We can’t do anything about Andrew Cuomo, but we can start setting boundaries with today’s baby Cuomos-in-training
Photo of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, by Diana Robinson on Flickr
And you thought former-senator-now-Prez Joe Biden was bad.
Six women have come forward with multiple claims accusing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of inappropriate touching, questions, and potential ‘trial balloons’ to see if they were amenable to a sexual affair.
The predictable accused’s response to the outrage began with the usual denials, and, as more accusers stepped forward, the customary slow pivot to reluctant admission that certain actions from the past may have caused unintended pain to others, followed by the venerable utterly unconvincing apologies.
One response one never hears from these touchy-feely Old Boys: Asking why the women didn’t say something at the time, let him know he’d crossed a boundary.
Most perps would rather women didn’t; they don’t want to know. They want to remain unchallenged which works out well since many women won’t. It’ll only come back to maybe bite them in the ass if they are or become a public figure.
We’re at a point in history where we have more power to challenge boundary breaches at the time when the offense occurs, and handled properly, it‘s arguably less risky.
As in, a minor blip in your day versus a punishing shitstorm of Twitstorm.
The question is, have we got the labia for it?
We can’t do anything about Andrew Cuomo from a behavioral point of view, nor could anyone have forty years ago when he entered politics. He may resign, or get impeached, but his predatory misogyny is entrenched forever. We can, however, teach the baby Cuomos boundaries as soon as they offend, beginning today.
This includes more adult harassers and offenders.
We can’t easily challenge them all — yet — but we can begin with those closest to us in power and status, inside or outside the workplace.
It’s quite simple, and relatively low-risk: Speak up at the time of the offense, if it doesn’t put you in real danger.
Challenging male breaches of engagement starting with the offender is an idea introduced to me early by a new boss.
If you’ve got a problem with me, he told the new hire and I, don’t go running to my boss about it. Bring it to me first, and let’s discuss it. Give me a chance to change or fix it.
By the end of the first week, I prepared to have That Talk with him. I needed his flirtation and mild sexual harassment to end.
But he never arrived at work. Management found out about the gun in his briefcase. The new hire and I were okay with it; the managers above fired hm.
I don’t know how that discussion would have gone down, but his logical response would have been to say okay, no problem, and then stop, recognizing I showed him the consideration he’d asked for, and been grateful I didn’t complain to his boss (he was a relatively new hire, too.)
That’s how I would have felt. I’ve never been accused of sexual harassment, but I have occasionally made others feel uncomfortable and I, too, would rather be addressed by the offended party first.
Why not give people the opportunity to clean up their act before escalating things?
Yes, men should know better, especially in the MeToo era. No, we don’t like confrontation. But it’s the lowest-risk way to handle minor overtures and if the guy is smart, he’ll realize you saved him a meeting with HR. Or didn’t pitch a feminist scene in a public place.
Even if it’s a non-workplace offense, it’s a first step. Handled properly, it doesn’t escalate the issue.
A few times I’ve told a handsy guy to back off. I do it politely but firmly. When women don’t speak up at the time, it gives the guy tacit approval to continue harassing, either her or others.
Other times, it’s best to let it slide, but consider what you might do next time.
I’m not judging anyone. Good reasons abound why one might not speak up at the time, and Andrew Cuomo is Exhibit A. He’s famously bullying and vindictive, and not only against women who’ve dared to speak out about his predatory behavior. His first accuser, Lindsey Boylan, published an article on Medium recently detailing the toxic work environment others have begun to speak out about.
Now I wonder, theoretically, and without judgement of anyone today: What if women had challenged Cuomo when he was younger, newer, less powerful?
I don’t know how long Cuomo has been a harasser but it’s not beyond the ken to speculate it began before he became governor. He’s 63 years old. He began his political career at age 25 working on his father’s gubernatorial campaign (Mario Cuomo served as Governor of New York for three terms). That was 1982, the start of a decade marked by entrenched over-privileged male entitlement.
A former HR manager friend and I talked about the Cuomo allegations. I said the time has come for women to speak up when things happen, not months or years later. “I understand why women, especially young women, are afraid to,” she said. It’s an uncomfortable, frightening, and maddening position. Inside or outside a work environment, one worries about an embarrassing scene at least, damaged friendships, political/professional fallout, and physical danger at worst. Young women especially, we agreed, don’t often have the confidence to speak up, inside or outside the workplace, nor the career stability if HR doesn’t support them, which it often doesn’t if the man holds too much power, particularly over their own jobs.
I understand why Cuomo’s accusers didn’t stand up to him at the time. Boylan’s article describes one helluva culture of enablement.
But here’s the thing: When it comes to public figures and celebrities, I suspect speaking up at the time may carry less risk today than waiting to one day tweet your grievance on social media.
MeToo has demonstrated how women are punished for challenging male power and bad behavior, even minor infractions.
When women speak cobwebbed truths about handsy, huggy public figures, they face vicious backlash by trolls and cyberbullies. They’re inevitably accused of lying ‘for the attention’ (because nothing feeds your narcissistic desire for public idolatry quite like doxxing and swatting!) followed by ugly memes and a tsunami of misogynist derision.
Whereas the fallout is often far less in the moment, especially if you handle it as maturely as you can.
