No rational person can deny that sexual harassment occurs. A boss may pressure an employee to have a sexual relationship with him or her and make that a condition for continued employment or an incentive to promotion. A person may initiate unwanted sexual contact or fondle another person when no consent has been given. There are crude, low people out there, and when they do wrong, they should be held responsible and punished.

However, like many such issues in American society, there is an Puritanical ideology which identifies any kind of sexual interest, especially by males, as “sexual harassment.” This has led to sexual harassment policies in which a person de facto is presumed guilty until proven innocent and which lead to a denial of any kind of due process. This is the case in extremis with the “Policy against Harassment” of the North Carolina Poetry Society.

The policy does have a clause that rightfully condemns any form of sexual violence. However, the definition of “sexual harassment” below is chock full of problems.

“Sexual harassment consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or unwanted sexual attention by anyone associated with NCPS, whether male or female. Harassment may include, but is not limited to, requests for dates, touching, staring at, obscene jokes, lewd comments, sexual depictions, or other inappropriate conduct committed either on or off premises used by the Society” (NC Poetry Society Website).

Note that the policy applies “on or off premises used by the Society.” Thus, the policy extends to the relationships members may have with one another outside society meetings. The NC Poetry Society is not the be and end all of a person’s life. I am sure many members know one another outside of the Society meetings and socialize in other contexts. One should keep that in mind when considering the policy.

Since when did a “request for a date” constitute sexual harassment? I am not talking about a crude pass or any kind of obscene request, but something as simple as “Would you like to have dinner with me Saturday night?” Does that one request constitute sexual harassment? The policy does not say–it is so open-ended that someone who knows a person outside of a NCPS meeting could be considered guilty of sexual harassment for one request for a date. While the NCPS may deny that is what the policy means, the wording allows for that interpretation.

What about multiple requests for dates. I have read stories of people who have been happily married for many years in which a man asked his future wife four or more times for a date. This is not the Puritanical la la land o liberal creative writers, but often reflects actual human behavior. I would bet that the happily married wife would have something to say to the NCPS members who wrote this policy.

When does “staring at” become illegal “staring at.” I am aware that there is an obviously lewd sense of “staring at” that is wrong, for example, if a man is clearly looking down a woman’s shirt. But this wording opens the door to false accusations that can damage a good person’s reputation. Take a person who is slightly autistic or has what used to be called “Asperger’s Syndrome.” Often these persons have difficulty looking someone in the eye. If the autistic person lowers his head, will that automatically be interpreted as a lewd stare? Sometimes autistic people are in their own little world and are staring into space. If their eyes “look like they’re in the wrong place,” does this count as “sexual harassment”? One does not have to be autistic to give the impression of “staring wrongly.” We might as well stay on our computers and I-Pads and have no face to face interaction with other people.

I have been touched by “touchy feely” people, and I’m sure we know people like that–very outgoing, extending their hands, touching a shoulder, with no hint of sexual meaning in those touches. I am not certainly not offended by such touches, but I have more common sense than many creative writers. I am not “touchy feely,” but I am clumsy–if I trip into someone and touch that person, will that count as “sexual harassment?”

This policy is one of the worst written sexual harassment policies I have seen, but sadly is indicative of a societal trend. The Obama Administration has come up with similar overly broad policies for colleges and universities that in effect make every person guilty until proven innocent. How, with such policies, could someone accused falsely defend him or herself? We might as well be living in a Stalinist world in which everyone fears that everyone else is going to inform on them, whether the “information” presented to the authorities is actually true.

In sum, the North Carolina Poetry Society’s “Policy against Harassment” is totalitarian, is too broadly written, lacks any means for due process, and de facto assumes the accused to be guilty until proven innocent. it is an utterly unjust and immoral policy.