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Sexual harassment, Miss America and the outrage of young, polite optimism

Sexual harassment cases under Title VII are difficult for many reasons. The alleged harassers are often mortified by the accusations, regardless of the degree of truth or falsehood therein. The claimants are generally hurt, angry and financially wounded, often humiliatingly so. Reputations of alleged harassers and claimants are on the line, especially in image-conscious professions like finance, law and politics. Juries vary in their level of sympathy for claimants and alleged harassers. The facts in some harassment cases are usually distasteful and sometimes, in the era of the publishing and photo studio that is the text message app on most cell phones, outright disgusting, outrageous and frightening. A lot of money can be at stake, particularly when a young claimant is beginning a high-income career and gets her career derailed. In addition, recent jurisprudence (Vance v. Ball State) makes it a good deal harder to take action against mid-level management abusers without an “according to Hoyle” and possibly career-jeopardizing formal report to management by the worker.

I know honorable attorneys who represent management, though it pleases me to have my clients and not theirs.

When a pre-eminent blogger sets her sights not on the target-rich environment of corporate sexual predators, abusers of young, low-wage workers who don’t know about law and don’t know any lawyers, on-the-job sexual assailants, but on … a high schooler who took a long shot and asked Miss America out on a prom date, what’s a working sexual harassment plaintiff’s lawyer to do? Start drinking scotch at 7 AM?

It’s conceivable that a celebrity would accept a long-shot prom date. The prominent actress Mila Kunis accepted from a stranger and Marine a date to a Marine Corps Ball, a formal event comparable to a high school prom. Last month, ESPN host Michelle Beadle accepted the prom date offer of Jack Jablonski, a high school athlete who suffered catastrophic injuries during a ice hockey check gone horribly wrong. Actress and model Kate Upton similarly accepted a prom date offer last year. I do not think that the young men in these cases deserve reprimands or moral reproach. Nor did the young man who extended the prom invitations to Miss America, aka Ms. Nina Davuluri, who visited Central York (PA) High to urge students to consider careers in science, math, engineering and technology. For its part, the Miss America Organization has asked the school system to rescind the suspension that the school imposed on him for asking this brilliant, unmarried woman out on a date.

Sexual harassment is about power. What power does some high schooler have to damage a visiting Miss America with one (admittedly long-shot) offer of a prom date? I look at my married clients with children who have lost their jobs and sometimes their houses from the retaliation by their harassers, who have suffered sexual crimes, and I just shake my head. Miss America can handle the worst that Central York High’s most incorrigible optimist can throw at her, and did so with exemplary grace. For my clients who have suffered actual – not ideologically contrived and “constructed” – harassment with ruthless retaliation, humiliation, fear and outrage, it’s no invitation to the prom.

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