Reports that Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain was accused of sexually harassing some women in the mid-1990s, accusations that were settled out of court at the time, have been at the top of Google News for at least a week now.
The headline slid down a little when Andy Rooney died and to make way for election results, but never “below the fold,” not least because the number of women allegedly harassed has continued to grow—four at last count. This has seemingly become the only story in the 2012 campaign.
My first instinct is to be sick to death of sex scandals. Far too often (and ever doing it is too much for me) people’s fitness to hold office is assessed on the basis of having sex other people disapprove of. I get annoyed when substantive issues get shoved aside in favor of tabloid-esque coverage.
Of course, it’s not a greatfirst instinct, since that’s not what’s going on here, as sexual harassment is categorically different from an affair or sexting or gay sex with consensual adult partners—the things other politicians have found to end their careers.
Indeed, some of the coverage, in particular one opinion piece that got me fired up enough to write this blog in the first place, shows why, as much as it shouldn’t be the only story, the accusations against Cain should be a story. Joe Klein of Time argues that “fleeting moments of human frailty, especially of the testosterone-addled kind, are inevitable and should remain private, absent extenuating circumstances (like physical assault). I’m generally opposed to the press setting moral standards that most of us can’t meet”
No, no. No no no. Just, no.
Assuming you have a right of access to other people’s bodies is not “human frailty,” nor is it “inevitable.” Nor is refraining from doing so a “moral standard” that anyone should have trouble meeting as much as what’s required by basic human decency. Having testosterone, however much it might “addle” you, does not give you a free pass. Physical assault is not the only kind of inappropriate behavior for which one should be called out, and keeping abuses of power private does little to discourage them.
Klein adds, “Yes, sexual harassment is different from general poking around since it is a form of aggressive behavior–but it is also more difficult to prove (although the two women in question received cash settlements from the Restaurant Association, which means that we’re probably dealing with some form of industrial-strength obnoxiousness here).”
Seriously, you’re going to defend something you call “general poking around” as not a form of aggressive behavior? See above re: assumption of a right of access.
That’s before we even get to the echo of the old assumption that women tend to make up sexual assault, and the fact that Klein contains this with the mention that there were settlements and “industrial-strength obnoxiousness” doesn’t make up for that suggestion. Yes, of course women might say this happened even if it’s not true, because they are treated so well when they come forward and being violated is so easy to talk about.
All of this points to why it’s vital that this conversation be had, not just with Cain, but with any case where there’s this sort of question of coercion or hostile work environment or power differential. First, if people hear this often enough, they’ll get the idea that it’s not an acceptable way to behave. And second, if it’s true, it’s something people have a right to know before they go electing someone to the highest office in the land.
Because yes, I’ll come out and argue that if Cain is, in fact, a harasser he’s not fit to run the country. Importantly, again, it’s not just because there’s a sex scandal—I am a firm believer in the fact that any kind of sex anybody wants to have with other consenting adults is perfectly acceptable even if I personally find it revolting.
But there aren’t consenting adults here; what makes a sexual harasser unfit for duty is the abuse of power it represents. That’s where the problem lies. That’s why that person shouldn’t be given any more power and should possibly lose the position they had that they decided to abuse in the first place.
Of course, it is totally reasonable to argue against the way in which the news has come to focus on this to the exclusion of all other topics. As Klein points out, “there is far more important business–like Herman’s Cain prohibitive lack of knowledge about almost every relevant issue–to be discussed.” There needs to be more substantive debate about Cain—and someone needs to remember that there are other candidates, two or three of them still serious contenders.
But then there’s the elephant in the room (har, har). This sexual harassment case isn’t just an issue of gender (which isn’t to imply that it ever is, but it sometimes gets treated as such); it’s also bound up in issues of race.
“The notion of black man as sexual predator is a particularly toxic stereotype–and it may intensify the self-righteous satisfaction some Republicans are getting from supporting a conservative black man for President. As in: those liberals pretend to be pro-black, but every time a Clarence Thomas or Herman Cain comes down the pike, they throw sex at him.”
On one hand, I’m deeply uneasy with the ways in which that “toxic stereotype” probably has a whole lot more to do with the wall-to-wall coverage of this Cain story than the journalists and readers want to admit. The story makes sense to run and catches people’s attention because it meshes with this idea.
There is something deeply worrisome about this being the basis on which African-American republicans are undermined. That’s a reason to resist the frenzy—though as stated above I don’t think there’s any reason not to talk about the issue altogether.
On the other hand, there’s a problem when race and gender get pitted against each other like this. Thinking back to Clarence Thomas—an obvious precedent—there was this weird thing where somehow Anita Hill had to either have solidarity with (implicitly white) feminists and call out Thomas’s misconduct or have solidarity with African-Americans and keep quiet so that there could be a black Supreme Court justice.
Here again, there’s some implicit demand to either not critique Cain—what the right is implicitly saying “liberals” ought to do if they are really “pro-black”—or be take a stand against sexual harassment if one is really“pro-woman.”
The problem is that, as many an intersectional theorist and woman of color feminist has argued, you can’t separate out those things. You’re not black plus a woman, so it’s not one or the other. It’s also not one or the other in critiquing the behavior of such an African-American man.
The weight of history makes this tricky to navigate: the “myth of the black rapist” relies on the assumption of black men as less civilized, less controlled, and having outsized sexual urges, and I know that this is bound up, to greater or lesser extent, with the Herman Cain Sexual Harassment Extravaganza of 2011. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth even as I say Cain’s not fit to lead if the accusations are true.
We have to call out the racist logics that make this a “good” story—i.e. exciting—even as we insist that it is still an important story. A pretty tall order, but I think it’s possible.