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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Columns

GOP: It’s okay to harass women, just don’t have affairs with them


Herman Cain has officially suspended his presidential campaign due to allegations of sexual impropriety. While it is highly improbable that Cain would have won the nomination — even without the accusations of sexual misconduct — few expected him to leave the race this early. Even after several women had come forward with accusations of sexual harassment, Cain’s poll numbers were largely unaffected. Only after evidence of a long-term extramarital affair did Cain’s support drop into the single digits.

Cain’s troubles began in late October when Politico released information regarding a settlement made by Cain’s previous employer, the National Restaurant Association, to two women who accused Cain of sexual harassment over a decade ago. Two other women have also come forward with allegations of sexual harassment, as has Ginger White, an Atlanta woman who claims that she and Cain recently ended a 13-year consensual, extramarital affair. Cain has fervently denied any inappropriate conduct with any of these women.

Although he has never polled well with female voters, after the first set of sexual harassment allegations were unearthed, a Washington Post/ABC poll found little change in his support among Republicans of both genders. The poll also asked voters if they felt that the allegations against Cain were a serious matter. While nearly half of moderate Republicans polled felt that they were, only 20 percent of Tea-Party voters — Cain’s base — agreed.

In contrast, after White came forward with convincing phone records chronicling their relationship, Cain’s poll numbers dropped to only 8 percent in a Des Moines Register poll. He announced suspension of his campaign soon after.

So why were voters so disillusioned with Cain’s consensual extramarital affair but not his unwanted and aggressive workplace behavior? Sociologist Barbara Risman wrote for CNN, “that working women who allege sexual harassment arouse fear in men, especially men who have conservative views about sex, marriage and women’s place at work and in the home.” They do not understand what constitutes harassment, and are afraid that what they consider friendliness could be harassment. “A consensual affair,” Risman continued, “is a lot easier to understand. It’s sleazy, something that a good tradition-bound husband recognizes and knows he can avoid, so he’s comfortable in holding that against Cain.”

But the truth is that harassment is not so difficult to define. In order to bring charges, one must be able to establish a pattern of unwanted sexual behavior that a reasonable person would consider a hostile work environment, or isolated severe acts such as demands for sexual acts in return for workplace benefits. While it is possible that the National Restaurant Association may have settled merely to avoid potentially higher court costs, it’s also likely they did so because they knew these claims had merit.

Further complicating matters, as part of the settlement, these women are barred from speaking publically about the events. The third accuser remains anonymous and silent on the details of her accusations, preferring to pursue her case in court. The first accuser to come forward, Sharon Bialek, has alleged that Cain touched her in an inappropriate manner, and when she rebuffed his advances, he said, “You want a job, right?” Because her accusations have not yet been put before the court, they have not been verified conclusively.

Infidelity is not new to American politics. It seems that every few months, another politician is embroiled in a scandal, often with their wife standing by their side in support — but as unseemly as infidelity is in private life, at least it’s a consensual activity. Cain’s relationship with Ginger White, regardless of its nature, was something they both agreed to. On the other hand, sexual harassment is an aggressive, invasive, unwanted and sometimes even violent exhibition of power. How a politician conducts himself in his private life with other consenting adults is a private matter. Sexual harassment is not private — it’s infringement upon a woman’s right to be respected in her place of employment and to be considered on her intellectual merits.

Sexual harassment has only been legally recognized in recent decades, despite women struggling against such behavior for centuries. There are still those who believe that women should take lewd and unprofessional comments or acts as compliments or jokes, or that if a woman claims that her career was threatened contingent on performance of sexual favors, she is probably lying. In truth, when a woman brings a public allegation of harassment, her entire past becomes subject to scrutiny and is searched for any character-damaging detail. Although it would not be the first, few would make such a claim frivolously, knowing that it would inevitably result in personal humiliation, judicial sanctions and civil — sometimes even criminal — penalties.

Sexual harassment and automatic dismissal of sexual harassment claims hurts all female workers. Many of you are graduating this year and preparing to transition into the working world. If you’re female, one in three of you will, statistically, be subject to sexual harassment in your workplace at some time in your life. As a society and Americans, we cannot accept or excuse sexual harassment — elected officials included.

Emily Brooks is an economics senior and may be reached at [email protected]

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