Sexual harassment in the American workplace continues to be a mysterious issue that torments men and women at all ends of the social, professional and political spectrums.

Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain and his expanding circle of accusers are but the latest to duke this troubling issue out on a very public stage, and there are countless people who struggle with it in tortured privacy. Occasionally, it is obvious that a wrong — maybe even an actual assault — has occurred, but many times the issue boils down to this.

11-16-11-margaretart.jpgWhat the heck is sexual harassment?

My first and only up close and personal encounter with what might be termed sexual harassment took place in the hallway of the office of my second employer.

I was freshly out of college, thrilled to be working in a well-respected company and eager to learn and to succeed in my chosen industry.

My-entry level position required that I go with my immediate boss to the private office of the big boss for a regularly scheduled meeting. The big boss was a man of significant achievements and is still remembered as a pioneer in his industry. He evoked respect and sometimes fear in those who worked with, and certainly in those who worked for, him.

At the time I arrived at his legendary business, he was relinquishing the reins to younger family members, although he did appear in his office every day from about 10 to 2, accompanied by his wife/secretary who watched him like a hawk. He was probably 85 or older, which seemed impossibly ancient from my early 20-something vantage point.

One day as I followed my immediate boss down the hallway for this regular meeting, I felt a solid pinch to my posterior and turned around to see the big boss, a now-tiny old fellow shrunken to be shorter than I, grinning up at me like an imp with his eyes all a-twinkle. Somehow, he had momentarily escaped the eagled-eyed wife who obviously had his number and was pleased as punch to be loose in the hall!

To say I was fl abbergasted hardly describes my reaction.

I was speechless with shock and riveted to that spot in the hallway. I am still surprised when I think of this little incident today.

But what really happened?

Was this inappropriate behavior by the biggest boss of all to a very junior member of his staff? You betcha!

Was this sexual harassment? Did I feel I was being asked to do something I did not want to do or that my job was being threatened?

I do not mean to make light of sexual harassment in the workplace. It is a real phenomenon that causes untold distress and damages careers on all sides. The problem is that it is just so dif cult to define, much less to prove.

Using the little example from the mists of my own career, what were the big boss’s intentions? Did he think he was acting inappropriately? Did he intend for me to feel threatened by that pinch? Was this a pattern of behavior or was it a one-time impulse by a man heading into his sunset who just happened to feel frisky one day when opportunity walked down the hall?

And how did I react? Was I frightened? Did I fear a repeat or that this incident might haunt my career with his company and possibly beyond?

What if I had called the incident sexual harassment and made an issue of it?

To my knowledge, no one saw this happen, even though I did tell my immediate boss about it and we had a good chuckle over the notion of the big boss’s “escape” from the Mrs. There were no bruises, so how could I have proven that the incident ever occurred?

The big boss, a well known and well-respected man, could have simply denied that pinch and dismissed my allegations as not only false but mercenary.

That is the underlying problem with charges of sexual harassment.

Like art, sexual harassment is in the eye of the beholder.

Maybe the big boss did intend something nefarious and I did not understand, or maybe I should have felt more threatened than I did even if he did not intend anything more than actually occurred.

Moreover, not only may the parties involved perceive the situation differently, but even when both know that something quite untoward has occurred, it is virtually impossible to prove one way or the other. Short of an actual witness, a recording or a smoking gun of a blue dress with DNA on it, sexual harassment is too often reduced to a case of “he said, she said.”

All of which brings us back to Herman Cain and the women who allege he sexually harassed them. I suspect that as in most such cases, we will never know what happened between Cain and any of them.

Voters considering supporting Cain will simply have to use their own best judgment.

Photo: Like art, sexual harassment is often in the eye of the beholder. What happened and who did what to who often is hard to prove and harder still to understand.

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