Same Sex Harassment Essay, Research Paper
Joseph Oncale was employed from August to November of 1991 by Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., as a roustabout on a sea-based oil rig for $7 an hour. He had worked on offshore rigs before (and does today), but says he’s never encountered such abusive treatment as when he signed on with Sundowner.
Oncale claims that while on the job he was sexually harassed by three male Sundowner employees: John Lyons, his supervisor; and Danny Pippen and Brandon Johnson, two co-workers. Early during Oncale’s employment, Lyons, Pippen, and Brandon began threatening Oncale with rape. Oncale endured months of constant harassment and verbal threats while on the job.
On October 25, 1991, the threats became reality when Oncale was physically and sexually attacked. Pippen grabbed him, pulled him down, and held him immobile in a squatting position on his knees while Lyons unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and stuck it onto the back of Oncale’s head. When Oncale asked them to quit, Lyons and Pippen laughed. Oncale learned later that day that most of his coworkers had seen the assault. The next day he was attacked again, this time by Brandon Johnson. Oncale complained to Lyon’s superiors.
That same night, Lyons and Pippen attempted to rape Oncale as he was taking a shower. Pippen grabbed him and lifted him off of the ground. Oncale states that while Pippen held him aloft, Lyons used a bar of soap as a tool for sexual abuse. Lyons told him, “You know, they’re fixing to f*** you” (Oncale Amicus Brief). Oncale wrestled his way free of the men and escaped.
Oncale complained further and tried to arrange to get off the oil rig, but his supervisor retaliated. Lyons said, “You told you daddy, huh? Well, it ain’t going to do you no good because I’m going to f*** you anyway.” Oncale says he felt that, “If I didn’t leave my job, that I would be raped or forced to have sex…that if I didn’t get off the rig, that I would be sexually violated” (Oncale Amicus Brief).
Oncale continued to try to work but says he, “…couldn’t sleep because I was afraid that they would do something to me, I couldn’t fight, and I felt disgraced.” Oncale quit soon thereafter, stating on his pink slip that he “voluntarily left due to sexual harassment and verbal abuse.” On December 5, 1991, he filed a sexual discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. His suit complained of both a hostile environment and quid pro quo sexual harassment.
When Oncale’s case reached the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court, he was denied judgment. Oncale’s attorneys appealed and the case eventually appeared before the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court Justices said men who sexually harass other men (and women who harass women) are discriminating and thus breaking the law. They based their findings on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to the E.E.O.C., the act states that,
“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
Sundowner based their defense on three separate arguments. The first claimed that in order for an act to be considered “sexual harassment” there must be a man and a woman involved. According to Sundowner, same sex harassment doesn’t exist. To this the Supreme Court replied, “When women and men are sexually violated, verbally or physically, they are targeted and harmed as women and as men…and citizens have a right to seek redress of such injuries” (Cloud).
The second argument made by Sundowner’s attorneys (a variation of the first) was that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was created specifically for women who have been harassed by men and does not apply to Joseph Oncale. In response, the Supreme Court stated that perpetrators of sexual harassment should derive no legal immunity from the gender of their victims.
Sundowner’s third argument against Oncale claimed that the Civil Rights Act was created to safeguard against gender discrimination, not to create a “general civility code among men.” In support of the argument, employees at Sundowner testified that Oncale wasn’t singled out for abuse, and that, “All males who go onto an offshore platform are subject to a kind of hazing.” Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Scalia, refused to accept that excuse for Oncale’s mistreatment. He replied, “Sexual harassment of any kind, is illegal” (Oncale Amicus Brief).
In my opinion, Sundowner’s treatment of Oncale was not simply a crime; it was a gross breach of morality. Whatever a person’s status, however powerful the perpetrator, however great the profits, there is no valid argument for abuse, sexual or otherwise, of another human being.
The Golden Rule is universal. It is not restricted by parameters that exclude people due to their, gender, race, color, sexuality, or personal strengths or weaknesses. I agree with Solomon who says, “Everyone has a right to human dignity, a right to basic respect, a right not to be humiliated, and in the workplace a right to do one’s job without compromise to one’s integrity and innermost self (258).
Lyons, Pippen and Brandon’s behavior would be considered immoral from any major ethical viewpoint. Both the Act Utilitarian and Rule Utilitarian theories are based on the assumption that every one in a group is considered an equal. Obviously, this was not the case. Oncale was targeted because he was perceived as weaker than his co-workers. A deontologist would assuredly point out that Oncale’s basic human rights were violated. His “personhood” was not respected.
Sundowner’s argument that same sex discrimination doesn’t exist is faulty. Sexual abuse of men by men is, and always has been, a serious and neglected social problem. Typically, men are raped by other men when they are isolated in a situation where there are no women; in prisons, in confined and isolated work sites, in the military, at all male colleges, and in athletics. Male sexual aggression has always had widespread negative effects and deep roots in egoism and perceived sexual inequality. I am glad the court recognized that some weaker members of society are targeted simply because they are easy targets.
When Sundowner claimed that Title VII was created specifically for women who have been harassed by men, it’s obvious they were trying to use the letter of the law, versus the spirit of the law to extricate themselves from a lawsuit and avoid harmful publicity. In reality, the act was written during a time when quid pro quo, man/woman sexual harassment was a highly controversial and political issue. However, I believe Sundowner was only trying to hide behind legalese armor and refused to admit that they failed in their more basic responsibility to protect the dignity, and physical and emotional well being of an employee. Regardless of Title VII’s original legal intent to protect women, the situation certainly applied to Joseph Oncale.
Again, I agree with Solomon who states, “Responsibility need not mean that you are the cause of the problem, it does mean, however, that you are in a position to do something about it, and just as important, that you ought to do something about it” (70).
John Lyons was guilty of a serious abuse of power. And because Oncale’s immediate supervisor was one of the main perpetrators, he had no recourse but to report the mistreatment to Lyon’s superiors. Indeed, Oncale followed the chain of command but Sundowner executives looked the other way when one of their employees was being cruelly harassed. They might have avoided the lawsuit altogether if they had taken immediate action when Oncale first complained. Their silence showed an extreme lack of compassion and was an indirect endorsement of the situation.
Sundowner’s attorneys also argued that the original intent of the Civil Rights Act was to safeguard against gender discrimination, not to create a “general civility code among men.” Even if Oncale’s treatment were a type of hazing, that all of Sundowner’s employees experienced, it was still wrong. “It’s a company tradition” doesn’t work as an excuse. Policies and company traditions should support ethics, not create them. Traditions can be wrong and when they are, they should be changed or eliminated.
I have a difficult time understanding the mindset of people that are able to treat others so brutally. It frightens me to apply Kant’s theory of universalizability in this case, but after a fair amount of research I realize that this type of male-aggressive behavior is more prevalent than I had ever imagined. It’s unsettling because it smacks of a “Lord of the Flies” mentality.
Men that engage in such behavior are obviously morally deficient, and that may not be changeable; but perhaps the Supreme Court’s judgment will at least let those same men know that the law considers such behavior morally and legally wrong, and from now on, they must pay for the crime of sexual harassment, regardless of their victim’s gender.
Solomon, Robert C. “The Right to Dignity: Harassment and Sex in the Office.” It’s Good Business: Ethics and Free Enterprise for the New Millennium. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997.
Cloud, John. “Harassed or Hazed?” Time Online Mar. 1998: Vol. 151.
Cornell University Law Department. Online. http://www.2law.cornell/edu
Oncale Amicus Brief. Online. http://members.aol.com/map/11215/Oncale/reader1.html