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11.09.11

Herman Cain and the Denial Campaign

Sexual-harassment deniers are in overdrive amid the escalating complaints against the presidential hopeful. Their arguments don’t add up.

In recent days, sexual-harassment deniers have been working overtime as they cast around for increasingly far-fetched reasons why everyone should ignore the escalating array of complaints about Herman Cain’s behavior.

The problem is that in doing so, they also have to ignore corroborating evidence, the life experience of the larger half of the human population, and that irritating old nuisance, common sense.

It’s hardly surprising that Cain himself is denying the charges about his misconduct, which “simply didn’t happen,” he insisted this week. After all, both his presidential campaign and the image on which he built his success would be mortally wounded by an emerging public consensus that he’s been lying.

But what’s everyone else’s excuse?

Naysayers dismissed the initial reports about Cain because the first two women whose unfortunate experiences hit the news were not identified by name. Both women were bound by confidentiality agreements that deterred them from speaking out, but Cain and his supporters had a field day deriding the legitimacy of their complaints, even though the National Restaurant Association deemed them serious enough to warrant financial settlements.

Cain’s poll numbers survived the first round of charges, but the reports kept coming as two women turned into three, then four, then five. Cain supporters who had pegged their defense to the “anonymous doesn’t count” argument were forced to rethink their strategy when No. 4, Sharon Bialek, came forward to tell the world how Cain behaved when she went to see him, looking for a job.

Cain and his allies had spent days demanding the specifics of any complaints; big mistake, as it turned out when Bialek obliged by delivering the kind of specifics you couldn’t forget even if you wanted to. Particularly vivid was the part about how Cain stuck his hand up her skirt and between her legs, forced her head down toward his crotch, and said, “You want a job, right?”

Bialek’s account was so arresting that Cain apologists were reduced to sniping at her hair (she was a “blonde bombshell,” so obviously her testimony was unreliable!) and her footwear (she was wearing “do-me shoes,” in the immortal parlance of the inimitably vicious New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser).

Although Bialek’s history of financial troubles initially inspired some gloating, that line of attack lost a lot of its oomph after Bialek said she didn’t take any money for telling what happened. Oops. It’s so inconvenient when you’re trying to portray a woman as a gold-digger and she points out that she could have sold her story but didn’t.

Some guys simply dismiss the whole subject as a paranoid conspiracy by man-haters bent on spoiling all the fun.

And yet such pesky facts never seem to deter conservatives—particularly conservative men—from trashing women who have been sexually harassed and have the temerity to object. Some guys simply dismiss the whole subject as a paranoid conspiracy by man-haters bent on spoiling all the fun.

In National Review Online, the Neanderthal commentator John Derbyshire (already on record as saying that naked women aren’t worth looking at if they’ve passed the 15-20 age range, because after that gravity takes too much of a toll on their bodies) scoffed at the very idea of sexual harassment.

“Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing?” Derbyshire harrumphed. “Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like ‘racial discrimination’? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up. Is this any way to live? ... We’re supposed to believe that the nation is seething with ‘harassment’ and ‘discrimination,’ women being groped in every business office and crosses burning on every lawn. For Heaven’s sake. Aren’t there any grown-ups around?”

The harassment deniers also included right-wing talk-radio host Mark Simone, who sneered at Bialek’s testimony after her press conference, according to Daily Beast reporter Michelle Goldberg.

“‘You didn’t actually believe any of that, did you?’ he asked, smirking.” Goldberg wrote. “I said it sounded plausible to me. He gave a condescending laugh and said it was a good thing that I don’t work for the police department.”

Such comments raise a dizzying array of questions, but one of the most obvious is: do men like that ever read the news, let alone talk to actual female human beings?

In a new study released this week, the American Association of University Women reported that more than half of all middle-school and high-school girls surveyed had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past year. Fifty-two percent were harassed in person, and 36 percent reported having been harassed online. Only 9 percent ever reported the abuse.

And why might that be? When news broke about the first two women who had filed official complaints against Cain, the lawyer for one said she didn’t want to identify herself for fear of being turned into another Anita Hill.

Such fears are well-founded. Last month marked the 20th anniversary of Justice Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, in which Anita Hill’s testimony about Thomas’s sexual harassment in two different jobs triggered an extraordinarily venomous right-wing campaign to destroy her reputation, her credibility, and her career.