Hey, let’s keep our hands to ourselves. We’re friends/work colleagues/casual acquaintances.
I wonder: What would happen to a 25-year-old overly-entitled man today continually challenged and reminded of boundaries? What will he be like at 63? My friend and I disagreed on how we would handle a touchy-feely man, especially a work colleague: She would employ ‘broken record’ reminders — no, this is not good, let’s don’t do this, this isn’t the place for touching, co-workers don’t touch each other, etc.
I would handle each breach with escalating levels of firmness and attitude.
Hey, we’re not touchy. Let’s keep things professional.
Er, remember when we agreed we weren’t touchy people? (Note the editorial ‘we’.) Hey! We’ve had this conversation before! I will remind you: NO TOUCHING. (Or inappropriate questions. Or sex talk.)
Dammit, I’ve had enough! If you want a date that badly the next one will be with the HR manager. (Or their boss, if no HR department.)
One reason women don’t speak up more is fear of what might happen.
I wonder what would have happened if campaign staffers made uncomfortable by then-Senator Joe Biden’s close physical style had challenged him. They might have feared losing their jobs, but what if someone had said to him, politely, “Hey Senator Biden, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t touch me. We need to keep the workplace professional.”
Hard to think she’d have lost her job, unless she worked for Donald Trump.
The woman photographed at a 2019 wedding with Cuomo clearly looked uncomfortable with his hands on her face. She described other minor physical liberties he took with her, touching her back and asking to kiss her.
I don’t fault her for why she didn’t remove his hands from her face and said, “No touching, please.” But what if she did it to some guy who wasn’t New York’s infamous bad boy? Like her father’s work colleague or someone she’d just met?
She might get more forceful. Like removing his hand from her back and when he put it back, saying, “Knock it off! Keep your hands to yourself!” I wonder how it might go down if she removed it again, turned to face him, and said, “No means no. Have you learned nothing from MeToo?”
A reminder of what she could do later, now with photo documentation, might make today’s Young Cuomo think twice. Nobody wants to be MeToo’ed, but clearly the current Cuomo had already learned the rules didn’t apply to him, rather a lot like a certain former President who bragged women ‘let him’ do anything because of his fame.
Challenging Cuomo today carries genuine risk. He clearly owns a history of bad behavior with women, and we may not have heard the last of it.
Men continue to harass and assault because women refuse to challenge it. If we want it to stop, the movement starts now. Let’s not fault the victims and non-reactions of the past. Let’s acknowledge that predatory men are grossly unfair and we shouldn’t have to be put in the awful position of having to confront and challenge men who should — who do know better — to stop harassing us.
Let’s also acknowledge the many circumstances under which it’s a bad idea to challenge, along with how not pushing ourselves to move beyond the freeze mode encourages men to continue harassing women, but more importantly we train ourselves to accept the harassment.
The more it happens, the more we feel powerless to stop it — the more powerless we become. It’s one way we unconsciously run from our own power, pretend it doesn’t exist, fail to develop as assertive individuals with the confidence to challenge others taking liberties.
We worry about the risks — and they are real — but this is our world. The risks aren’t always what we think. Life isn’t risk-free for anyone, including the guy doing the groping/grabbing/date-seeking. One reason why men continue to dominate in places of power is because they’re not afraid to take risks. They challenge others, they challenge power. Sometimes they lose and are smacked down. The ones who will succeed get up and do it again.
They recognize it’s an unfair, hierarchical world and they fight to rise within it. Many women shrink from assertiveness, preferring the safe zone and allowing themselves to feel, and ergo become, more victimized.
Taking these risks is a terrifying notion. I understand. I’ve been in a far more stressful position with a sexually harassing boss than the one I described earlier. Perhaps a future story.
It’s not fair. It’s a shitty, patriarchal world we live in, and the onus shouldn’t be on us to make them change, but these men won’t until they’re forced.
This ain’t 1965, when Bill Cosby is accused of assaulting his first rape victim, or 1982, when Clarence Thomas asked Anita Hill if there was a pubic hair on his Coke can, or 1993, when Joe Biden got handsy with his female staffers, or even 2017, when Harvey Weinstein made MeToo a household word.
Here’s the bright spot: You may find your what-if fears are unfounded. He doesn’t make a scene, retaliate, gaslight you, or complain to his friends on Facebook what a bitch you are.
We shouldn’t put ourselves in real danger. Sometimes it’s better to remove one’s self from the scene rather than make one. Just because we can’t do it with everyone doesn’t mean we can’t resolve to challenge men more today when they overstep their boundaries — whether it’s talking over us in a meeting, touching our back or shoulder, or asking if he can kiss us.
‘No, that wouldn’t be appropriate,’ is a polite but firm response.
Refusing to tolerate men’s behavior, taking a few risks, pushing ourselves to assert our rights and personal boundaries strengthens us against future intimidations and even outright abuse. We can’t change or fix Cuomo, Trump, Weinstein, Cosby, R. Kelly, LaBoeuf, or other harassers or abusers, but we can challenge the mini-Cuomos, mini-Trumps, mini-Weinsteins et al, young boys and men today not yet with power, who need to learn early they can’t treat women like that.
What will gender relations look like in twenty or thirty years if women began doing this now? Starting today?
This first appeared on Medium in March 2021.