Workplace-Romance Double Standard

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April 6 1997 3:30 AM

Workplace-Romance Double Standard

It can get you a prison term or a promotion--depending on where you work.

Army Capt. Derrick Robertson got sentenced the other day to four months in prison for having consensual sex with a 20-year-old (female) private. Meanwhile, the media buzz is about another workplace romance: between ABC News President David Westin, in the midst of a divorce, and ABC Vice President Sherrie Rollins, wife of perennially embarrassed political consultant Ed Rollins. Westin was Rollins' boss until, in the midst of all the rumors about their liaison, they both got promoted.

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Clearly, on the subject of workplace romance, the media and the Army operate by different rules. And the rules in the (civilian) government are different still. Former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, estranged from his wife and nearly inseparable from his former deputy, had that relationship hanging over his head when he told the president to withdraw his nomination to be CIA chief. Other appointments are never proposed and political campaigns are never launched (in addition to those that are famously derailed, like Gary Hart's) because of the threat that some sexual misadventure will become front-page news.

Would a bit of consistency be small-minded in this case? We can scarcely avoid love at work: To paraphrase Willie Sutton, that's where the opposite sex is. There are good reasons for strict rules in the military, where a superior can send a subordinate into life-threatening battle. Still, if you throw nearly 200,000 females into close quarters with a million or so males, under immense stress combined with stretches of boredom and laced with loneliness, some of the Jacks are going to fall in love--or lust--with some of the Jills. And a difference in rank is a permeable barrier.

Abuse of women must be punished. But for consensual sex, has the Army ever considered a policy of "ask and tell," with direct reports being reassigned and the others being left alone?

At the other extreme, ABC (which won't say whether it has any rules at all) is off-base too. Corporate executives don't risk their lives in battle, but there is career death--or enhancement--at stake, as well as fairness. Since the classic 1980 case of William Agee and Mary Cunningham--he was chairman of Bendix; he promoted her rapidly to vice president; they denied an affair; she was forced out; they married--many companies have instituted the policy that when a subordinate and a boss get involved, at least one gets reassigned.

ABC's Ted Koppel simply blew off the Westin-Rollins affair to the Washington Post, citing human frailties. A network representative says the matter "doesn't deserve the attention it's getting." Yet ABC, like all the networks, is quick to pounce when the lifestyles of the rich and famous, including politicians, go astray. The Army is proceeding against other soldiers under a draconian code that can transform consensual sex into constructive rape, if it happens across ranks. But there must be some middle way between that sad spectacle and ABC's above-it-all double standard. In or out of uniform, we're all under the sway of the same birds and bees.

Margaret Carlson is a columnist at Time magazine.

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