All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1991

A Report from the World of Suggestive Looks

Jack Matthews’ latest books are Dirty Tricks, a volume of stories with Johns Hopkins, and Memoirs of a Book man, bibliophilic essays with Ohio University Press, Athens. He also writes plays and collects old and rare books.

Recently I was sadly amused by a frontpage story in the student newspaper of the university where I teach. This article featured the report of our Assistant Director of Affirmative Action in which sexual harassment of female faculty and administrators was found to be a serious and continuing problem on campus. Coming from an office whose existence depends upon a generally acknowledged perception of injustice, the findings of this report were not entirely unexpected; but they were nevertheless deserving of attention. And yet I will confess that my own attention wavered for a moment when I came to the following seemingly sober and responsible statement: the “report . . . showed that nearly 50 percent of 310 women . . . reported some form of sexual harassment on the job. Most of the cases involved unwanted sexual teasing and sexually suggestive looks.”

Innocent readers could be easily misled by the statistical format of this assertion, but its premise is as vaporous as Dracula’s blood pressure or the ghost of Bambi. Why? Because nothing can be suggestive unless there is someone to whom it is suggested. Therefore, a “sexually suggestive look” is the product of a judgment, and most sensible folks understand that judgments are not always and necessarily valid or well-founded. (“Sexual teasing” is subject to the same distrust; but it is not my concern in this piece, for reasons that will soon be clear.)

I don’t question that sexual harassment exists; nor do I question that there is such a thing as a sexually suggestive look. Although if a sexually suggestive look is what I think it is, it is part of what we used to consider the pleasurably harmless game of flirtation played with equal enthusiasm by males and females. But that reactionary view has evidently been discredited, and I will confess the possibility that I myself, in my long life as an unrepentant heterosexual male, may have occasionally fallen into weakness and sin by emitting a sexually suggestive look. Even though I’m still not entirely sure of what that is, it sounds like the sort of thing I might have done at one time or another.

If I have upon occasion been guilty, however, I have also been innocently wronged. Let me give an example. Recently I was driving alone in my car on campus—which is really a small city, as are most university campuses today—and I stopped for a traffic light that turned red just in time to catch me. I had my radio tuned to the university station, and I was listening to a politician from Colorado talking about his home state. I can’t remember the context, but for some reason he was explaining how frolicsome, outdoorsy, and danger-loving a great number of the populace of Colorado are. Then he told a story he’d heard to demonstrate this fact.

This story was about a parachutist, a male, who had one day made three successful jumps; and then, on his fourth jump, his chute failed to open. He was experienced, however, and pulled the rip cord of his emergency chute; but it failed, also. By now he was falling at maximum rate and understandably concerned. Suddenly, he was surprised to see another man traveling in the opposite direction. “Do you know anything about parachutes?” he cried out. “No,” the other man answered, “what do you know about camp stoves?”

I thought this was so funny that I laughed out loud, even though I was sitting there all alone in my car waiting for the light to change. Unfortunately, the very instant I laughed, I happened to look up directly into the eyes of a young woman jogging bouncily across the street in front of my car. When her gaze met mine, her expression changed and she positively glowered at me. In fact, she kept glowering for two or three strides as she progressed (she had stopped jogging the instant I looked at her), so that her gaze didn’t leave my no-doubt fatuously grinning face. As best I could determine, her expression was defiantly indignant and self-righteous, verging upon outrage•

And yet, I am aware that describing her expression in such terms—no matter how unmistakable it seemed to me—is open to question. I am aware that this is only my impression of her expression, for it’s possible that this young woman had just twisted her ankle the instant she glanced up to see what she interpreted as a sexist smirk on my face. Or maybe, out of the blue, the thought of mid-terms came to her. Or she may have been myopic, and was frowning into the windshield to see if I was her Uncle Phil from Shaker Heights.

But, do you see, this is the point I want to make. I don’t think my version of that little episode should enter the world of statistics anywhere. The suggestive aspect of the look she gave me—the look that suggested to me that she thought I was beaming a sexually suggestive look at her—might have existed in my head alone, and not hers. Because of this, I know that my impression has no more place in the world of statistics than it does in next year’s Federal budget. My story should be appreciated only for what it is, an honest report by one sadly limited human being who, through no perceptible fault of his own, happens to be a man . . . and happened upon one occasion to hear an unexpected joke and found it so funny he broke out laughing.

Do you sense the moral in my story? I hope so. But to tell you the truth, I can’t be sure anybody will understand what I have just written as I intended it. There are some people, I’m certain, who will find it ineffably offensive. These people seem to me so inflexibly self-righteous, narrow, and bigoted that rational discussion is forever dosed to them and a sense of humor is an obscenity they cannot abide. I believe that I could further define and describe these people, and I don’t think they are all professionally connected with Affirmative Action issues—some of whose programs are no doubt wisely and judiciously governed and some of whose principles I agree with generally, affirmatively and, yes, when the wind is right, maybe even actively.

Nevertheless, these people are out there in the real world and we have to live with them. All I can do at the moment is hope that the moral of my report will be evident to everyone, and hope that all of us try to clear our heads of cant. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this happened, and we really did learn to distinguish between the different sorts of signals emitted by sexually suggestive looks and, say, traffic lights? And wouldn’t we be wiser and happier if we were careful to distinguish clearly between judgments and facts? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could somehow learn to “feel good about ourselves”—as the gummier TV ads keep prompting their viewers—without feeling nasty about others? Even if they’re men? Or, indeed, women?