wilson worked as an accounting clerk at St. Petersburg Junior College in 1992, sexual and racial jokes were the norm, she said. So were raunchy cartoons and gag gifts that would make a Playboy artist blush.

The man telling the jokes and handing out the cartoons, she said, was Mac Cunningham, then the school's vice president for business services. Wilson decided to complain, so she said she went to the top _ to SPJC's president.

Soon after, Cunningham gave her a poor evaluation. Some of her shortcomings? She ate lunch at her desk and laughed too loudly.

For Wilson, that was the breaking point after seven years of alleged harassment. She filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and then a lawsuit against the college. Three years later, she accepted a $60,000 settlement.

Take this story, change the names, cities and details, and you can tell it over and over again. Wilson is one of thousands of women who have filed suit because they say they've been harassed at work.

This explosion of sexual harassment cases began five years ago after law professor Anita Hill accused then-federal Judge Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her. Thomas got the job as Supreme Court justice; Hill got labeled a "scorned woman." But legal scholars say she ignited the boom.

Since Hill's accusations, complaints have more than doubled. In 1991, the EEOC received 6,883 sexual harassment complaints. In 1995, it received 15,549. Meanwhile, the cost of losing has tripled for employers. Penalties paid in U.S. cases jumped from $7.1-million in 1991 to $24.3-million in 1995.

Tampa Bay is not immune. Everyone from pizza makers and government workers to salesmen have been accused. Many companies settle the cases, with the settlements calling for agreements not to disclose details to the media.

Last year, a former Port Richey man won a record $237,000 in damages from Domino's Pizza, where his female boss allegedly sexually harassed him for five months in 1988.

And the state last year paid a $220,000 settlement to two former Capitol Police officers who accused their colleagues of sexual harassment. The two policewomen filed suit in 1993, alleging that male officers repeatedly displayed a computer program featuring sexually suggestive cartoons and that they made derogatory comments.

Nationally, the figures are often prominent. Clarence Thomas was accused but won. After a three-year investigation, Sen. Bob Packwood was accused and then resigned, leaving one of Congress' most powerful positions, chairman of the Finance Committee. President Clinton has been accused, but his case apparently won't go to trial until after the November election.

Then there are major companies like Mitsubishi Manufacturing of America Inc. and Astra USA: Their cases have been splashed across newspapers and magazines throughout America.

The proliferation of cases is fueled by publicity and a feeling that plaintiffs _ particularly those who are fired or quit _ have nothing else to lose. Money also motivates victims and their lawyers. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 made punitive and compensatory damages of up to $300,000 available to victims and their lawyers.

The legal maneuvering has fueled debates about what is and is not acceptable in the workplace. Meanwhile, lawyers and workplace experts have come up with guidelines, rules and business plans they sell to employers as ways to avoid sexual harassment lawsuits.

Because of the lawsuits, the ground rules of workplace behavior have changed dramatically in recent years, although workers who harass others still abound. Even if the busload of lawsuits may not automatically change behavior, they do affect the people involved, both in positive and negative ways.

Take the Wilson case.

Wilson, 43, was later fired for refusing to report to a new job at SPJC. It took her six months to land a lower-paying job as a part-time receptionist at a doctor's office.

Meanwhile, SPJC vice president Cunningham resigned, denying all accusations. But a subsequent state investigation of the college noted that four other employees leveled similar accusations against him.

SPJC officials say the school did not participate in the discrimination. And while the wording in the school's 16-year-old sexual harassment policy has changed recently, officials say it is not because of the Wilson case.

College attorney David Henniger notes that there are more than 65,000 students and 3,000 employees to, in effect, police.

"All we can do is establish rules and procedures and enforce them," Henniger said. "But I don't think there is a plan that can be devised that can control in advance the conduct of more than 65,000 people."

What is harassment?

To understand the problem, it's important to understand what sexual harassment is.

While sexual discrimination is simply defined as treating two employees differently based on gender, harassment involves more subjective guidelines.

In 1980, the EEOC provided a long, specific definition. The gist of it is that sexual advances or other verbal or physical conduct should not interfere with an individual's work performance, nor should it be a condition, implicitly or explicitly, of an individual's employment.

"There just is not a nice, easy, shorthand way of defining sexual harassment," said Tampa discrimination lawyer Charles Burr, who represented Wilson. "It is much more subtle and involves people's perceptions, so it takes more time to be eradicated."

