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May 26, 2008

Women Harassing Men

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A clear factor in cases brought by men is the difficulty society might have believing they would be offended by a come-on. No real man rebuffs sexual attention, goes the thinking, so how can he even be sexually harassed? “It’s sort of a societal taboo. A man’s going to complain because a woman’s hitting on him? What’s wrong with him?” says Alexis McKenna, a lawyer who litigates such cases. Men simply haven’t been raised to think of themselves as potential victims — making it all the more difficult to protest. “It’s much more shameful for men to have to confront sexual harassment and admit it,” says University of Maine sociologist Amy Blackstone. “It’s something that gets joked about.”

Just ask James Stevens, a soft-spoken, devout Christian who worked for more than 15 years at a Vons supermarket in Simi Valley, CA, who claims that a coworker named Laura Marko was inappropriate with him every day for two years. “Most black men would love to have a white woman sexually harass them — that’s what I’d hear,” he says. “But I couldn’t be more repulsed. She would ask me point-blank, Do I go down on my wife? When I announced that my wife was pregnant, she suggested that if my wife had done a different act, she wouldn’t have gotten pregnant.”

Stevens finally complained, and the company transferred him. “And the first thing out of my wife’s mouth is, ‘Why are they transferring you if she was harassing you?’ In the back of her mind, she was thinking maybe I could have been harassing this woman,” he says. His coworkers thought that, too. The rumor spread. And then Vons fired him.

“It really destroyed my family,” Stevens says. “It destroyed my life.” He spent most of his days lost in a prescribed narcotic cocktail — Zyprexa and Celexa and Vicodin — and then his wife took their baby daughter and left.

Determining that Vons fired him in retaliation for his complaining about being sexually harassed, a jury awarded Stevens $18 million, one of the largest decisions of its kind. (Vons has appealed.) But when I call Laura Marko and tell her that I’m writing a story about male victims of sexual harassment, she laughs hysterically (not to mention bitterly). “It was actually the other way around,” she says. “He was just a guy waiting for an opportunity.”

Of course, there are men who might just resent the increasing presence and influence of women in the workplace, who don’t like that times have changed for good. For those men, is lodging a sexual-harassment complaint the ultimate retaliation — the way to make a woman’s gender her downfall?

Or maybe they just feel...harassed. Consider the case of former senior undercover drug detective Matt Floeter, a deeply tanned 41-year-old with bulging muscles and eyes the color of the South Florida ocean. From the day Sergeant Barbara Jones took over as the supervisor of his hard-core, paramilitary-style unit of the Orlando Police Department, she could not keep her hands to herself, he says, grabbing and hugging him and the other guys every time they passed her desk in their big, open box of an office. “She was like a kid in a candy shop,” he says. “She had a full-court press on me all the time” — even rubbing her groin against him, he says, and at least once humping his leg, just like their unit’s drug-sniffing dog, Gunney.

It’s hard to believe that this tough guy — who once shot a whacked-out dealer five times in a bust gone bad and who was commended for valor by former Attorney General John Ashcroft for doing it — would allow a woman pushing 50 to molest him. Floeter explains: “Hey, that is a sergeant, and you have got to bow down and say, ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am,’ and you have to respect the rank.” Plus, she was personal pals with her supervisor.

And yet Floeter did complain, finally, after three months of the alleged behavior, following a closed-door meeting with Jones in which she came down on him about his poor work ethic and threatened to subpoena his phone records because he was using his cell phone while on duty for calls related to his personal business, Aqua Cops. After another argument during a unit meeting in which Jones detailed changes she was set to implement that Floeter felt would undercut his investigative work and damage his reputation, Floeter drove straight to Internal Affairs and reported her for sexual harassment. The city settled out of court with Floeter last December, for an undisclosed amount. For her part, Barbara Jones was reprimanded for conduct unbecoming an officer.

“It was horrible,” says Jones, who is now the public-information officer for the Orlando Police Department. “Especially when you didn’t do anything, but you don’t have any proof that you didn’t.”

Her explanation is simple: She was forcing the detectives to be accountable for their productivity, and they didn’t like it. “They’re all macho and aggressive and the best of the best and don’t mess with us kind of thing,” she says.

Who’s telling the truth — the befuddled woman with the sweet Southern accent, now 53, or the defiant detective who drove 260 miles on a Sunday to tell me his side of the story?

Sure, Jones had hugged her men — “in a congratulatory way,” she says. But it wasn’t anything weird. That’s how a woman shows appreciation. That’s just what a woman does. Isn’t it?

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