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Rio Law Forbids Sexual Harassment, but Is It Unenforceable?

January 13, 1992

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ Rio state has passed Brazil’s first law against sexual harassment, but critics predict ″machismo″ and relaxed attitudes toward sex will make it impossible to enforce.

The law, enacted by the state assembly in November, makes sexual harassment of female employees a crime punishable by fines of up to $20,000. In severe cases, the offending company’s business license can be revoked.

Legislators voted in mid-October, during U.S. Senate hearings on confirming Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice. Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment by Thomas received widespead attention in Brazil, and supporters of the Rio bill say the impact helped secure nearly unanimous support.

Rep. Carlos Minc said he sponsored the bill because of his secretary, Ada Rubia Azevedo, 28, who told him she was harassed repeatedly by former bosses.

She told Minc she was fired from several jobs after refusing advances and once threw a jar to discourage a supervisor’s persistent attempts to kiss her neck.

In a televised debate, Minc assured viewers he did not want to do away with casual flirting or passes, which are popular pastimes he described as ″democratic rights.″

″This law is not against seduction,″ he declared. ″What’s wrong is to use power to obtain what you can’t win with charm, romance, physical beauty or a poem.″

Rio’s rather carefree attitude toward sex was illustrated in the debate.

Ana Lucia Gregatti, the moderator, said making sexual harassment a crime would leave few Brazilian men eligible for public office.

Minc joked that he would be tempted to violate his own law if he worked in the same ofice as a fellow panelist, an attractive secretary named Simone Furtado.

In turn, Ms. Furtado worried that casual office flirtation would fall victim to the statute, producing a drab office atmosphere. Passes are fine, she said, unless they are ″heavy.″

Ms. Furtado, 29, called herself a ″natural feminist″ and said Minc’s law was sexist because it did not allow for the possibility of women harassing men.

″The statute puts us back in the category of the ‘fragile sex,’ which we struggled so long to escape from,″ she said after the debate. ″We are able to resolve these problems with frank discusion and without the law’s help.″

Even skeptics say sexual harassment is a serious problem in Brazil.

Of 300 women polled in November by the O Globo newspaper, 75 percent reported suffering sexual harassment. The most common form was lewd, offensive talk, but many also complained of unwanted physical contact and promises of promotions in exchange for sex.

″Sexism is so ingrained and internalized that many Brazilians, including women, don’t even consider sexual harassment to be anything out of the ordinary,″ said Richard Parker, an American anthropologist who wrote ″Bodies, Pleasures and Passions: Sexual Culture in Contemporary Brazil.″

Rosemarie Muraro, a prominent feminist, said critics of the Rio statute were confusing harassment with sex.

″Minc’s legislation does not punish innocent flirtation, but coercion and crass behavior,″ she said. ″This bill gives women a means to fight back.″

A model, Nani Venancio, said passes were an integral part of life in Rio.

″The judicial system has more important things to do,″ she said, ″like taking care of abandoned children and combatting urban violence.″

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