You've Come How Far, Baby?

In what can only be regarded as a dirty joke, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' long-awaited autobiography is appearing in stores just as a New York City jury has found that New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas sexually harassed a colleague. The jury ordered Madison Square Garden -- corporate parent of the Knicks -- and its chairman to pay $11.6 million to Anucha Browne Sanders, a former top executive for the team who was fired when she complained about the latter Thomas' inappropriate behavior.

It's about as far as you can get from the days of Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearing in 1991, when sexual harassment was a rather new concept outside of legal circles and a hostile work environment was something women were frequently counseled to tolerate because boys will be boys. During the trial, Browne Sanders described a corporate work environment that resembled a frat house run amok. Thomas was allowed to refer to women he disagreed with as "bitches" and "hos," sex talk was common, groping tolerated, and bad behavior encouraged. We can only hope the Knicks, Thomas, and the organization's chairman James Dolan -- ordered to pay $3 million of the total fine -- have learned their lesson. But please, let's avoid the usual calls for the end of workplace romance that inevitably follows these cases as it did after Thomas-Hill. Harassment is not romance.

In our book, Office Mate: The Employee Manual for Finding -- and Managing -- Romance on the Job, we demonstrate that consensual romantic relationships between employees are a commonplace. Half of all American workers will date a colleague at least once. Of that group, at least 20 percent will end up in a long-term relationship, whether in the form of marriage or living together, with their office mate. Considering that most people seem to manage these situations like the adults they are, calling for an end to office romance smacks of social engineering. And given the numbers involved, it's also unlikely to be effective.

So instead of telling employees that workplace romance is a bad idea -- how bad can it be given that Barack Obama met his then-supervisor wife there -- maybe they should be reminded what distinguishes it from harassment. A few simple ground rules that someone might have mentioned to the Knicks' management: No means no. We all deserve to work in a civilized environment. And people who feel they are the objects of sexual harassment deserve a fair hearing, not a quick trip to the unemployment office.

Sexual harassment is not a crime of passion. It's a crime of humiliation and an act of aggression -- the powerful slapping down the less powerful. Like rape, it doesn't happen because the victim behaved flirtatiously or wore a short skirt. It has nothing to do with expressing romantic interest. It is instead about showing women that their place is at an ironing board, not on an executive board.

Interestingly, the people who best comprehend what sexual harassment is all about are the harassers themselves. When called to account, they frequently point to the accuser's work history as a defense. Just as Justice Thomas wrote in his book that accuser Anita Hill was a third-rate lawyer and a tool of pro-choice abortion forces greater than herself, lawyers for the Knicks attempted to prove that Browne Sanders was an incompetent employee who deserved to be canned despite excellent evaluations from superiors prior to her complaint.

These days, mercifully, most of us are less likely to fall for these ploys. The Isiah Thomas jury certainly didn't. But before you say you've come a long way baby, consider this: No one affiliated with the Knicks besides Anucha Browne Sanders has yet to be fired over this mess. And Clarence Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court.