, ,

Abuse Against Women is Not a Political Bargaining Chip

Why you should believe women who speak out about sexual harassment

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), left, and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Conyers: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty; Franken: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty

On December 7th, Republican Congressman Trent Franks was forced to resign after two female staff members accused him of asking them to be surrogates for his children. Franks response, “I clearly became insensitive as to how the discussion of such an intensely personal topic might affect others.”

November 20th, Democratic Congressman John Conyers was forced to resign after allegations of sexual harassment were made public, including a 2014 complaint of sexual misconduct that resulted in a $27,000 settlement to a former staffer. A settlement, just as all other settlements of sexual misconduct by US representatives, that was paid using taxpayer money. Conyer’s response, “They are not true. I cannot explain where they came from.”

November 16th, multiple allegations of sexual harassment, including forcibly kissing and groping women were made public against Democratic Senator Al Franken. Franken’s response, “I know in my heart, nothing that I have done as a senator, nothing, has brought dishonor on this institution, and I am confident that the Ethics Committee would agree.”  

For the better part of a month, as the country debated the fall-out of a barrage of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape charges levied against a number of high profile men in the news and entertainment industries, leading Democrats remained largely silent on the Franken allegations. Allegations that surfaced in November when L.A. radio host Leeann Tweeden wrote a blog post chronicling her experiences with Franken during a USO tour in 2006, including a photo of Franken touching her breasts in a bawdy manner as she slept on an aircraft.  

As of writing this, eight separate women have come forward with allegations against Franken. Not only lending credence to Tweeden’s claims, but also showing a long-standing pattern of sexual misconduct extending into Franken’s time as a US Senator. At least 4 women have reported that Franken grabbed, groped, or cupped their buttocks or breasts, and others have reported that Franken tried to forcibly kiss them and/or made inappropriate sexual comments to them.   

Lindsay Menz reported to CNN that Senator Franken put his hand on her butt while they posed for a photograph in 2010.  Another woman reported that Franken groped her at a Democratic fundraiser and suggested that she and he “visit the bathroom together.” She stated that her immediate reaction to Franken’s behavior “was disgust” but her “secondary reaction was disappointment.”

Army veteran, Stephanie Kemplin, told CNN that Franken groped her breast during a USO tour in 2003. “When he put his arm around me, he groped my right breast. He kept his hand all the way over on my breast” Kemplin said. “I remember clenching up and how you just feel yourself flushed. And I remember thinking, is he going to move his hand? Was it an accident? Was he going to move his hand? He never moved his hand.

According to CNN, Kemplin repeatedly sobbed during her telephone interviews with their reporter. Her responses reveal the helplessness, anger, and guilt many victims of sexual harassment and assault experience. 

“I was in a war zone… You were on a USO tour — are you trying to boost the morale of the troops or are you trying to boost your own?

“I just feel so sorry for that young girl in that picture.” Kemplin said, referring to herself all those years ago. “You’re immediately put on the spot. What are you going to do? What are you going to do? Your mind goes a mile a minute, who was I going to tell?”

A former New England elected official reported to Jezebel that Franken made unwanted sexual advances toward her after an interview in 2006. The woman told Jezebel that she reached out to shake Franken’s hand, and “he took it and leaned toward me with his mouth open. I turned my head away from him and he landed a wet, open-mouthed kiss awkwardly on my cheek,” leaving the woman in disbelief.

“I was stunned and incredulous. I felt demeaned. I felt put in my place.” Adding, “The other women’s accounts of him grabbing their buttocks in front of their mothers and husbands, I believe them.”

On December 6th, Former comms director for Alan Grayson, Tina Dupuy, wrote an op-ed in The Atlantic titled “I believe Franken’s accusers because he groped me, too.” In 2009 as she posed for a photo with Franken, Dupuy recalls that Franken,

“put his hand on my waist, grabbing a handful of flesh. I froze. Then he squeezed. At least twice.” She went on to say that “Franken’s familiarity was inappropriate and unwanted…he knew exactly what he was doing. It shrunk me. It’s like I was no longer a person, only ornamental.”  

After the eighth woman came forward earlier this week, Democratic Senators were forced to finally take action. 32 Democrats called for Franken’s resignation on Wednesday, beginning with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand“I have been shocked and disappointed to learn over the last few weeks that a colleague I am fond of personally has engaged in behavior toward women that is unacceptable.”

On December 7th, Franken reluctantly announced he would be stepping down.

“A couple of months ago I felt that we had entered an important moment in the history of this country. We were finally beginning to listen to women about the ways in which men’s actions affect them. The moment was long overdue. I was excited for that conversation and hopeful that it would result in real change that made life better for women all across the country and in every part of our society. Then the conversation turned to me…”  

“Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently.”

