As a feminist and the author of a book on rape culture, I could reasonably be expected to lead the calls for Al Franken to step down, following allegations that he forced his tongue down a woman’s throat, accompanied by a photo of him grinning as he moves in to grope her breasts while she sleeps. It’s disgusting. He treated a sleeping woman as a comedy prop, no more human than the contents of Carrot Top’s trunk, and I firmly believe he should suffer social and professional consequences for it.
But I don’t believe resigning from his position is the only possible consequence, or the one that’s best for American women.
Cynics on both the right and left will presume I am passing by this particular steam tray on 2017’s smorgasbord of feminist outrage because Franken is a Democrat, and so am I. (I was even his proud constituent for two years.) In the most superficial sense, this is true. But it’s meaningless to say it’s because I am a Democrat without asking why I am a Democrat. If you understand what it means to be a Democrat today — that is, why it makes sense to vote blue over red in this highly polarized political environment — you can understand why it might not make the most sense to demand Franken’s resignation, effective immediately.
I am a Democrat because I am a feminist who lives under a two-party system, where one party consistently votes against the interests of women while the other sometimes does not. I am not a true believer in the party itself nor in any politician. I am a realist who recognizes that we get two viable choices, and Democrats are members of the only party positioned to pump the brakes on Republicans’ gleeful race toward Atwoodian dystopia. Meanwhile, I recognize that men’s harassment of and violence against women is a systemic issue, not a Democrat or Republican problem, a Hollywood problem, a sports problem, or a media problem. Its roots lie in a patriarchal culture that trains men to believe they are entitled to control women’s bodies —for sex, for sport, for childbearing, for comedy.
When you combine these things — an awareness that the Democratic Party is no more or less than best of two, and an understanding that men in power frequently exploit women — it becomes difficult to believe that Franken is the only sitting Democrat with a history of harassment, abuse or assault. The recent #metoo campaign demonstrated how normalized unwanted kissing and groping are in our culture. Donald Trump was caught on tape crudely admitting to both of those transgressions, and we made him our president. According to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 1 in 3 women experiences some sort of contact sexual violence in her life. Sexual harassment and assault are simply too widespread for Democrats to respond to Franken’s offense with only Franken in mind: We need to respond in a way that helps us develop a protocol for meaningful change.
It would feel good, momentarily, to see Franken resign and the Democratic governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, appoint a senator who has not (as far as we know) harmed women. If I believed for one second that Franken is the only Democrat in the Senate who has done something like this, with or without photographic evidence, I would see that as the best and most appropriate option. But in the world we actually live in, I’m betting that there will be more. And more after that. And they won’t all come from states with Democratic governors and a deep bench of progressive replacements. Some will, if ousted, have their successors chosen by Republicans.
In other words, 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. The legislative branch will remain chockablock with old, white Republican men who regard women chiefly as sex objects and unpaid housekeepers, and we’ll show them how staunchly Democrats oppose their misogynistic attitudes by handing them more power.
Isn’t that hypocritical? I hear you asking, Because Republicans won’t do the right thing, we shouldn’t, either? But if the short-term “right thing” leads to long-term political catastrophe for American women, I think we need to reconsider our definition of the right thing. I am in no way suggesting that we decline to hold Franken accountable for his offenses — only that we think in terms of consequences that might actually improve women’s lives going forward.
For example, if Franken genuinely wishes to be an ally to women, as he claimed in an expanded statement Thursday, here’s what I would like to see him do. First, cooperate fully with an ethics investigation, as promised. Second, declare as soon as possible that he will not run again in 2020, so other Democratic candidates for that seat have plenty of time to prepare their campaigns. Third, go on a listening tour to learn what the women of Minnesota — Native American women, Somali women, Hmong women, Karen women, disabled women, queer women, working-class women — most want him to fight for in his remaining time, and go to the mat for their needs. Accept that some women will not want to talk to him at all, or will only want to yell at him for being a pig. Go anyway.
After all that, I would like to see him support a qualified progressive woman, who will carry on that important work, to run for his seat. (If she won, she would be the second woman ever elected to represent Minnesota in the Senate. Minnesota has been a state since 1858.) Whether he does so publicly or behind the scenes will depend on the sincerity of his atonement and Minnesotans’ perception of same. If they forgive him, he can stump for her, but if they don’t, he can still offer fundraising expertise, connections and advice privately. He can leverage the many advantages of being an older, famous white man (which inevitably persist despite temporary ignominy) to elevate a progressive woman to the political height he once achieved.
Then, when (okay, if, but like I said: I’m a realist) another Democratic politician’s sexual misconduct is revealed, we can ask the same of him. Don’t just apologize and drop out of sight. Do penance. Live the values you campaigned on. Be a selfless champion for women’s rights.
There are, of course, limits to this formula. If a Democratic official is credibly accused of a violent assault, or if their alleged abuses relate to or involve their work in politics, we should demand their resignation and encourage a full investigation. As I write this, only one woman has alleged that Franken assaulted her; if her story emboldens others to tell theirs, and the senator is revealed to be a serial predator, then I wouldn’t want him in a position of power for one more minute. And if by some miracle, Republicans actually do start holding their own accountable for sexual misconduct — instead of arguing about whether a grown man who preys on teenagers is fit for office — then most of my argument dissolves. In that happy circumstance, I would gladly throw all the sexist jerks in the sea, regardless of party affiliation.
But in a sharply divided political climate where toxic masculinity knows no party, yet is only ever acknowledged by one, we must think about how to minimize harm to women. One more empty apology and resignation, one more head on a pike, will not make American women safer or better off. Powerful men lifting up women’s concerns and supporting progressive women candidates, however, could be a real step toward changing the culture that makes victims of so many of us.