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Open doors


The raft of sexual harassment charges lately has mattered but it also has been hamstrung, in some ways, by a lack of specifics.

Not that most of us would want to wallow in them. But it’s hard to judge what happened, case by case, without knowing more than, in most cases, we do.

Does sexual harassment – at least, as we’ve defined it (roughly) in recent years – exist? Absolutely. Is it common? It is certainly, at least, not rare. We’ve seen or heard of enough specifics recently in enough cases to establish that much conclusively. A good number of these cases would be considered harassment or worse by nearly anyone in modern society, and shouldn’t be tolerated, and repercussions should be serious.

There’s a catch, though: They’re not all exactly the same. Is a violent rape exactly the same as a leering come-on – sans any follow-up physical activity – in a hotel room? Both could be considered harassment, neither (in the kinds of contexts we’ve been hearing about lately, where there’s a power imbalance between the people involved) should be tolerated, but the degrees surely are different. How do we address that?

I have no easy or immediate answer. It does however become a pressing matter when action has to be taken.

One answer though in many cases probably is to redress, at least to a degree, the power imbalance that creates many of the problems. Often the real underlying problem (as in the hotel scenario) is the fact that one of the people in the room has a big hammer over the head of the other. Were that not the case, the problem in some cases might be lessened, or (in the absence of an actual physical attack) might go away.

The Weinstein Company did that to its namesake Harvey by removing him from all power positions in the organization and then firing him. That’s one way to handle it.

Then there’s the case of Jeff Kruse, the Oregon state senator (R-Roseburg) who has been accused of “ongoing workplace issues.”

This one is a little more complicated. Kruse was quoted as saying, “I have never done anything that I believe anybody could portray as being sexual. And it’s never been my intention and never will be.”

That’s countered by state Senator Sara Gelser, “another female senator and one other woman who works at the Capitol [who] have reported to legislative officials that Kruse touched them inappropriately. But the exact nature of those three women’s complaints has been kept confidential. Gelser said she should not have to spell out exactly what she says transpired in order to be believed.”

No, of course she shouldn’t have to spell out anatomical detail to be believed. But what is it exactly that Kruse is said to have done, other than that it was “inappropriate”? Where on the scale does it fall? What does that indicate about an appropriate response, or penalty? It’s a little difficult for most of us to know how to assess the situation knowing no more than that.

Presumably, Senate President Peter Courtney does have more specific information; he would know at least what legislative staffers have found, likely in detail. And his actions were definitive. He took away Kruse’s committee assignments (which as any legislator in Oregon or elsewhere will tell you, is taking away most of their ability to influence legislation). And he did something else of both symbolic and practical effect: He had the door to Kruse’s office removed (see the picture), leaving the office permanently open.

That does have the effect of reducing power imbalanced and of diminishing hidden corners where unfortunate incidents may occur. It may in fact, as he suggested, support the idea of keeping the legislature as a safe working space.

It gives us an indicator as to the seriousness of what’s happening. But it’s still hard to know without knowing more.

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