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Sexual harassment: Beyond Andrew Cuomo’s resignation

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THE announcement by Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, United States (US) that he would be resigning from office in the wake of the report by the office of the New York Attorney-General on allegations of sexual harassment against him is yet another victory for girls and women in the battle against sexual harassment and assault particularly in high places and offices and by high officials. Letitia James, the New York Attorney-General, had accepted to officially oversee the conduct of an independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Governor Cuomo by many of his past and current staffers, tapping two lawyers, Joon H. Kim and Anne L. Clark to lead the investigation. And the report of the investigation came out confirming that Governor Cuomo did conduct himself in a way ‘constituting sexual harassment under federal and New York State law.’ In specific terms, the report states: “we find that the Governor sexually harassed a number of current and former New York State employees by, among other things, engaging in unwelcome and nonconsensual touching, as well as making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women.”

In concluding that Governor Cuomo sexually harassed at least 11 women who considered his actions and behaviour toward them ‘deeply humiliating and offensive, the reports states that he ‘subjected women to unwanted kisses; groped their breasts or buttocks or otherwise touched them inappropriately; made insinuating remarks about their looks and sex lives; and created a work environment rife with fear and intimidation.’ Governor Cuomo and his staff were also found to have moved to retaliate against one of his accusers – Lindsay Boylan – by taking action intended to discredit and disparage her, including leaking confidential personnel files and drafting a letter attacking her credibility.’ In the initial response to the damaging report, Governor Cuomo was adamant that he did not engage in any act that would be tantamount to sexual harassment, stating that the facts were much different than what had been portrayed, with no indication that he would heed calls for his resignation, telling New Yorkers poignantly: ‘I want you to know directly from me that I never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances … That’s not who I am.’ While conceding that some of his actions could have crossed some personal lines, saying, ‘I now understand that there are generational and cultural perspectives that frankly I hadn’t fully appreciated. And I have learned from this,’ he nevertheless submitted that the report’s authors had weaponised ordinary interactions, jokes and banters, suggesting that ‘politics and bias … (were) interwoven into every aspect of the situation’ conveyed by and in the report.

To be sure, this was the go-to response and defense of powerful men like Governor Cuomo when called out for their sexual harassment of women and for engaging in behavior that disparaged and humiliated women: it is always about shifting the blame to their victims, indicating misreading of their (perceived harassers) intentions and actions. Nothing is said about taking into cognizance the feelings and perspectives of the women as the ones directly affected by the actions. The tendency is to appeal to general cultural affectations to explain away their negative actions toward the women as if the women are also not part of the cultural milieu and as if they do not deserve to be listened to in determining what they consider acceptable social behaviour. The general powerlessness of women in the context of the patriarchal society is wielded against these women to make it problematic and difficult for them to complain and speak to what they have experienced and what they have gone through in the hands of these powerful sexual harassers.

To be sure, these men even sometimes present themselves as helpers to the women they have sexually harassed and are sexually harassing, suggesting that the women must have a wrong-headed notion and understanding of what they were and are up to. Witness the fact that Governor Cuomo was basking in the limelight of being an ardent supporter of the #metoo movement, surrounding himself with women’s rights activists and signing into law sweeping new protections against sexual harassment and lengthening the statute of limitations in rape cases. Yet, he was engaging in behaviour that the report categorises as being very damaging and humiliating to women, and the overall work environment associated with him coming out as toxic for women. But hear Governor Cuomo excusing his behaviour: ‘I have been too familiar with people. My sense of humor can be insensitive and off-putting. I do hug and kiss people casually – women and men. I have done it all my life. … In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone. But I didn’t realise the extent to which the line has been redrawn.’

The situation has always been such that women are pushed back by the self-righteous arguments and postulations of these powerful harassers to indicate that the harassment complained about is only in the heads and imagination of the women and not in reality. These powerful men would refuse and insist on not accepting responsibility for their own denigrating action toward the women. In which case, it would take the open and public persistence of the women to even register their own complaints and feelings. The initial denial of Governor Cuomo of the rightness of the perspective of the women to see his actions as being tantamount to sexual harassment is what women are used to and this is why the issue is not just about his ultimate resignation from office, but more about the society shifting its notion of what constitutes sexual harassment to include the perspective and understanding of women in that regard. Which would explain Lindsey Boylan’s, the first person to come out with her accusation, position that: ‘From the beginning, I simply asked that the Governor stop his abusive behavior … It became abundantly clear he was unable to do that, instead attacking and blaming victims until the end.’

And this was what Governor Cuomo and many of the men in his position would not do – recognize the humanity and perspective of the women complaining about their harassing behaviour and take those complaints seriously. What we have realized from this latest episode is that the struggle for women emancipation from the habitual harassment by men in high offices and positions would not go away until women persist in taking the gauntlet to not just call them out, but take the pain and courage to make their voices heard to ensure that the harassers are made to acknowledge and take responsibility for their untoward and harassing actions and behaviour. While it is gratifying that Governor Cuomo’s resignation, according to Debra Katz, lawyer to another of the accusers, Charlotte Bennett, ‘is a testament to the growing power of women’s voices,’ the icing on its cake is that he ultimately has to accept responsibility for his action, stating, ‘I truly and deeply apologise … (and) I feel awful about it … .’ Only that we expect men, going forward, not to just feel awful about sexually harassing women, but to stop it!

 

  • Yakubu is of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan.

 

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