Opinion | How Cuomo is exploiting public confusion over the definition of sexual harassment

Reporters lastly had an opportunity this week to ask New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo about “all the groping, the sexual harassment” that current and former staffers have alleged in current months. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Cuomo insisted, regardless of having apologized in March for “acting in a way that made people feel uncomfortable.” He also denied even engaging in the underlying acts several women have reported.

How can all these claims be true?

Cuomo seems to be following the tried-and-true playbook used by powerful men accused of sexual harassment throughout modern history.

Cuomo seems to be following the tried-and-true playbook used by powerful men accused of sexual harassment throughout modern history: deny and obfuscate. Use your public stature to reinforce a flat denial of sexual assault or other unwanted sexual advances. And seize on definitional ambiguity to deny that any other actions “that made people feel uncomfortable” depend as sexual harassment.

A lawyer for Cuomo has defended the governor’s unsolicited kisses and “ciao bellas” by saying that he’s not a sexual harasser — he’s just “old-fashioned.” But what’s actually old-fashioned, and obsolete, is the definition of sexual harassment used by many popular media outlets and workplace harassment trainings where most people get their understanding of what sexual harassment is. For decades, legal cases have made clear that sexual harassment includes sexist insults and gendered demands, not just sexualized advances. But most people get their understanding of sexual harassment from the stories told in the news and at work, not from esoteric legal sources. Cuomo is taking advantage of people’s confusion about the nature of the problem — and what needs to be done about it.

Take the information media. Even The New York Times has promoted a very slim sexualized conception of sexual harassment in its reporting, as we explained in a 2019 article. In 2017, the Times helped ignite the #MeToo motion with its Pulitzer prize-winning reporting on alleged harassers like Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly. The protection adopted a well-known sample: A strong man in an influential discipline is accused of making undesirable sexual advances with girls whose careers rely on him. The harassment is top-down, male-to-female, and, most vital, sexualized. The Times even defines sexual harassment this way, as “a range of behaviors that are sexual in nature and nonconsensual.” Most different media shops have considered and coated sexual harassment in an analogous method.

So, too, have employer policies and training programs, the sources designed to inform people about their rights. More Americans probably receive training on sexual harassment than any other legal topic, except perhaps drivers’ education. Yet, a comprehensive survey one of us conducted many years ago found that, without exception, employer policies defined harassment exclusively as unwelcome sexual advances and other sexual conduct, including sexual jokes and remarks. A more recent study found that little had changed. In an extensive analysis of sexual harassment trainings up to 2016, the vast majority of companies continued to define harassment in purely sexual terms.

As a authorized matter, the sexualized definition of harassment contained in these on a regular basis sources is over 20 years out of date. Worse, this definition leaves out most of the harassment women (and others) actually face on the job. Study after study exhibits that almost all harassment doesn’t contain sexual advances or coercion. More usually, harassment includes nonsexualized acts that demean, exclude, sabotage, assault or in any other case mark women as unwelcome, incompetent, insignificant or just “different,” because of their sex. Sexist put-downs are extra widespread, and simply as unlawful, as sexual come-ons.

The Supreme Court acknowledged this broader conception of sexual harassment way back to 1998, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia involving a person harassed by his male co-workers on an oil rig. The courtroom dominated that “sexual harassment” doesn’t need to be sexual in motivation or content material to represent illegal office intercourse discrimination; the misconduct merely has to happen “because of sex.” So, harassment rooted in stereotypes about what constitutes correct work or conduct for males or girls violates the regulation, identical to male-female sexual advances. Gay males and others seen as not “man enough,” like girls who tackle historically male jobs or in different methods don’t hold to what some see as “their place,” frequently are harassed in both nonsexual and sexualized ways, extra usually by their co-workers than their bosses. The conduct is legally thought-about sexual harassment nonetheless.

But what does this have to do with Cuomo? Former aides have accused him of unwanted kissing and touching, ogling and commenting on their appearance, asking about their sex lives, and otherwise suggesting he wants to have sex with them. So, the allegations against him fall squarely within the popular understanding: A powerful man makes unwanted sexual advances toward the women who work for him. No need for a clearer or expanded definition, right?

Wrong. If we focus solely on sexual advances and misconduct, we fail to see that these behaviors are typically part of a broader pattern of sex-based and generalized harassment, and often other abuses of power, too. We also fail to see the deeper motivations behind the abuse and the institutional structures that enable it. For even when it does consist of gross sexual advances, sexual harassment is less about securing sexual gratification than it is about enacting a sense of macho authority and superiority over working women and others. It’s a way of reinforcing gender hierarchy.

If we focus solely on sexual advances and misconduct, we fail to see that these behaviors are typically part of a broader pattern of sex-based and generalized harassment.

We noticed this with Harvey Weinstein, the place media protection that centered on his terrible sexual transgressions obscured the undeniable fact that he wasn’t only a sexual predator. According to the New York attorney general, he was additionally engaged in a gross sample of sexual and nonsexualized harassment towards feminine and homosexual male staff, alongside misuse of company sources. Tying all of it collectively was an outsize sense of entitlement, enabled by an trade and institutional place that gave Weinstein unchecked discretion to make or break different individuals’s careers and lives. And a way of impunity about flatly (and in Weinstein’s case, falsely) denying the allegations, like different highly effective harassers earlier than him.

So too with Cuomo. Instead of debating what number of uninvited gropes or lewd advances it takes to determine a sexual harassment declare, we have to see these tales inside a larger pattern of reported verbal abuse, gendered costume codes, demeaning nicknames and threats of career-ending destroy, each by Cuomo and by others in his orbit. All are half of Cuomo’s projection of patriarchal energy and authority. And all of it constitutes sexual harassment, below the regulation, whether or not it suits the slim popularized definition or not.

Ultimately, nobody needs to be shocked that Cuomo, like so many different highly effective alleged sexual harassers earlier than him, has additionally been accused of broader misconduct, together with lying about the death toll in New York’s nursing homes and using campaign money to promote his book. Research shows that the more unfettered the institutional power that bosses and leaders are given, the freer they feel to lord it over others and use it in abusive ways. To end sexual harassment and abuse, then, we can’t just remove individual harassers. We have to remake the structural positions they occupy, constraining unnecessary, arbitrary discretion and imposing public accountability. Properly understanding sexual harassment is just the necessary first step.

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