Image: Capt. Owen Honors of the USS Enterprise
The Virginian Pilot via Reuters
Capt. Owen Honors of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise is pictured in this still image taken from a video. Honors was relieved of his command after the disclosure of his bawdy videos that featured slurs against homosexuals, simulated masturbation and toilet humor.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/10/2011 7:19:29 AM ET 2011-01-10T12:19:29

When Navy Capt. Owen Honors was relieved of his command last week over raunchy videos he made and showed to his crew, thousands of people rushed to his defense, claiming political correctness had gone too far.

Others said Honors deserved his fate, despite a long and distinguished military record, but the issue raises questions: When does sexually explicit language or behavior rise to the level of harassment? Is it ever acceptable in the workplace? The answers are not always easy.

Honors, who was commander of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, was relieved of his command over videos he made nearly five years ago, when he was the executive officer of the ship. The videos in question, apparently produced to boost morale in a combat theater, were part of pre-movie entertainment and included scenes of sailors showering; masturbation and sexist jokes; gays slurs; and a lot of cursing (particularly the “F bomb”).

After his dismissal, a “Support Captain Owen Honors” Facebook page quickly popped up and had more than 20,000 fans by the end of last week, including sailors who say they worked under Honors, and a host of active military, veterans and civilians.

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“Politicians don't know what we go through on these long deployments, so any boost to morale is a good one in my opinion," a supporter identified as Randall Sickler wrote on the Facebook page.

“I think people are just too damn sensitive," Courtney Gonzalez wrote. "I don't think the man did anything wrong. Captain Honors, I salute you!”

Sexual talk at work has long been a dicey proposition, but in recent years employers have become far more sensitive to complaints about how lewd behavior might create a hostile work environment, particularly for women in male-dominated fields, said Theresa Beiner, associate professor of law at the University of Arkansas' William H. Bowen School of Law.

As a result many employers have moved to reprimand or fire workers even though what they do may not be deemed sexual harassment under the law. Employers often act out of an abundance of caution as courts have been split “between those who think the workplace environment should be considered and those who think it shouldn’t be considered," she said.

Male-dominated fields such as the military, construction and the auto industry have long been flash points for the crusade against sexual harassment. “Often women coming in are resented,” Beiner said. But, she added, sometimes sexual references are just part and parcel of a working in a masculine environment.

Take another recent case coming out of the ultra-masculine workplace environment of professional football. Quarterback Brett Favre, who was fined $50,000 in an investigation over sexually explicit text messages he allegedly sent, also has been sued by two New York Jets massage therapists who claimed he asked them for a “three way.”

The Jets have said the suit is without merit, but it’s not the first time there have been complaints of sexual harassment in locker rooms or other workplaces with lots of guys, such as repair shops or vehicle assembly floors, or in sex-focused establishments like strip clubs or Hooters.

The excuse often is, “boys will be boys,” or they’re engaged in “shop talk,” said Jim Rosenfeld, a labor attorney with Butzel Long, a New York firm representing employers. “The problem is, it’s not always just boys.”

Rosenfeld said sexual harassment could be a form of workplace discrimination. For example if workers are getting together in the lunchroom and telling raunchy jokes they could be creating a hostile work environment for women or men who don’t want to be a part of it. If that then results in individuals being excluded from work-related activities, or they fail to get favored treatment such as promotions or plum assignments, it could be deemed discriminatory, he said.

Sexuality at work, however, isn’t always about keeping women or men down, or trying to get a date.

“Some workplaces have more sexualized cultures in which the people who work there tell sexual jokes or stories, make sexual innuendoes, flirt with each other or engage in sexual horseplay,” explained Vicki Schultz, professor of law at Yale University, and author of “The Sanitized Workplace,” an influential article on sexual harassment.

“These behaviors aren’t always designed to secure a sexual liaison. Sometimes they’re just a way for employees to enliven a boring job, to let off steam, or to reaffirm life in the face of danger or death. ... It all depends on the context in which they occur and the intent behind them.”

And, she noted, “In some workplaces where women are well-represented and well-respected and included and paid as true equals, for example, the women willingly participate in sex talk and horseplay and do not consider it sexual harassment.”

Indeed, many women and gays have come to Capt. Honors’ defense. They say military personnel, who put their lives on the line, sometimes have a greater need to blow off steam. Former Petty Officer Eric Prenger, a gay former Enterprise sailor, told WTKR-TV3 in Norfolk, Va., that he saw the videos as comedy, not an attack on gays, and he felt they helped lift spirits during long deployments.

“[Neither] myself, nor the other gay crew members that I knew of at the time, were ever offended by those videos,” he said.

Others believe Honors crossed the line.

“Capt. Owen Honors was acting more like the president of a frat house rather than the executive officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise,” said Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a military gay rights group, in a statement.

While a frat house may have certain protections as a private club, workplaces do not.

“Sexual harassment in any work environment is illegal,” said Christine Nazer, a spokeswoman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "The EEOC has even filed suit against a 'gentlemen's club' due to sexual harassment.”

The fear of being sued has prompted some employers to go overboard when it comes to keeping a lid on water-cooler sexuality.

Sometimes employers go way the other way and do not allow any kind of behavior, firing people who may not have harassed anyone, said AnnMcGinley, a law professor at the University of Nevada’s William S. Boyd School of Law. Some employers even have rules that say employees can’t date colleagues, he added.

“I think that’s way too much control over workers,” said McGinley. “Dating someone is not sexual harassment.”

Behavior only rises to the level of sexual harassment when it’s "severe and pervasive and creates a hostile work environment," she said.

“Watching a bunch of videos could be OK,” she said, “unless it’s affecting how these guys are acting toward their less masculine colleagues, male or female.”

Unfortunately, the Navy doesn’t have a great track record in this regard.

Don't be like Boehner -- leave tears at home

“The Navy historically has not been an institution that treated women and gay and lesbian people equally,” said Yale’s Schultz. “Given this historic structural inequality, sexualized and derogatory comments by a high-ranking official would be more likely to signal discriminatory intent and to be perceived [as] discriminatory.”

Paul Dobransky, a Chicago psychiatrist, believes it all comes down to the differences between men and women.

“We are simply different instinctually in what drives us and in the motivations we have,” he said. “It doesn’t mean either gender is wrong or unequal.”

A lack of mutual understanding by men and women about those differences, he said, “is a point of pain in our society,” adding that the best approach for us all is to “treat people generally with respect.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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