USA TODAY US Edition
Sexual violence comes in many forms
When it’s played down, the damage cuts deeper
In the past week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been accused by three women of sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact, accusations that have engulfed his already beleaguered administration. Though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as advocacy groups have called for an investigation, and in some cases for his resignation, others, including Cuomo himself, have minimized the allegations.
The accusations range from unwanted kissing to asking an employee about her sex life to soliciting a former aide to play “strip poker.”
The governor said in a statement that “sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny.” On Twitter, some users suggested the governor’s behavior was “not a big deal.” Some of Cuomo’s conservative critics expressed disbelief that such behavior could cause so much damage. Commentator Matt Walsh said, “He’s accused of flirting with a few women and that’s what takes him down. Incredible.”
The accusations against Cuomo should be taken seriously, sexual violence experts say, and the tendency to minimize such behaviors show how normalized they’ve become. A 2018 survey found that 81% of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime, and research shows workplace sexual harassment is widespread.
Acts of sexual violence occur on a spectrum, experts say. On one end may be a serial predator accused of rape, on the other a male boss making sexually
“We’ve all probably witnessed this happen ... and so it’s hard for us to accept that we’ve either done the harm or been a witness to harm.” Jennifer Gómez Psychology professor, Wayne State University
suggestive comments. All behaviors along the continuum are harmful, and the trauma someone feels isn’t determined solely by where the violent act they experienced sits on a spectrum.
“For the allegations with Cuomo, it can be tempting to think: ‘Well, it’s just a couple of comments. Can’t she take it? Can’t she handle it?’ Part of that defensiveness can come from the culture just being that bad that many men have probably done this. And some women, too, and it’s hard to see ourselves in that light,” said Jennifer Gómez, a psychology professor at Wayne State University.
“We’ve all probably witnessed this happen ... and so it’s hard for us to accept that we’ve either done the harm or been a witness to harm, and to grapple with what that means for ourselves as perpetrators, as victims, as bystanders.”
Profound effect on mental health
Workplace sexual harassment is a persistent problem, said Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and can include a wide range of behaviors, including inappropriate statements, lewd gestures, leering behavior, sexually explicit jokes, emails or texts, and offensive objects or images.
A 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that “sexual harassment undermines women’s professional and educational attainment and mental and physical health.” Research shows:
• Harassment is associated with increased risk of anxiety and depression as well as diminished self-esteem and self-confidence.
• Women with a history of workplace sexual harassment have significantly higher odds of hypertension and clinically poor sleep.
v One study reported 1 in 10 women who experienced harassment had such severe symptoms they met the definition of PTSD.
“I was so confused and shocked and embarrassed,” one of Cuomo’s accusers, Anna Ruch, 33, told The New York Times. “I turned my head away and didn’t have words in that moment.” Ruch said Cuomo, 63, made an unwanted advance at a New York City wedding in September 2019, placing his hand on her lower back, which was exposed. When she removed his hand, she said, Cuomo grabbed her face with both hands and asked if he could kiss her before she pulled away.
Former aide Charlotte Bennett, 25, told the Times: “I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared.
And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.” Bennett said Cuomo made her uncomfortable with questions about her sex life and whether she would consider dating an older man.
Former aide Lindsey Boylan wrote in a post on Medium that after she was summoned to a meeting with the governor, “as the black wrought-iron elevator took me to the second floor, I called my husband. I told him I was afraid of what might happen.” Boylan, 36, first made the allegations on Twitter in December, but the story gained little national attention. She said that on one occasion, the governor asked her if she wanted to play “strip poker” while they were traveling on a state-owned plane, and on another, he gave her an unwanted kiss on the lips as she was leaving his office.
Gómez said research shows sexual harassment can harm mental health just as severely as a discrete and more violent form of sexual violence such as rape.
Gómez said some of Cuomo’s behavior can be understood in the context of microaggressions – the persistent, subtle blows that affect marginalized groups, which public health experts say can affect long-term health and contribute to higher rates of mortality and depression.
“It’s the accumulation of these things that are really harmful, that are really testing,” Gómez said.
Equal access to opportunity, she said, isn’t just about getting your foot in the door. It’s about what happens when you’re inside.
“It’s not just the one-time impact of the harmful behaviors that is important to recognize, it’s how these experiences continue to shape the victim’s life on a daily basis and their career and livelihood in the long-term,” Palumbo said.
“We know from research that myths specific to sexual harassment serve two aims: denial and justification.” Lilia Cortina Professor of psychology and women’s studies, University of Michigan
The problem with minimizing
When people minimize these kind of behaviors, they minimize impact. Without recognizing impact, experts say, culture cannot change.
“Minimization fits the larger myth that women often exaggerate claims of sexual harassment and make ‘mountains out of molehills,’ ” said Lilia Cortina, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan who researches women’s victimization at the workplace.
“We know from research that myths specific to sexual harassment serve two aims: denial and justification. That is, some myths deny that any wrongdoing has transpired, often by questioning the veracity of victim reports . ... When denial becomes impossible, myths justify sexual harassment, in many cases by blaming the victim.”
As Boylan said: “I know some will brush off my experience as trivial. We are accustomed to powerful men behaving badly when no one is watching. But what does it say about us when everyone is watching and no one says a thing?”
Experts say all allegations of sexual violence must be taken seriously, no matter where they fall on the spectrum.
“We have to examine our colleagues, our co-workers, ourselves,” Gómez said. “As long as we deny the existence of these behaviors, or in this case, the impact of them ... we aren’t doing anything to make the world a fairer place.”