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'SEXUAL HARASSMENT' IS LOSING ITS MEANING

Several months ago when President Clinton called for a national conversation on race, he became the first president since the passage of the civil rights acts of the 1960s to try to focus our attention on race relations and the problems of discrimination in this country.

But almost as soon as the conversation on race began, it was eclipsed by a national conversation on sex, sparked by allegations about the president's own behavior. At the core of this discussion is "sexual harassment," a phrase that has legal meaning but in popular culture has become such a catchall that we are in danger of turning it into an irrelevance.

Though the statute does not include the term sexual harassment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination that results from such behavior. In 1976, a federal court, in Williams v. Saxbe, first granted a right of action for sexual harassment.

In 1986 the Supreme Court declared, in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, that sexual harassment violated a victim's civil rights. With the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing in 1991 the term became part of the popular culture.

But in our new national conversation on sex, including our discussions of the Paula Jones lawsuit and the resulting revelations from Monica Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey, the references to sexual harassment have expanded far beyond the legal prescriptions. The term has become cliche, and the perception of sexual harassment as a civil rights violation is now diminished.

The trend of popular discourse on the serious legal and social issue of sexual harassment has had some positive results. The problem, once thought to be rare and perhaps even a fabrication, is now exposed. Last year, more than 17,000 sexual harassment claims were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing anti-discrimination law. And overt acts of sexual harassment appear to be declining.

However, the cases that are a part of the national conversation often bear little relationship to those that occur in the everyday work world. In fact, these high-profile cases can misinform the public about what to expect in a sexual harassment complaint, as well as how to defend against one.

The use of the term sexual harassment to describe any and every kind of sexually related transgression trivializes the protections offered by Title VII. Among the recent high-profile cases, the court-martial of Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney most resembles a Title VII sexual harassment claim. Yet this case is still not a sexual harassment lawsuit -- Sergeant Major McKinney was tried in a military criminal court that has entirely different procedures and a different burden of proof.

The Paula Jones case -- brought as a job discrimination sexual harassment claim, but not under Title VII -- further confuses the public. The information that has become public suggests that the case relies heavily on the allegation that Clinton made a crude sexual overture to Jones while he was governor of Arkansas. But the revelations so far provide little evidence that Jones suffered employment-related repercussions as a result of the incident.

Newscasters are describing Kathleen Willey's encounter with the president as sexual harassment. As was true in my situation with Thomas, Willey has not brought a sexual harassment claim against Clinton. Moreover, Willey has not alleged that the one incident she described was so severe and pervasive as to become a condition of her employment, which is what the law on sexual harassment requires.

Finally, the inordinate amount of attention to incidents of overzealous enforcement of sexual harassment rules, like those cases where a young child is suspended from school for kissing a classmate, further expands the reach of the term and misinforms the public discussion.

In short, with the broad definition being given the term sexual harassment, it is no wonder that the public appears confused.

Ambiguous and inaccurate use of the term sexual harassment may make for interesting conversation, but it threatens to dull the concept's effectiveness as a weapon against sexism in the workplace. Bringing a genuine sexual harassment claim was difficult enough before the current charges made headlines, but if public confusion turns to skepticism, bringing a claim could prove to be even harder in the future.

Sex sells all sorts of products, from perfume to beer to news broadcasts. The opportunity in popular culture to have a polite or not-so-polite conversation on sex is irresistible. Yet we are in danger of forgetting that laws forbidding sexual harassment in the workplace are not about sex. They are about employment discrimination.

ANITA HILL, the author of "Speaking Truth to Power," is working on a book on sexual harassment.

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