About 25 years ago, I was the target of sexual intimidation. He never put his hands on me, but his body was a little too close when he asked me into his office, and his conversation was a little too suggestive. Looking back, I realize he used words he could claim I misunderstood, had I ever accused him of anything. I never did. He was my minister, and I didn’t think anyone would believe me anyway.
This comes up now of course because of once-golden boy Governor Andrew Cuomo, an individual with access to power all his life, has been called out numerous times for his alleged sexual harassment–nine separate allegations at this writing. They range from suggestive questions to groping; they occurred beginning in 2000 to the present. All the accusers are women.
Women have experienced intimidation, harassment and actual physical and emotional violation in relationship with men since the beginning of time and yet calling it out is rarely the next logical step. It is one of the most contradictory of the human experience: Why don’t we call out those who abuse us? Why do we feel embarrassed or afraid to bring our violators to accountability? The layers of shame that result from being the target of sexual harassment manifest as a form of protection for the perpetrator, but why should we feel humiliation about reporting an inappropriate situation rather than confidence or assurance? Sexual assault as power is insidious in our society; shame for the target should never be a part of this experience and yet is what keeps the victims silent.
Angelo sees it all the time with his clients—especially women. On occasion, men, too, both as targets and victims. We have, in our society, allowed this dysfunction to exist through the systemic privilege that is enjoyed by those in power. The system of privilege exists in every institution and is shaped by those at the top—historically, White men. When a woman (or man) is targeted by a perpetrator, their range of response to being violated is greatly limited by the systemically imposed boundaries. Cuomo, like almost every other politician in the world, has been supported by both allies and adversaries throughout his career who, for reasons of personal/ideological interests, have collaborated in this privilege to remain in positions that favor their own agendas. When the tide changes–when there’s an accusation or nine–these alignments shift but always within the preset boundaries of the system. The lines are drawn: the perpetrator’s supporters generally have little or no interest in overturning the system; only in repositioning themselves in a more favorable stance.
This creates a bandwagon effect; it seems like once an allegation is made public, there’s a flurry of activity to join in. Once one person sounds the alarm, every little brush against a breast becomes elevated to a felony. Which, it seems, only serves to diminish the original allegation.
Some of the allegations against Cuomo seem pretty serious, but others not so much. Some of the more recent accusations sound like they’re describing what happens to me every time Angelo and I go to Italy to visit family. With every other family friend I’m introduced to, I’m kissed on both cheeks, I’m helped through a door or into a chair, a hand lingers a little longer on my back than I’m accustomed to here in the States. This is not to connect unwanted attention to being Italian—on the contrary. It’s more that the manner of cultural and familial expressions of intimacy and affection are multitudinous and can hardly be indexed according to level of transgression.
There is a line, of course, between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. As one rises up the chain of power, there are more and more opportunities to blur that line–which both participants are responsible for. So, who draws the line? We all do.
Did he do it? Of course he did. There are pictures. But should he resign? Resignation won’t make it go away–it’s just more of the same shaming and brushing under the carpet that has permitted the abuse in the first place. Is he a serial predator who should be locked up like Harvey Weinstein or is he an optimal candidate to finally stop making this a black and white issue and change it to one where there is a spectrum of expectations, behavior and consequences?
A desirable outcome is possible; one that might actually undo the dysfunction inherent in the system. Rather than calls for the governor’s resignation, there should be calls for the governor’s acknowledgement of his participation in systemically sanctioned abuse. Can Governor Cuomo be the politician that succeeds at doing the difficult work of privately confronting his complicity in the system of abuse that he benefits from? Only when we can fully see our faults and accept them can effective change be possible. Acceptance does not imply condonation. Now that might be the way to real leadership and redemption.
This is not a love letter to Governor Cuomo nor is it a diagnosis of his mental health. (However, we can recommend a good therapist if he’s interested.) And to be perfectly clear–advocating for Governor Cuomo to stay in office in no way means that the women who are speaking out should remain silent. Not even a little bit. It is the amplification of their voices that will rend the fabric of silence and shame and fracture the layers of protection. Victims’ voices combined with acknowledgement from the perpetrators can be what ignites the system to change. The best possible scenario is driven by the fact that, as a therapist and an educator, we believe that people and systems can evolve and become healthier. Because the system that’s in place has been failing all of us for centuries.