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Sexual Abuse of Power

AMERICANS have been getting quite an education on sexual abuses of power. Since last fall we have had in rapid succession Anita Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas; the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, who was acquitted; and the rape conviction of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.

Now Sen. Brock Adams (D) of Washington has abandoned his bid for reelection in the wake of a newspaper article accusing him of sexual improprieties with at least eight women.

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These cases shouldn't be lumped together unfairly. Of the men involved, only Tyson has been proved guilty of wrongdoing. Smith acknowledged having sexual relations with his accuser but said she consented. Justice Thomas and Senator Adams strongly deny the allegations against them.

Three aspects link the cases, however. First, because they involve prominent men, the cases have raised the issues of sexual harassment and acquaintance rape to a new, and needed, level of public awareness.

Second, they have increased public alertness to the many different kinds of sexual coerciveness. The allegations against Senator Adams involve unwelcomed physical contact with women who worked with or for him; Anita Hill's accusations of verbal sexual harassment should sensitize men to conduct that, though it doesn't involve touching, is virtually as intrusive and demeaning.

The charges against Tyson and Smith remind us that acquaintance rape can be premeditated or spontaneous; in either case it's wrong.

Third, all the cases came to light because women, sometimes reluctantly but in all cases bravely, challenged men who were more powerful than they and had greater legal and public-relations resources. To curb the kinds of sexual abuses involved or alleged in these cases, more victims must be ready to step forward, and society and the law - while protecting the rights of accused men - must make it less fearsome and costly for female victims to speak up.

There are signs that pulling sexual misconduct by "reputable" and powerful males out of the shadows has already helped deter such conduct. Public scrutiny, though often unpleasant, is necessary.

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