already beleaguered administration. While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as advocacy groups have called for an investigation into the accusations, and in some cases for his resignation, others, including Cuomo himself, have minimized the claims.
The accusations range from unwanted kissing to asking an employee about her sex life to soliciting a former aide to play “strip poker.”
The governor said in a statement that “sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny.” On Twitter, some users suggested the governor’s behavior was “not a big deal.” Some of Cuomo’s conservative critics expressed disbelief his alleged mistreatment of women could cause so much damage. Commentator Matt Walsh said “He’s accused of flirting with a few women and that’s what takes him down. Incredible.”
The accusations against Cuomo should be taken seriously, sexual violence experts say, and the tendency to minimize the behaviors he’s been accused of show how normalized they’ve become. A 2018 survey found 81 percent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime and research shows workplace sexual harassment is widespread.
Acts of sexual violence occur on a spectrum, experts say. On one end may be a serial predator accused of rape, on the other a male boss making sexually suggestive comments. All behaviors along the continuum are harmful and the amount of trauma someone feels isn’t determined solely by where the violent act they experienced sits on a spectrum.
“For the allegations with Cuomo, it can be tempting to think, ‘Well, it’s just a couple of comments. Can’t she take it? Can’t she handle it?’ Part of that defensiveness can come from the culture just being that bad that many men have probably done this. And some women too, and it’s hard to see ourselves in that light,” said Jennifer Gómez, a psychology professor at Wayne State University. “We’ve all probably witnessed this happen … and so it’s hard for us to accept that we’ve either done the harm or been a witness to harm, and to grapple with what that means for ourselves as perpetrators, as victims, as bystanders.”
Workplace sexual harassment is a persistent problem, said Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, and can include a wide range of behaviors from inappropriate statements, lewd gestures, leering behavior, sexually explicit jokes, emails or texts, and offensive objects or images.
A 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine found “sexual harassment undermines women’s professional and educational attainment and mental and physical health.” Research shows:
“I was so confused and shocked and embarrassed,” Anna Ruch, 33, told the New York Times. “I turned my head away and didn’t have words in that moment.” Ruch said Cuomo, 63, made an unwanted advance at a New York City wedding in September 2019, placing his hand on her lower back, which was exposed. When she removed his hand, she said Cuomo grabbed her face with both hands and asked if he could kiss her before she pulled away.
“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” former aide Charlotte Bennett, 25, told the New York Times. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.” Bennett said Cuomo made her uncomfortable with questions about her sex life and whether she would consider dating an older man.
“As the black wrought-iron elevator took me to the second floor, I called my husband. I told him I was afraid of what might happen,” former aide Lindsey Boylan wrote in a post on Medium about being summoned to a meeting with the governor. Boylan, 36, first made the allegations on Twitter in December, but the story gained little national attention. She said on one occasion, the governor asked her if she wanted to play “strip poker” while they were traveling on a state-owned plane, and on another, he gave her an unwanted kiss on the lips as she was leaving his office.
microaggressions – the persistent, subtle blows that affect marginalized groups, which public health experts say can affect long-term health and contribute to higher rates of mortality and depression.
“It’s the accumulation of these things that are really harmful, that are really testing,” Gómezsaid.
Equal access to opportunity, she said, isn’t just about getting your foot in the door. It’s about what happens when you’re inside.
“It’s not just the one-time impact of the harmful behaviors that is important to recognize, it’s how these experiences continue to shape the victim’s life on a daily basis and their career and livelihood in the long-term,” Palumbo said.
When people minimize these kind of behaviors, they minimize impact. Without recognizing impact, experts say, culture cannot change.
“Minimization fits the larger myth that women often exaggerate claims of sexual harassment and make ‘mountains out of molehills,'” said Lilia Cortina
a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan who researches women’s victimization at work.
“We know from research that myths specific to sexual harassment serve two aims: denial and justification. That is, some myths deny that any wrongdoing has transpired, often by questioning the veracity of victim reports. … When denial becomes impossible, myths justify sexual harassment, in many cases by blaming the victim.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is explaining something about trauma. Experts say we should listen.