While Franken went on to express his regret for having to step down from his Senate seat, he never expressed any regret for his actions, and he never actually apologized. On one hand, Franken cites the significance #MeToo and this moment is in US history, on the other hand…. #NotHim. He didn’t really mean anything by any of it. He was merely being playful; trying to be funny. Franken’s response reveals an attitude that is common, one that is widespread, and one that is part of the problem.

It is not a woman’s job to intuit what men’s behavior signifies. It is not women’s duty or responsibility to look into a man’s heart and decide whether or not, deep-down, he’s a really good guy and means no harm. Women are not obligated to “lighten up” or “take a joke” in the face of exploitive behavior anywhere, much less in the workplace. And increasingly, we are done feeling forced to “grin and bear” behavior that creates a climate of fear or discomfort for the sake of our careers.

Nonetheless, over the last few months denial, deflection, and sorry-not-sorry retorts have been pretty standard fare. What’s worse, the public’s knee-jerk reaction to discount or discredit a victim’s allegations until numerous women back her up with similar allegations speaks to a significant, pervasive problem in American society. Many people simply won’t believe women if doing so challenges what they think they know about a person.

This is truly incredible when you stop to consider those kinds of false allegations are extremely rare, while sexual harassment, sexual violence, and non-reporting are prevalent issues. It’s not the excuses that men use to absolve themselves of their behavior that is most troubling, that is expected. It is the arguments that others use to absolve the men they like, or their preferred leaders, of the damage they do to women that are most troubling.

The belief that affluent, powerful men should be forgiven, because we like them, because they seem like good guys, or because they do good things contributes to rape-culture, it upholds it, and it silences victims. Moreover, just because a man that you know personally never acted inappropriately toward you, always seemed like a good guy, or does some really good things, doesn’t mean he hasn’t acted inappropriately or harmed other women.

These are the attitudes that allowed a man like Trump to win the Presidency. They are the attitudes that allowed a man like Roy Moore to become a judge, allowed him to run for a Senate seat in Alabama, and may actually allow him to win that seat. I hate to break it to Democrats, but the same attitudes that lead Republicans to discredit these men’s accusers, that lead Republicans to “even if he did” in the face of numerous allegations, are no less sh*tty when they are used to defend Democrats.

It matters very little if the person who inappropriately comments on women’s looks, or women’s bodies, corners women in the elevator, grabs a woman’s breasts, or slaps her on the ass supports good legislation, has been supportive of women, or was an “icon” of the of the civil-rights movement. None of this makes a man a saint, and it sure as hell doesn’t absolve him from bad behavior.

Moreover, abuse against women is not a political bargaining chip, it is not leverage to be used against your political foes. Anyone attempting to undermine the credibility of real sexual assault victims for political gain isn’t only useless to the revolution. They are a liability and do real damage to real victims.

Women’s bodies, women’s well-being, their sense of safety and security are no one’s to sacrifice to benefit their preferred political party. Women’s allegations are not a cudgel to be wielded to politically shame them, or to slut-shame and victim-blame.

The is the message we have seen over and over again in the last few weeks. This is the message sent to victims, to women, and to girls. It shows a deeply depraved and tragically ignorant hyper-partisanship that does a great deal of damage, not only to the progress that women are making, but to victims of sexual abuse.  Even worse, the idea that only Democrats need be excused for this behavior, because Republicans are so terrible that the sexual offenders in our own party must be forgiven…for progress!

Holding Democrats accountable for sexual abuse will apparently lead to homelessness and death.

An extremely disappointingly, example of this “defend the guys we like at all cost” mentality came from Kate Harding in a piece for the Washington Post, titled, “I’m a feminist. I study rape culture. And I don’t want Al Franken to resign.” Harding’s piece is little more than a reboot of the arguments Gloria Steinem used in her 1998 New York Times defense of Bill Clinton, where Steinem reasoned that even if all of the various allegations against Clinton were true, he is “a candidate for sex addiction therapy.”

Fast-forward to 2017, Harding argues, “if we set this precedent in the interest of demonstrating our party’s solidarity with harassed and abused women, we’re only going to drain the swamp of people who, however flawed, still regularly vote to protect women’s rights and freedoms.” Is the progress Democrat’s have made on our behalf? Is this the so-called “progress for women” that only Democrats can bring?

The type of progress that, 20 years later, demands we continue to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment committed by our party members, because they might get around to protecting victims and holding offenders accountable… someday. Progress that requires a cache of taxpayer money to settle sexual harassment lawsuits on the hill.

Progress that requires victims to sign non-disclosure agreements so politicians can never be held accountable. A policy that made Nancy Pelosi’s comments on Meet The Press several weeks ago especially callous, condescending, and tone-deaf.  As Congresswoman Kathleen Rice noted in a recent interview.

