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Why the (Allegedly) Kissed May Not Tell

As aspersions fly between Ms. Willey and White House, the public glimpses the complexity of harassment cases.

Your boss makes a crude, unwelcome sexual advance. You repulse him (or her, though that's less likely). Yet rather than denounce the behavior from the rooftops you maintain the business relationship - even keeping up a stream of subtly flattering notes and remarks.

Who would do that? In reality, lots of people.

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Thus, much of the White House campaign to dent the veracity of Kathleen Willey may be a bit beside the point, according to experts. The chatty letters she continued to send President Clinton long after a meeting where she alleges that he groped her don't indicate she is now lying.

Neither do they mean she is telling the truth. But in judging her story, the American people should keep in mind that incidents of sexual harassment and their aftermath seldom have the clarity of movie plotlines.

"We have all continued to have relationships with people after they have wronged us, for reasons of our own," says Susan Webb, president of Seattle-based Pacific Resource Development Group.

Ms. Webb stresses that she does not know enough about the case of former White House volunteer Willey to comment on her truthfulness. But continued business relations in the wake of harassment incidents are common, Webb says. In one recent case she has been involved with, a prominent male labor law attorney made obscene suggestions to an associate. She refused him but did not sever ties outright, fearing a loss of referral business.

Recently the male attorney has been sending less and less work to the associate, however. The women believes that her spurning of him is the cause.

The 1991 battle over the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court involved allegations that echo the Willey case, experts point out. Backers of Judge Thomas tried to discredit the harassment charges of Anita Hill by noting that she continued to work with him after his alleged advances.

Several themes run through all these cases, says Webb. Most important, the harassed people believe they can still extract something of economic value from the relationship.

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Also, physical fear must not be an issue. However crude the come-on, if the harasser takes "no" for an answer, and does not continue advances, harassees often keep quiet. "A lot of it has to do with the intent of the perpetrator," says Webb.

Often harassees avoid being alone again with the superior in question, even as they keep up the front of the relationship. If they admired the person who approached them they might also begin to blame themselves for somehow attracting the approach.

If Willey's allegations are true, "I would think she thought it was a one-time thing. She might have been in denial that it even happened," says Rita Risser, a sexual-harassment expert at Fair Measures, a human-resources training firm in Santa Cruz, Calif.

A sample of US working women contacted by the Monitor agreed that it is not implausible for victims of sexual harassment to suffer in silence.

"I think maybe [Willey] thought it would work. She was going along with him in a way," says Marilyn Fike, a Seattle foundation official.

But that does not translate into unqualified support for Willey's story. Other aspects of the case, such as a statement by a friend of Willey's that she was asked to lie about the allegations to reporters, appear damaging to her credibility.

The American public appears to have shrugged off Willey's charges. An ABC poll conducted March 17 showed satisfaction with the president's job performance remains high, at 66 percent.

One reason for the continued high ratings, according to experts: Willey's allegations are nothing new.

She was composed and sincere-sounding, true. But polls generally show that about two-thirds of Americans already believe that their chief executive does not have high moral standards. His ratings reflect satisfaction with his public actions, not with his character.

Ironically, women continue to be stronger Clinton supporters than men, in general. Women also take a harsher view of the president's accusers.

A Gallup poll released this week found that 24 percent of men had a favorable view of Kathleen Willey, while only 22 percent of women held a similar opinion. Twenty-four percent of men were favorable towards Monica Lewinsky, according to Gallup, but only 19 percent of men were so inclined.

Inside Washington, where politics is a major league sport, Willey's TV appearance was seen as a possible turning point in attitudes towards the president. Outside the Beltway, it has apparently been received as just another part of a puzzle voters lost interest in long ago.

"More than anything people are mostly tired of hearing about this," says Catherine O'Connor, an Indianapolis think-tank official. "The whole thing seems a bit juvenile, and with so many other pressing things going on maybe we need to be paying attention to other issues."

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