Recent reports of Herman Cain’s alleged acts of sexual harassment in the 1990s while he was head of the National Restaurant Association have prompted a furious defense of Cain from the right and cast a light on Americans’ confusion about what sexual harassment really means, if anything.
In fact, a majority of Americans don’t much believe in sexual harassment, even though they do tend to believe that the charges against Cain are probably true. A new Newsweek poll conducted by Douglas E. Schoen, LLC, found that 85 percent of those surveyed think that people are accused unfairly in sexual-harassment cases some, most, or all of the time. The same poll found that 52 percent think the charges against Cain are probably or definitely true, and 73 percent care somewhat or a great deal when a public figure is accused of harassment. Only 18 percent said they don’t care very much, 7 percent not at all, and 3 percent were unsure.
So people care about sexual harassment and think it’s an important window into someone’s character. They just don’t think that most charges are true or that the accused generally get a fair shake. Those surveyed were about evenly divided on whether sexual harassment is overreported (37 percent) or underreported (35 percent).
Which is to say, people are somewhat or very confused much of the time when it comes to sexual harassment, as well they might be. In the absence of witnesses, sexual harassment is necessarily subjective, even though the criteria for the legal definition don’t allow for frivolous complaints. An errant remark or jokes told in poor taste are not sufficient to meet the legal standard.
Moreover, the accusers in such cases are not always such sympathetic characters. They may have a record of repeated claims, as is the case with one of those accusing Cain. Or they profit monetarily, which too easily allows critics to dismiss them as troublemakers looking to make an easy buck. Here, for example, is former presidential candidate Fred Thompson commenting on current events: “These alleged victims and their lawyers—no matter what they may say publicly—are champing at the bit to come forward for their day in the limelight and the inevitable book deal.” Popular radio host Laura Ingraham says that the story of harassment “always ends up being an employee who can’t perform or who underperforms and is looking for a little green.” Always?
Although more survey respondents self-identified as conservative than liberal (34 percent to 26 percent), annoyance with sexual harassment seems to be evenly distributed along the political spectrum. When President Bill Clinton misbehaved with an intern, clearly taking advantage of a subordinate in the workplace, Democrats managed to see beyond the offense. Even feminists were relatively quiet, figuring that the president’s support of women’s issues generally outweighed other considerations. Yet Democrats felt no such reluctance when Clarence Thomas was up for a Supreme Court seat and they subjected him to an inquisition for allegedly harassing Anita Hill years before.
Now it is Republicans rushing to defend Cain, impugning the reputations of the women in question with little appreciation for Cain’s alleged pattern of behavior. Politics, in other words, seems to cloud our judgment in cases where subjectivity is already in play. Then our natural distrust of others’ perceptions heightens our skepticism further.
Republican Rep. Steve King calls sexual harassment “a terrible concept” and laments the tendency “to define an action by the perception of the perceived victim.” Perception is indeed an imperfect standard and sexual harassment is a terrible concept—except when your wife or daughter is the target of an employer who wields his or her power through sexual intimidation. The difficulty of navigating sexual harassment does not, in fact, negate its existence. It merely compels us to try harder at getting it right.
Meanwhile, those who insist that sexual harassment doesn’t actually exist—or that women who file complaints are scammers—may have gone a raised eyebrow too far in their defense of Cain. In an election year, their callous dismissal could be interpreted as harsh toward women, at least some of whom may decide that Republicans don’t care much about them. This isn’t factually true, of course, but perception in politics, as in sexual harassment, is everything.