It’s been publicly discussed as a legitimate issue for 40 years, but the topic of sexual harassment still bamboozles Americans.

We have never quite figured out what to think about or do about it. In its milder forms, we even have trouble defining it.

Now that it has been twisted into our political discourse, hope of ever reaching a sensible consensus might have disappeared. But sensible people who value decency above politics should at least have the discussion.

It won’t be the first time.

By 1980, Americans were talking publicly about sexual harassment. The discourse, and the court cases that developed, focused on unwanted sexual advances and assaults that women who worked outside the home endured from male colleagues and supervisors.

The most serious cases involved actual rapes and women who were fired for refusing to have sex with their bosses.

By 1981, the U.S. Senate had joined the conversation. It held hearings on the issue of sexual harassment. Among those who testified was conservative Phyllis Schlafly.

According to a news report at the time, Schlafly, in part, told the Senate: “…Virtuous women are seldom accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions or familiarities, obscene talk or profane language.”

Flash forward to 2017, when the nation is discussing Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama.

About the time Schlafly was telling the U.S. Senate that good girls didn’t have to worry about sexual harassment, Moore was preying on teenage girls, or to use his terminology, dating them.

More than a half-dozen women recall creepy — and sometimes criminal — encounters with Moore, who at the time was a public official working in law enforcement as a prosecutor.

Moore says all the women are liars.

The governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, doesn’t think the women are lying, but she told reporters she still plans to vote for Moore. Because he’s a Republican.

Ivey was appointed governor earlier this year, after Gov. Robert Bentley resigned amid a scandal that involved lying, an affair with a staff member and campaign finance fraud.

As is the case in the business world, politics plus sex don’t always add up to sexual harassment. There are also degrees of misconduct to consider in both business and politics cases of sexual harassment.

But in politics, allegations are more likely to become public, are more likely to be sensationalized, and are more likely to be blamed on political enemies.

That’s the case with Moore, just as it was with Bill Clinton in the 1990s, when Clinton was accused of preying on women when he was both governor and president.

Bill and Hillary Clinton claimed the women who made the allegations were liars and that their accusations were choreographed by a vast, right-wing conspiracy.

Loyal Democrats bought in, turning the debate into a political one. It was no longer a question of whether the president had sexually harassed women, but whether Republicans were out to get the president.

As if the two notions were mutually exclusive.

We have much the same dynamic in Alabama, but now the backdrop is different. The news brings new allegations every day against a different politician or celebrity.

Reading the headlines, you might think that no woman is safe and no man innocent. That’s not the case. Competing media working to get new information are creating a frenzy that distorts the scope and depth of the problem.

It’s also worth noting it’s sometimes tough to distinguish between unwanted sexual advances and harassment.

If a man (or woman) asks a colleague out for a drink or tells an off-color joke, it’s not sexual harassment – at least not in my book. But repeating such behavior once it’s clear that it’s not welcome – that is harassment.

While there may be disagreement about what behavior among adults is considered harassment, we all should be clear on one point: People in positions of authority (bosses, teachers and law enforcement officials, for example) who repeatedly seek sexual encounters with teenagers are not just guilty of harassment, but of behavior that is, frankly, indecent.

And the people who condone such behavior — which political support connotes — because someone is a Republican or Democrat value partisan politics over simple human decency.

 

A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.