Men of all political persuasions have been grabbing, fondling, propositioning and assaulting women for a long time. Occasionally a particularly flagrant perpetrator gets caught in public, sometimes with unpleasant consequences for him, sometimes with none at all. Suddenly we face an avalanche of news about the hidden gropers among us.
It’s not just creeps like Harvey Weinstein who are now suffering for their sins. A number of famous “good guys” turn out to have systematically abused women: of course Bill Cosby, but also Dustin Hoffman, Matt Lauer, and Kevin Spacey. The list keeps growing.
The national attention to victims of sexual abuse and punishing perpetrators is new, but it’s been a long time coming.
The national attention to victims of sexual abuse and punishing perpetrators is new, but it’s been a long time coming. When Anita Hill said in 1991 that Clarence Thomas repeatedly harassed her, even Democratic Senators did not take her accusations seriously. The Me Too slogan was started 10 years ago by Tarana Burke, a black woman incensed by sexual abuse, who began the organization Just Be Inc. to help victims. When the actress Alyssa Milano sent out her famous tweet, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” just two months ago, she did not know that Burke had used the tag before.
Harassment happens everywhere and has been kept a dirty secret everywhere. After the movie industry and television and journalism, problems have surfaced in the hospitality industry and state politics. Institutions of higher learning are just now being forced to come to grips with serial harassers.
The grabbers come in all political flavors: four Republican and three Democratic Congressmen have resigned or have announced the end of their careers in the last two months. Both NPR (Charlie Rose) and Fox News (Bill O’Reilly) have lost big personalities.
But the national outrage over bad male behavior does have a significant partisan tinge. That partisan nature of sexual assault politics was brought out into the open by two recent polls. In a Quinnipiac survey, there is only a slight difference between Democrats and Republicans about whether sexual harassment is a “serious problem”: 94% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans said yes.
A TIME poll showed more significant political differences. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe female accusers, 93% to 78%. Republicans are much more likely to think the media treat the men unfairly, 52% to 20%.
The power of Republican partisanship over issues of character was revealed by questions about what should happen if a Congressman is accused of sexual harassment. While over 70% of both Republicans and Democrats agreed that this Congressman should resign if he is a Democrat, only 54% of Republicans said he should resign if he is Republican.
The issue of immoral and illegal sexual behavior became deeply politicized by the case of Roy Moore, which shows how partisanship can distort ideas of morality. Republicans at the national and state level gyrated wildly, trying to come up with a reasonable response to an accused sexual predator and child molester who might be a crucial vote in the divided Senate.
Because Moore constantly quotes the Bible and represents all the right political positions of evangelical conservatives, the “family values” and religious moralizing crowd were faced with a dilemma. While a few prominent Republicans took the moral side, like Senators Richard Shelby of Alabama and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, many equivocated (Mitch McConnell) and many put politics first, notably Donald Trump.
Thus questions about politicians and sex were implicitly questions about Alabama and control of the Senate. Questions like this one: “If a political candidate has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, would you still consider voting for them if you agreed with them on the issues?” Only 12% of Democrats, but 43% of Republicans would consider voting for such a candidate.
The Roy Moore problem for Republicans has gone away, but an even bigger problem remains – Donald Trump. Republican politicians and voters decided last year that multiple accusations of sexual assault and some open bragging by Trump about grabbing women, caught on tape, were not enough to disqualify him as a presidential candidate. Now when asked what should happen if Trump were proven to have harassed women, 88% of Democrats but only 28% of Republicans said he should be impeached.
Sexual harassment and assault are about power, the power of men over women, and sometimes the reverse, which permits holders of power to commit crimes of personal behavior in the belief that they are safe from consequences. Harvey Weinstein’s assertion, “You know what I can do,” stands for the threat that has forced victims into silence and others into complicity.
The silence is now broken. Every day another creep is outed, another powerful man loses his power to humiliate, shame, and demean women.
Our culture is still far too focused on women’s bodies and men’s appetites to expect that harassment will stop. But creeps like Moore, Weinstein, Cosby, and even Trump can no longer expect to get away with a lifetime of hunting and abusing women. That’s progress.
Taking Back Our Lives