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Sexual Harassment Versus Sexual Assault: How the Mainstream Media Keep Screwing Up the Herman Cain Story

We don’t know what happened between Cain and these women, but the content of the allegations is clear: they allege harassment and assault.
 
 
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Yesterday’s New York Times once again reports on “sexual harassment accusations” against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. But nonconsensual and forced groping is not harassment--it’s sexual assault. Plain and simple. We don’t know what happened between Cain and these women, but the content of the allegations is clear: they allege harassment and, more seriously, assault.

Sexual assault,  according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, includes “when someone touches any part of another person's body in a sexual way, even through clothes, without that person's consent.”

Sexual harassment,  according to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, is a broader category, that includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” that “affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

On Monday, the  Times reported that accuser Sharon Bialek put “a face and a name for the first time to accusations of sexual harassment” after alleging that Cain “ran his hand up her skirt, ‘reached for my genitals’ and pulled her head toward his crotch.”

Each clause of that accusation alleges sexual assault. And the  Times is far from alone in missing this. The  Washington Post  noted that Bialek “accused Cain of groping her and trying to force her into a sexual act” and then went on to describe her as the “first woman to publicly accuse Herman Cain of sexual harassment.” Again: no mention of assault.

The media wall of obfuscation does have some cracks: The Wall Street Journal referred to the “stream of accusations of sexual assault;” and the  Times did quote Robert D. Lipman, a lawyer who represents victims of sexual harassment and assault, in an online article as describing Bialek’s accusations as “more of a sexual assault.”

The story nonetheless continues to be one overwhelmingly framed as being about sexual harassment. Yet in a separate  article on a series of incidents in Brooklyn, the  Times describes unwanted groping as “assaults.” Refusing to call sexual assault by its name is a means of denying its existence or limiting it to cases of out-and-out rape.

But if conservatives ignore sexual assault, they boldly deny the very existence of sexual harassment, as Dahlia Lithwick  points out; dusting off the Clarence Thomas playbook, set to assassinate the character of all accusers, and something more. (Cain, unsurprisingly, has already channeled Thomas’ charge of a “high-tech lynching.”) We have entered the “era of gender harassment denialism. The harassment skeptics claim that harassment, like racism, used to exist but is now over. Twenty years ago, when charges were leveled at Clarence Thomas, supporters of the accused refused to take the accuser seriously. Now supporters of the accused refuse to take the accusation itself seriously. We have gone from not knowing what sexual harassment is to not believing it still happens.”

This is a two-step process to rob victims of justice: first, the very notion of sexual harassment is belittled as the self-serving and greedy complaints of humorless women. Then, when sexual assault allegations arise, they are downgraded to this “harassment” category that conservatives have declared to be meaningless.

As Emily Hauser writes at  Feministe, “Every woman I know can tell a story of harassment or assault...Sexual threat or violence, or fear of same, is a constant in the lives of all women and girls. Full stop.” Ignoring sexual assault and downplaying sexual harassment is an attack on women. This is about more than the (allegedly predatory) clown named Herman Cain, and the mainstream media’s language should take that into account.

 
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