Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Proceed with Caution


Boston. -- I'm not surprised that the Navy brass went out looking for some kind of a traffic signal. After all, they got their reputation wrecked in that massive collision at Tailhook Junction. Nobody on the infamous third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton knew when to stop.

So, after cleaning up the bodies, the Navy has just come up with a little way to color code the complex issues of sexual harassment. In a pamphlet to officers and in a single page sent to commanding officers, the Navy has divided all relationships into three primary hues familiar to all of us from grade school: Red, yellow, and green.

For the color-blind, these are helpfully translated into basic, E-Z reader words. Stop, Use Caution, Go.

Stop? The red light district of sexual harassment encompasses rape, asking for sex in return for a good evaluation, and sending hate mail. The green zone includes "normal social interaction; polite compliments; touching which could not reasonably be perceived in a sexual or threatening way; and friendly conversation." See Jane, see Dick, see Spot.

But the yellow -- ah, the yellow -- zone includes ethnic, racial or sexual comments or jokes, violating personal "space," and touching "in a sexually suggestive way." The Navy adds: "How yellow behavior is perceived depends on the situation and the individuals involved, as well as others who can see or hear them."

This yellow zone is what used to be called the gray area before the Navy went technicolor. It's the color everyone reacts to whenever we talk about sexual harassment in the schools, the workplace or the military. Yellow makes a whole lot of people see red. In the nearly two years since the Hill-Thomas hearings and the Tailhook debacle, the question I still hear more than any other about sexual harassment is, "What about the gray area?"

The question seems to be most common among men who wonder whether and when they may have run a yellow light. Men who always assumed that they were in the green but now tell friends, colleagues and even reporters that they "don't know how to talk to women anymore."

Some will angrily describe how inhibited they feel. They talk about Behavior Police who take down their license number at every misdemeanor. Others are simply confused.

Well, yellow can be murky when mixed with gray. Sometimes, sexual harassment does indeed "depend." There is a much wider range of human behavior than can be seen in any color chart or, for that matter, heard in our language.

We have just one word -- harassment -- for behavior that includes the teen-age boy who yells "babe" in the high school hallway and the pilot who joins a gantlet in the hotel hallway. Maybe as Amitai Etzioni, the guru of the communitarian movement, has suggested, we ought to have first-degree, second-degree, third-degree harassment.

But I suspect that much of the uneasiness, the Queasy Yellows, comes from concern about just who is in the driver's seat. Sexual harassment as a concept, after all, has legitimized the point of view of the victim. It has, without question, shifted the old balance of power. And shifted the balance of self-consciousness.

Not long ago it was women who had to walk a fine behavioral line. They had to be attractive but not "asking for it," friendly but not "leading him on." They had to be firm in fending someone off, but not insulting. It was men who freely did the interpreting . . . and the misinterpreting.

If men are worrying now about how they should behave and how they are perceived -- by women -- it may be unnerving, it may be confounding. It may be a step forward.

In the middle of these simple and simple-minded guidelines, after all, it's clear that behavior which was once given a green light -- see Tailhook -- now puts a guy on Red Alert. The Navy even offers a decent traffic tip about life in the Yellow Zone. The yellow light turns red, the gray area turns black, when "this behavior is repeated, especially after being told it is not appropriate."

But we're still quite new at all this. It's going to take time to decipher one man's insensitivity from one woman's hypersensitivity, his idea of friendliness from her idea of aggressiveness. It's not just the Navy that's trying to figure out the new "Behavior Zones." We all are.

Once men made the rules. Now women are revising and updating them. Somewhere between the old and the new rules, smack in the middle of this busy intersection, we have to get a whole lot better at reading the signals.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad