Today one of my favorite senators resigned in the face of charges of sexual harassment. Pinching, butt- and breast-squeezing, forced smooching–moves familiar to most women. Not rape, for sure. Not seduction of teenagers. Just opportunistic grabbing. “He was quick,” said one recipient of Al Franken’s unwanted attentions. “He knew what he was doing.”
Did he know what he was doing? I doubt that he gave it a second thought. Surely he didn’t anticipate losing his job over what many men, including another of my favorite public figures, Garrison Keillor, probably consider flirting. In 1994 Keillor told the National Press Club, “A world in which there is no sexual harassment at all is a world in which there will not be any flirtation.” Oops. Wrong definition, Garrison. Flirting is mutual.
But I have to agree with the women senators who led their male colleagues in ganging up on Franken and forcing him to resign. The times, they are a-changin’, Senator, and I’m sorry that you got caught up in them, but somebody has to take the first tumble when the moral bar is suddenly raised up to where it should have been all along. While I mourn the loss in the Senate of your sharp mind, goodwill, and, yes, support of policies important to women, I say, it’s about time that women are speaking up en masse and institutions, and men, are listening.
And no, it’s not fair. It’s not fair that JFK and Bill Clinton got away with worse. It’s not fair that we have an Abuser-in-Chief in the White House who isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and that his party is so desperate to maintain its corrupt Senate majority that it is rallying around a child molester.
Nevertheless, such behavior–all degrees of nonconsensual body contact from pinchy-squeezy hanky-panky to rape of minors–is unacceptable. Disrespect of women is unacceptable. Sorry you got away with it so long. Sorry you moved in milieus where it was normal for men to behave this way and women to submit, out of fear or embarrassment or perceived helplessness. Believe me, women never enjoy the butt grab. Am I right, girls?
Some of us would say butt squeezers and their ilk are qualitatively different from child molesters, and they are, but they have in common a lack of self control and obliviousness to, or outright disregard of, the other person, the object of their desires or convenience. The woman (or man) is just that, the object. Some, like Charlie Rose, are so clueless that they apparently think attractive young women really are attracted to dirty old men.
Just as we would like to see all degrees of racism become unacceptable, so all degrees of sexual harassment have suddenly become unacceptable.
The risk is that enforcing zero tolerance for any kind of behavior that is so ingrained and pervasive may provoke backlash or merely force such behavior underground until society looks the other way once again. This has happened with racism. It is not a simple matter of just saying no to racism. Attitudes we thought had been conquered with legislation and even new social norms have come forth with a vengeance, with a little encouragement from a racist leader and the Russian propaganda machine. Now we have to work at it all over again, at deeper levels.
Will it be the same with sexual harassment? If a large segment of male society really sees nothing wrong with this behavior and really can’t control their impulses, backlash is on its way.
We’ll see. Be ready for the next round, not just of #MeToo/#HimToo revelations but of the hard work of changing social norms.