Obnoxious, intrusive, frightening, harassing, assaultive — sexual misconduct takes place on a continuum. An obnoxious remark and a rape are obviously not the same, but they share the same continuum. As Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz stand (and cringe and punch and flail) in the spotlight, a gap (more like a crater) separates their perceptions from the perceptions of their accusers. The interplay between that chasm and the continuum weaves through each incident of sexual misconduct.
Andrew Cuomo — Governor of New York, accused of sexual harassment — stood in front of the cameras and said “I’m sorry” for “whatever pain I caused anyone.” He added that he felt “awful,” “embarrassed,” and that his mistakes were “unintentional.” He also asserted that kissing is no big deal, that it’s how he greets all humans, that he had no clue he was hurting people. As he spoke, the chasm between his experience and his accusers’ viewpoints became glaringly, disturbingly, increasingly wide and deep.
Gov. Cuomo stated several times that he regrets making women feel “uncomfortable.” But let’s call it for what it is. Uncomfortable is trying on a pair of shoes a size too small, or meeting your fiancé’s great aunt who announces that your hips are too skinny to bear children properly, or being offered a bison burger at a dinner party and explaining that you’re vegan. Uncomfortable is nowhere near how demeaned, unsafe and often enraged people feel facing sexual harassment.
From the other end of the political spectrum and at a different point on the continuum, Matt Gaetz (a member of Congress) is facing allegations of having sexual relations with a 17-year-old, of sex trafficking, and stories have emerged of his bragging about his conquests (including nude photos) to his Congress-colleagues. So far, Mr. Gaetz has expressed no regrets and appears sorry for nothing. He has been loud and brash in his outrage at the allegations.
In contrast to Matt Gaetz, Andrew Cuomo has tried (more like visibly struggled) to hit a humble note, saying he’ll “be the better for this experience.” I hope so, but “being-the-better” is only the beginning. The cultural undercurrents (and tidal waves) that led to #MeToo and #TimesUp are alive and well and kicking people in the teeth. There’s no easy fix for a chasm that’s centuries-deep and a continuum that’s millions-of-incidents-long. So instead of balancing on the ledge and shouting across the gorge, I’m stepping in. From the depths of the chasm, I’m offering this short post from the less-violent-but-still-damaging end of the continuum.
A while ago, on a popular social media site, a middle-aged man wrote a brief anecdote that he clearly thought was amusing. Years before, he and another male friend were walking, and noticed a woman’s breasts. The post briefly described how the two gentlemen stopped for a moment of silence, gazing in reverential awe at this stranger’s chest. The comments following the post suggested that at least some agreed that his story was funny.
Seemingly simple, deceptively complex.
From age fourteen until my hair turned gray, strangers (always men) stared at me. Sometimes they approached and tried to initiate conversations, inviting me to join them for coffee or dinner or a certain aerobic activity. Sometimes they leered, rating my level of attractiveness, expecting me to be pleased at what they considered to be a compliment. Sometimes they whispered, huddled in a pair or a group. Sometimes they gazed in a moment of gentlemanly silence. Whatever they did, it was at best obnoxious, at worst scary, always threatening. (And I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve never been assaulted.) This didn’t happen because I was a creature of such celestial beauty that the angels burst into chorus whenever I appeared. It didn’t happen because I always wore mini-skirts (never owned one) and spike heels (never could walk in them). It didn’t happen because of any of the go-to excuses (you’re so pretty – you dressed provocatively) people offer to shift blame onto the survivor. It didn’t happen because I was special or remarkable in any way. It happened because I’m female.
Perspective #1: My friend and I weren’t threatening. We were admiring her breasts in a respectful manner. She didn’t even know we were looking at her.
Perspective #2: She knew. And what you experienced as admiring and respectful may have felt quite different to her.
No matter how subtle this man and his friend thought they were as they stared at the woman’s breasts, I can guarantee that she was instantly aware. How do I know? Because almost all women on the planet, regardless of how conventionally attractive they are, deal with unwanted intrusions so often, from so young, that we’re trained to know. We have to know for our own safety, because too often, these situations escalate.
Perspective #1: We were just looking. Don’t you think maybe you’re overreacting?
Perspective #2: Rule of thumb: be wary of any sentence that begins “We were just….” And nope, I’m not overreacting. Welcome to the continuum, from the other side of the chasm.
When I faced similar situations in my younger days, I was immediately watching carefully, trying not to let the man know I was watching, in case he misinterpreted my attention as a sign of interest. I was gauging his build in relation to my own, in case I needed to defend myself physically. I immediately experienced him as a potential threat.
Perspective #1: This is harmless fun, a bonding moment with my buddy.
Perspective #2: Do you mean harmless and fun for you and your gentlemanly buddy, or for the woman? While you and your friend are happily bonding, she’s probably trying to figure out how to protect herself from an intrusion that might escalate into a threat.
I’d assess the people around me, where I might turn for help if I needed it. I’d be aware of every building on the street, an office I might enter for safety, a restaurant with too many witnesses.
Perspective #1: If the neighborhood wasn’t safe, why’d you put yourself in danger by being there? If the neighborhood was safe, what were you so worried about?
Perspective #2: Your first question is an example of blaming the survivor. Regarding your second question — a common misconception is that sexual assaults take place only in dark alleys, by masked strangers, holding rusty shivs, surrounded by abandoned buildings.
Whenever I walked alone, I was automatically alert, wearing a don’t-even-try scowl. In spite of my death-stare, some men crashed through the boundary. Sometimes they were overtly threatening. Sometimes they took my arm to stop me from walking away. Sometimes they invited me for lunch at a restaurant they owned, for drinks at their night club, to the theater, a concert, a movie. Every time, the answer was no No NO. Many of these unwanted overtures began with a moment of silent gazing.
Perspective #1: You must have been doing something, sending unspoken encouraging signals, that invited men to approach you. And your scowl — no offense, but you don’t sound like a nice person.
Perspective #2: Sending encouraging signals — absolutely not — unless you categorize WWF (Walking While Female) as an encouraging signal. As for my scowl, apparently we define Not-A-Nice-Person quite differently. “No Offense” duly noted.
Even if the situation began and ended with gentlemanly reverence, I was painfully aware that I was being sexualized by strangers when I was going to the corner store for a carton of milk, or meeting a friend for lunch, or picking up my kid from school.
Perspective #1: You need a sense of humor. You’re taking everything too seriously.
Perspective #2: Possibly — but not regarding this issue. Still, don’t take my word for it. Ask Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz. I’m confident that at this point in their lives, considering the trouble they’re in, both would agree with their accusers (and with me) on at least one point: this issue is serious.
Finally, take a quick moment to calculate the number of underlying currents, social norms and cultural mores I challenged or violated by writing this post.
Perspective #1: Yeah, right, whatever. Can I go now?
Perspective #2: Sure.
Or you can pause, gauge where you stand on the continuum, and take a step toward the other side of the chasm.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story is about the power of friendship as the students face homophobic bullying and navigate racial and economic diversity. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. Both novels deal with the chasm and the continuum of sexual misconduct.
Click here to purchase one of Amy’s novels, to read reviews, to check out the first few chapters.