Cuomo’s resignation shows the world is changing – just not fast enough

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D. has denied allegations of harassment detailed in a report from the state attorney general. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, announced Tuesday (Aug. 10, 2021), a week after state Attorney General Letitia James released a scathing report detailing his sexual harassment of multiple women who worked for him and for the state government, feels shockingly swift.

Despite the thoroughness and sweep of the in-depth investigation and calls from members of Cuomo’s own Democratic Party for him to step down, he continued to defend himself last week, portraying his actions as harmless, his intentions as good and his accusers as humorless. Worse still, Cuomo appeared to use a family member’s sexual assault to somehow excuse his own behavior.

Like so many men before him, Cuomo has seemed unable to connect his own behavior to the reality of a hostile work environment for women. So what changed in the past week that made him suddenly realize he had to resign? The past 60 years did.

We are living through a fraught social transition that is the result of decades of steady cultural and social transformation around sex and gender. The movements behind this change have always been about contestation of power, power that frequently manifests itself in sexual dynamics, entitlements and abuse – whether in the governor’s office or the Catholic Church. Moving the emphasis from one understanding (sex) to another (power) remains difficult, cognitively dissonant and, frankly, unwanted by large portions of the population.

#MeToo and Time’s Up, two of the most recognizable contemporary manifestations of this decades-long fight, are in their earliest stages, and we still have a long road ahead.

These movements, embraced openly by Cuomo even as he acted in egregious ways counter to their missions, educate people about sexualized violence, institutional tolerance for that violence and the enduring inequality that results. But while the obstacles girls and women face are getting new attention, Cuomo demonstrated the entitlements – to women’s time, attention, deference and bodies – that boys and men still benefit from. Cuomo’s case shows the difficulty of centering the experiences and judgments of victims and of changing public perceptions of sexual violence so that power (a matter of social relations) and not sex (a matter of personal and interpersonal actions) is understood as the defining feature of abuse.

Many people who might have ignored or trivialized Cuomo’s behavior no longer do. Only three days after he released a slide show documenting decades of “it’s my culture to be affectionate” public huggery last week, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 70% of New York voters said he should leave office, 63% said he should be impeached if he didn’t resign, and 55% said he should be charged with a crime. Among those that hold these opinions are certainly women who question how they tolerated similar harassment silently and men who wonder if they, too, could or can be similarly accused.

These findings, hardly ambiguous, must have surprised a governor apparently unable to accept not only that he would be held accountable by women with less influence, but that he was no longer the powerful arbiter of social or political norms. Almost certainly, the notion that he was, himself, an offender didn’t cross his mind as he very publicly supported the Time’s Up movement in 2019. The public’s response is a sign, however, that the slow and steady work of shifting public knowledge and understanding is having an effect and altering political will and power accordingly.

Cuomo and many members of his broader circle seem to have been surprised by the realization that people and institutions – even if they’re nominally allies of the movements to end behavior like his – are being held accountable now. It’s not enough simply to say you believe women; you have to act on that belief in consistent ways. This means moving away from the idea of singular “bad apples” to address networks of power. Roberta Kaplan, a prominent lawyer and co-founder of the Time’s Up legal defense fund, also resigned this week after news broke that she had advised Cuomo during his attempt to discredit Lindsey Boylan, one of the women accusing him of sexual harassment.

But the rules haven’t changed all the way yet, which is why Cuomo could have believed he might have hung on even after the allegations first became public. We tend not to think of sexual harassment as workplace corruption, for example, preferring still to focus on sex and personal exchanges instead of power and institutional domination, but that is exactly what sexual harassment is. And it’s no surprise that harassment is often linked, additionally, to other abuses of power, a connection dubbed, in Silicon Valley, “the Al Capone theory.”

Will Cuomo’s case be an indication that “normal” has really been redefined? That our prior ways of interacting with one another and organizing ourselves – in families or the workplace or politics – are genuinely being dismantled and creatively rebuilt in healthier and more egalitarian ways?

It’s too early to tell.

No social interaction exists without an element of power, a fact made even more evident by Cuomo’s odd and reductive fixation on hugging last week. The incidents documented in the report on his actions exceeded possibly ambiguous hugging to include verbal harassment and physical groping. But the focus on hugging is important because it shows Cuomo’s penchant for shaping narrative to deflect attention and ignoring or trivializing what happened and the effects it had on the women who came forward.

The reduction to hugging is also telling, however, in terms of how insidious entitlement to women’s bodies can be. There are the “huggers” who cling a little too long, the “lip kissers” who necessitate the rapid turn of the face, “the lap grabbers” who pull you down into their seats, the “shoulder rubbers” who insist you look tense and need to relax. Every woman on Earth knows that a hug is not a hug is not a hug. We learn this lesson early in life, and it’s essential to our well-being and survival.

Virtually anyone over the age of 30, however, has also been socialized to accept this deep-seated entitlement to women’s attention, bodies and forgiveness that Cuomo appears to have felt. This entitlement is invisible to most of us, wrapped into prevailing notions of gender roles, masculinity and male identity. Cuomo seems to have truly believed that he treated everyone the same way – but in fact, he did not. His casual touches, squeezes and hugs weren’t equally distributed or without power differentials. Only women appear to have been intimately touched, only women’s appearance and clothing were commented on, only women experienced the dread and anxiety of working in this environment. And only women feared retaliation for coming forward.

Cuomo is hardly alone in his disorientation. How often do you hear people talk about interpersonal interactions that once seemed “normal,” but now aren’t? Of social mores that were once acceptable or tolerated but no longer are? These questions force us to have hard conversations, to approach issues with nuance and to reconsider how much harmful social norms can be wrapped up in identities threatened by changes to them. (Anne Victoria Clark’s “The Rock Test” is an easy shortcut for the truly mystified, however: Treat all women like you would treat Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.)

Until we reach a new equilibrium, shifting sensibilities and institutional norms will be messy, destabilizing and confusing – and at times, viscous. In the meantime, an essential component in coping with social changes like the ones we are living with is accepting that it’s OK for us to agree that what was once acceptable is no longer acceptable.

Cuomo stepped down fairly quickly and has acknowledged that this outcome is what accountability looks like. But what’s happening to him is making people feel beset and wary at work; if they are worried that their behavior might be misconstrued, or their words misunderstood, that their history might be deleteriously revisited, this is an opportunity for listening, for empathy and compassion. For men, it’s a chance to think about how women move through the world, on parallel but different tracks. For all of us, it’s a chance to consider how less powerful people feel, everywhere. It is a chance to revisit what it means to truly include people into institutional spaces, in a way that makes them feel valued and respected.

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Soraya Chemaly, the director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project, is the author of “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.”

 

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