We are now facing yet another case of a man in power abusing his position, and a new story of sexual harassment that has occupied our minds and headlines. I wish I could say these were exceptional cases. The unfortunate reality is that this happens everywhere, all the time. What is particularly disappointing about this situation is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s response to allegations of sexual harassment by former staff members. Denial.
His response is one of outright denial, followed by fuzzy answers and confused conclusions and watered-down apologies that appear as if they are to appease his support base and the press rather than to genuinely accept accountability and make efforts to remedy the violation. To say that “some of the things… have been misinterpreted” puts the onus on the survivors, rather than on Cuomo himself.
Once again, the responsibility is on women — to correctly interpret men’s intentions, and perhaps to avoid those situations in the first place. Archaic and unacceptable arguments that we can no longer accept. If we haven’t figured it out by now, I will restate. The responsibility always lies with the perpetrator, never with the survivor. It does not matter who she is, what she did, what she wore, where she went. It is never her fault, and never her responsibility to protect herself or prevent incidents from happening. Why is this so hard to understand?
As someone who has worked on sexual violence prevention and response for over two decades, I too often say that there is something wrong with the world when ending sexual violence is a career rather than common sense. So, in Cuomo’s case, what do we do now?
The solution is actually straightforward — but it is one that men in power frequently deny. Cuomo fully understands that his attentions were inappropriate, unwanted, unwarranted. He is guilty. He — and the many other men in power who have come before him and who will come after him — must now apologize and be held accountable. The media will talk about his career as if this was the only damage done. We too easily forget the survivor in the scenario — the scars from the violation she experienced, the courage it took for her to speak out, and the long-term ramifications of doing so. And in this case there is more than one survivor — also not unusual for men in power.
The bottom line is this: we live in a world where these things happen every day, and they should NOT. The lesson for Cuomo, for politicians and business leaders and companies and just about everyone is that we have a great deal more work to do in order to prevent these things from happening in the first place. Sexual abusers need to accept responsibility for the violence they do. Women’s bodily integrity and autonomy are NOT up for debate. That is the critical work that we need to do — recognizing the wrong and doing whatever we can to fix it.
At the same time, we need to ensure that survivors have every possible support and service in place to protect them and help them to heal. We need to believe survivors. We need to build a more clear understanding of consent. We need zero tolerance policies in workplaces. We need a legal system that does not revictimize those who have been abused. We need consistency and clarity on punishment of the perpetrator — regardless of the position they hold. Yes, even if they are the governor.