I think that [Pelosi’s] comments set women back and, quite frankly, our party back decades. I  think that we ceded the moral high ground on Sunday when our leader said on ‘Meet the Press’ that John Conyers was an icon and we don’t even know who these women are, when she was fully aware that the woman in question was bound by a nondisclosure agreement.”

The Democratic Party has long-been weaponizing feminism, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and deflecting to the GOP.  All in the name of protecting wealthy men in power, including some of their donors. This is not progress. Progress for women cannot be made when representatives and party loyalists house, protect, and defend sexual harassers and sexual predators in their own party, while silencing, shaming, and shutting out victims.

There is absolutely nothing partisan about sexual harassment. Democratic women are just as likely to experience sexual harassment and discrimination as Republican women.

The only significant difference is that Republicans are less likely to consider workplace sexual harassment to be a serious problem, while for many years, Democrats have advocated that women who allege sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or sexual assault be believed. Implicitly. Unfortunately, many Democrats have shown that, for them, this doesn’t apply to their own party. Even with repeated explanations of why they are wrong, and how they are damaging women and damaging victims…they #persist.

Silencing victims is apparently totally acceptable, silencing politicians, not so much.

While it may seem unfair to some, taking women at their word is fairly instinctive for many people on the Left. After all, it’s just not that radical of an idea to believe women when 6 in 10 have been sexually harassed. Sexual harassment is simply not an unusual experience for women.

Because there is a dearth of false accusations, for many, it is just good practice to take all accusations at face value. That is not to say that false accusations do not exist, they do, and unfortunately, they are often the accusations most remembered. But, to use those extremely rare examples as ammunition to discount women who accuse men you happen to like is intellectually dishonest.

In a recent article for USA Today, Juliet Williams notes of the #MeToo movement:

“This moment is not happening because there are a bunch of women out there who believe due process and the rule of law need to give way to mob justice. This is a moment where a class of people who have been systematically denied voice, have been denied respect, are being allowed to speak, and first and foremost we need to listen…’believe women’ implores people not to brush off victims at the outset.”

Take for instance Tweeden’s allegations against Al Franken last month. Because Tweeden is not a “perfect” victim, her accusations have been targeted by Franken supporters and subsequently used to completely ignore or discount all of the allegations made against him. This isn’t even a case where a victim’s claims were false or unsubstantiated. It was merely Tweeden’s claim that she was harmed by Franken’s actions that were deemed insincere by his supporters, and therefore, worthy of ignoring and giving Franken the total benefit of the doubt. Even as victim after victim came forward.

None of this is surprising, America has a long history of disbelieving women, victim-blaming, and questioning women’s motives. But the simple fact of the matter is this, if you automatically believed Roy Moore’s and Donald Trump’s accusers, but doubted Bill Clinton’s, Al Franken’s, and John Conyer’s, you are a part of the problem. You are allowing partisanship to harm victims. You are making it more difficult for women to come forward, and you are contributing to a culture that has long protected men at the expense of women.

The hard cold fact is that most women never receive justice. In fact, roughly 70% of those who experience sexual harassment never report it because they fear a number of reactions, including disbelief, inaction, blame for causing the harassment, social retaliation, professional retaliation, and damage to their reputation.  For every 1,000 rapes, only 310 will ever be reported to the police, 57 will lead to arrest, 11 will be referred to prosecutors, and in the end, only 7 will lead to a conviction. Women who report are also at risk of being prosecuted for filing a false report, or sued for defamation.

We’ve created a culture that makes dealing with sexual abuse, harassment, assault, and rape seem easier than actually seeking justice. Given the failure of lawmakers and the legal system, it is absolutely no surprise that #MeToo has become a powerful mechanism for victims of sexual violence seeking support and justice.  Frankly, it’s long past time Democrats offer more than lip-service to victims, and arguing that Democrats shouldn’t resign until Republicans hold their own accountable is simply an untenable position. 

The Democratic Party positioned itself as the party of Women’s Rights, and they have no right to that label if they are unwilling to take a stand against offenders in their own ranks. Democrats have a duty to women and they must lead by example. If we can fix the rape culture pervasive in our government and our society, we can begin to help women who live in marginalized and impoverished communities. We can begin to receive some semblance of justice for the harm done to women.


Jami Miller contributed to this article.






Written by Beth Lynch

Mother, advocate, activist, academic, unapologetic Feminist and Progressive. Beth is a Writer for Progressive Army.
Follow Beth on Twitter @BethLynch2020.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Progressives Trying to Revive Democrats in Trump’s Rural Georgia

Abuse Against Women is Not a Political Bargaining Chip