During the televised hearings, women all over the country were horrified at the way Hill was treated by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, whose members were not only hostile but seemingly oblivious to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in American society. “They just don’t get it!” became a such common refrain among women that it turned into a rallying cry for the emerging movement to combat sexual harassment.

But when it comes to sexual harassment complaints, the gender gap has always been striking. “I’ve never met a woman who didn’t believe Anita Hill,” Gloria Steinem commented recently.

No doubt there are a few who didn’t; Thomas’s wife, Ginni, is still convinced that Hill made it all up. For most of us, however, all you have to do is be born female and you can’t help but get it.  

The minute you hit puberty, if not before, strange men start exposing themselves to you in public, pressing up against you and groping you in buses and subways and elevators, not to mention harassing you every time you walk down the street.

“I live three blocks from my subway stop, and one morning I decided to count the number of men who harassed me from the time I left my building until I got on the subway,” a 19-year-old college student told me recently. “The number got so far up in the double figures that I lost count.”

That was less than five minutes of normal life as females typically experience it—a daily reality whose existence still seems to elude men who deny the endemic nature of sexual harassment in our society.

The anniversary of the Thomas hearings was marked by numerous events honoring Anita Hill, including a conference at Hunter College that was co-sponsored by A Call To Men, an organization that provides sexual-harassment training for corporations.

According to Ted Bunch, cofounder of the group, awareness of sexual harassment has grown during the last two decades, but that hasn’t diminished its frequency. “In the workplace, I do think it’s not as blatant today, but it hasn't necessarily decreased,” says Bunch. “There are certain rules in place at a job site that say, ‘You can’t do it here,’ but that doesn’t mean that men don’t do it elsewhere. It’s certainly very prevalent on the street; it’s everywhere. In a male-dominated culture, we’re really socialized to see women as objects; we’re taught that they’re there to service us and our needs, and we’re not in touch with their humanity.”

And many males still believe they can behave that way with impunity, according to Jimmie Briggs, founder of Man Up, an international campaign to stop violence against women and girls. “Men look around and see how rare it is for a man to be held accountable for harassment in the workplace or on the street,” Briggs says. “The conversation over sexual harassment is much more open than it was 20 years ago, but we have a long way to go.”

Indeed, it seems that even when they’re held accountable, some men still don’t get itlike Herman Cain. According to the Los Angeles Times, Cain expressed exasperation that the media was still focusing on “insignificant stuff” like the sexual-harassment complaints about him.

"This should have been a story that should have been dead in less than two hours,” he said. “The media scrutiny to try to turn this into a story bigger than it is, to get us distracted and to get this nation distracted.”

But the real question is, to get us distracted from what? Sexual harassment is about the lust for sexual gratification, obviously, but it’s also about power. When a man in a position of authority pressures a woman to service him sexually even if she doesn’t want to, and her ability to refuse is compromised by her need for the job, or the paycheck, or the grade, or by any other manifestation of her dependent status, the man is committing an egregious abuse of power. For him, that’s a large part of the point: he’s demonstrating his dominance and demanding that the woman acknowledge her subservience.

The relevance of such conduct should be obvious to anyone with an IQ room temperature. When voters form their opinion of a candidate’s character, there are few more critical questions than the issue of how that candidate usesor abusespower.

And anyone who thinks that the chronic abuse of power over women is “insignificant” is, by definition, unfit for office.

As for all those Republican voters who continue to support Cain despite a clear pattern of misconduct over many years, they’re simply reprehensible. Do none of these people have daughters? Or sisters? Or wives, or girlfriends? Or mothers? Has any of them ever pictured some man grabbing the head of their precious daughter, forcing it down toward his crotch and demanding that she service him if she wants a job?

And if these defenders of men like Cain have never thought about such things, why haven’t they?

How about trying a little experiment: in the next few days, ask the women in your own family what their life experiences with sexual harassment have been. If you’re surprised by the answers, you should be ashamed of yourself. You sure as hell haven’t been paying much attention to what goes on in the world you live in.

In fact, we all know what sexual harassment is by now, and those who deny its existence or its prevalence are like the “hear no evil, see no evil” monkeys who put their hands over the eyes and plug up their ears so they don’t have to deal with the truth.

The evidence is there for everyone to see. And the time for making excuses is over.