One reason for the difficulty in defining sexual harassment is that historically it has been accepted far longer than questioned, Burr said.

Dirty jokes that once were the norm in all-male work places now can get you fired. Touching a woman just about anywhere is begging for a lawsuit.

"Up until the mid-1970s what we generally think of now and accept as sex harassment wasn't even considered a violation of the law," Burr said. "So you have 200 years of ingrained conduct. Many millions of people are just now trying to adjust to a new way of thinking."

Still, there are detractors who think the numbers of complaints don't reflect reality. Women are making things up, they say.

This idea is another deeply ingrained belief. In her recent book, A Woman Scorned, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday notes that the "false accuser" was first introduced in a mid-17th-century rape trial.

In that case, English Judge Sir Matthew Hale said rape was "an accusation easy to be made, hard to be proved . . ." His thoughts were read to jurors in many states until the mid-1970s.

Such a widespread predisposal to not believe the accuser may explain why many people don't report harassment. For example, one-third of 4,110 employees surveyed last year at the National Institutes of Health said they were sexually harassed; 96 percent of them did not file a charge.

Legal battle isn't easy

Even though many workers who have been harassed won't step forward, many people say the nation's high-profile sexual harassment cases are having an effect.

"Now I think more people are getting the courage to come forward," Wilson said. "These cases have prompted others to talk about it, to say, My God, I don't have to take it."

Still, she warns victims: If you are in it for the money, if you think it is going to be easy, if you don't have familial support and if you don't have your case documented, don't bother. It's a long, uphill battle that will wreak havoc on your life.

"Unfortunately there is a serious downside to standing up for your rights against discrimination," Wilson said. "The victim is victimized again."

During her lawsuit, some people she thought were friends stopped talking to her. She gained weight, fell ill more frequently and began taking antidepressants.

When asked if she would do it again, she smiled. "Yes and no," she said.

Her gut response is no. But then she lists dozens of reasons why the answer is really yes _ most notably that you should always fight discrimination.

Wilson grew up in Charleston, S.C., and although she's only 43, she remembers segregated water fountains and bathrooms from her childhood. She remembers using the back door to enter her doctor's office. She remembers white children who were afraid to touch her when she and her sisters desegregated Middleton High School in Charleston.

Her strength is born of those experiences and buttressed by those who fought inequity before her. She cites the Rev. Martin Luther King, living by his ethic, "If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."

Such a background has worked both for and against Wilson. Some assume she sees discrimination around every corner, and they use this idea to discredit anything she says.

But her background of fighting for causes also prepared her for her fight with SPJC: She had everything documented, from her 15 years of good evaluations at the college to the offensive cartoons that were handed to her.

Not all victims of discrimination are prepared as well.

As more plaintiffs come forward, their results, be it settlements or court verdicts, will show what information is needed to prevail. The results also may show whether legal action can slow harassment as employers learn what is not tolerated by the courts.

But change is slow.

"It's sort of like lancing a boil. It will just take time," said Stanley Kiszkiel, a former EEOC lawyer who now is in private practice at Akerman, Senterfitt & Eidson in Miami.

"Look at it this way. We have reached the point now where it is getting a lot of publicity and people are walking around and realizing there are things they cannot say and do. Ten years ago, they didn't think that way."

Iris Wilson offers up a simple rule of thumb for workers:

"If you don't want it said to your mother, daughter or your sister, then don't say it to others."

_ Information from Times files and researcher Barbara Hijek was used in this report.

The EEOC's definition

Some say sexual harassment is difficult to define; others say it is quite clear. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidelines that define two types of sexual harassment:

1. Quid pro quo:

+ Making the submission to unwelcome sexual advances or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature a term or condition, implicitly or explicitly, of an individual's employment.

+ Basing employment decisions affecting the individual on his or her submission to or rejection of such conduct.

2. Hostile environment:

Making unwelcome sexual advances or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose of, or that creates the effect of, unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment."

Source: EEOC

High stakes

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has resolved 288 sexual harassment cases nationally in the past five years, either through settlement or lawsuits. The complaining parties have been awarded $7.1-million from these cases.

Year Cases Awards

1991 66 $692,553

1992 63 $1,165,206

1993 39 $908,766

1994 54 $851,727

1995 66 $3,485,286

Source: EEOC