A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to one of the women who has accused Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of sexual harassment as Lindsey Boyle. Her name is Lindsey Boylan. This version has been corrected.
Like so many men, Cuomo has seemed unable to connect his own actions to the reality of a hostile work environment for women. So what changed that made him suddenly realize he had to resign? The answer lies in the past 60 years, not the last week.
We are living through a fraught transition in sexual mores, gender roles and expectations, the result of decades of steady cultural and social transformation. The movements behind this change have always been about contesting power, which frequently manifests itself in sexual dynamics, entitlements and abuse — whether in the governor’s office or the Catholic Church. Moving the emphasis from sex to power remains difficult, cognitively dissonant and, frankly, unwanted by many people.
#MeToo and Time’s Up, two of the most recognizable current movements in this decades-long fight, are in their earliest stages, and we still have a long road ahead.
These movements, publicly supported 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 that girls and women face are getting new attention, Cuomo demonstrated the entitlements — to women’s time, attention, deference and bodies — from which boys and men still benefit. His case shows the difficulty of centering the experiences 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. Women in Cuomo’s office worked in an environment that nominally espoused the ideas of safety, equality and respect — but some of his accusers still hesitated to come forward because they saw how Cuomo and his aides sought to discredit the ones who did.
Many people who might have ignored or trivialized Cuomo’s behavior in past years no longer do. Only three days after he released a slide show in his own defense, documenting decades of “it’s my culture to be affectionate” public huggery, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 70 percent of New York voters said he should leave office, 63 percent said he should be impeached if he didn’t resign, and 55 percent said he should be charged with a crime. Among those who held these opinions were certainly women who questioned how they tolerated similar harassment and men who wondered if they, too, could be accused.
These findings 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 arbiter of social and political norms. Surely the notion that he was an offender didn’t cross his mind as he very publicly supported Time’s Up in 2019, signing legislation extending the statute of limitations for sexual assault while surrounded by leaders of the movement. The public’s response is a sign, however, that the slow and steady work of shifting knowledge and understanding is having an effect and altering political will and power.
Cuomo and many members of his broader circle seem to have been surprised 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 past 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 completely changed yet, which is why Cuomo might have believed he could have hung on even after the allegations 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 to other abuses of power, a connection dubbed, in Silicon Valley, “the Al Capone theory.” Cuomo, the attorney general’s report found, tried to interfere in the investigation into the claims of sexual harassment — just as the New Yorker reported recently he tried to interfere in a state investigation into political corruption.
Does Cuomo’s case show that “normal” has really been redefined? That our prior ways of interacting with one another and organizing ourselves — in the workplace or politics — are being dismantled and rebuilt in healthier and more egalitarian ways?
No social interaction exists without an element of power, a fact made even more evident by Cuomo’s odd and reductive fixation on hugging. “I do it with everyone,” he said about hugs. “Black and White. Young and old. Straight and LGBTQ. Powerful people. Friends. Strangers. People who I meet on the street.” The incidents in the attorney general’s report went beyond ambiguous hugging to include verbal harassment and physical groping. But Cuomo’s focus on hugging shows his penchant for deflecting attention and ignoring or trivializing what happened and the effects it had on the women who experienced it.
The reduction to hugging also reflects how insidious the notion of entitlement to women’s bodies can be. There are the “huggers” who cling a little too long, the “lip kissers” who necessitate a rapid turn of the face, “the lap grabbers” who pull you down into their seats, the “shoulder rubbers” who insist that 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 everyone over age 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 believed that he treated everyone the same way — but 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 dread and anxiety at work. And only women feared retaliation for coming forward.
Cuomo is hardly alone in his disorientation. How often do you hear people talk about interactions that once seemed normal but now aren’t? About social mores that were once acceptable or tolerated but no longer are? These changes force us to have hard conversations, to approach issues with nuance and to consider how harmful norms can be wrapped up in certain identities, which now feel threatened. (Anne Victoria Clark’s “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. In the meantime, an essential component in coping with social changes like these is recognizing that it’s okay 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 wary at work; that their behavior might be misconstrued, their words misunderstood, their history deleteriously revisited. 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. It is a chance to revisit what it means to truly include people in a way that makes them feel valued and respected.