Sex at the SEC, Washington learns from the Mafia, a couple of big Dukakis fans, and other matters. THE MISTLETOE MENACE

(FORTUNE Magazine) – In which we inaugurate Keeping Up's first annual report on sexual harassment (SH). Although not identified as a social problem in the first 1,979 years of the Christian Era, SH now threatens to overwhelm Nexis, whose database includes 978 news stories on the subject in the first 11 1/2 months of the 1,989th year. The problem is now utterly pervasive, especially among America's traditional authority figures: Congressmen, clergymen, lawyers, judges, even the sainted Securities and Exchange Commission. First, a few distinctions. Some of what's called SH is behavior in the range from vicious to boorish, and nobody here wishes to defend it. But a lot of those 978 stories suggest that the land is full of humorless characters whose kvetches would be laughed out of the room if administrators were not now terrified of harassment charges. Is it really impossible for a college president to just ignore a psychology professor complaining that mistletoe in the Christmas season presents a harassment problem? (The president in question, at Moorhead State University in Minnesota, cravenly agreed to move any offending sprigs.) The case at the SEC, featuring unending shenanigans at a regional office near Washington, D.C., embodied a major theme in current SH reportage: the prevalence of ''hostile environment'' cases. These have multiplied ever since 1986, when the Supreme Court discovered that SH covers a lot more than plain old demands for sexual favors. It also covers any sex-related speech and behavior that could make women (and in principle men) feel uncomfortable. Heavily influenced by this new legal logic, the SEC case had a weird denouement. The woman who complained of the sex-drenched environment -- and argued that her resistance to the casting couch had cost her some raises and promotions -- won a huge back-pay award after a long hearing. But the characters she was complaining about were not penalized, apparently because their amours, earlier documented in steamy detail, were deemed consensual. It would make a great movie, possibly financed by Michael Milken. The hostile-environment rule has had a ricochet effect on harassment law. The rule means that it's actionable harassment, and a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to tell jokes that are or might be -- you can never be sure until the laffmeter registers -- offensive to women. But administrators writing rules against such jokes will instantly observe that women are not the only folks who get offended these days. So the rules at many institutions (especially colleges) increasingly ban harassment on the basis of all the other familiar categories. Emory University, for example, now forbids ''discriminatory harassment'' on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, handicap, or veteran status. In next year's SH report, we will indicate whether joke telling at Emory has ceased completely.