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Pop Stuff: Shame On Who?

‘In spite of having civil rights laws around harassment, if we don’t actually talk about it in numbers, nothing happens’

Soleil Nathwani Oct 25, 2021

Shame inevitably results in silence, the condition in which the source of shame is never pointed at or spoken of. Photo: Pexels

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Hard-nosed, fast-walking, brassy New Yorkers have a reputation built on resilience. Whenever there is a crisis in the city or state, New York invariably rises to the challenge – a trait that has endowed it with a reputation for being tough as nails. I remember feeling the dread in my downtown office building as plumes of smoke filled the sky on 9/11, walking down forty-eight flights and navigating chaos to get home. I recall working at a hedge fund in the midst of the financial crisis and watching the markets collapse. I can still conjure the moment the lights came on in my apartment after five dark, powerless days during Hurricane Sandy. But New York never felt scarier or exhibited more toughness than when it became the epicenter of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020 and New Yorkers were locked in, masked and surrounded by an unending wail of ambulance sirens. During this period of collective trauma, effective state governance was key and the former Governor of the state, Andrew Cuomo, who recently resigned in disgrace, became something of a national hero, the most trusted Democratic voice during a public health crisis in which the White House was flailing and someone who, by virtue of measured, data-driven, empathetic daily briefings, projected safety and imbued his pandemic motto New York Tough with the heft needed to see New Yorkers through.

Months after the first peak of the pandemic, by November of 2020, the Governor’s voice had become such a powerful symbol that The International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced that it would be awarding Andrew Cuomo an Emmy award for his daily coronavirus briefings. Cuomo, fresh from his success, wrote a book about his heroics entitled American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the Covid-19 Pandemic which publishing companies vied for in a frenzied battle. Cuomo’s subsequent downfall then, has been of Shakespearean proportions: a precipitous fall from grace following a nursing home scandal (the state administration was accused of deliberately obscuring the number of nursing home deaths during the pandemic) and more pertinently, his resignation in August of this year, accompanied by a non-apology of sorts, in the wake of sexual harassment allegations from eleven women. 

A look back through Cuomo’s career makes his departure from the Governor’s mansion seem like a comeuppance of sorts for a leader who hailed from a political dynasty and never really escaped the shadow of his ‘philosopher king’ father Mario Cuomo (respected, three-term liberal governor of New York from 1983 to 1994), mainly because of the younger Cuomo’s reputation for being a ruthless, political operator who barked back at perceived enemies and ruled in a domineering style. Andrew Cuomo, it seems, managed through intimidation and was harsh on those he considered vulnerable. Various looks back into his tenure have revealed instances of berating officials, threatening to fire people or end their careers and managing by an instinct to punch first and never explain. And yet New Yorkers elected Cuomo three times and credited his heavy-handed approach for being effective in bringing about very concrete advances – a rise in the minimum wage, the legalization of same-sex marriage and a variety of criminal justice reforms. 

And so, New York’s latest crisis, one which it shows signs of reemergence from, with freshly bustling streets and a new and notably first, female Governor in Kathy Hochul, has got me thinking about true toughness and resilience. New York Tough, the erstwhile Governor’s rousing pandemic slogan was in retrospect an irony-laden, double-edged sword, elevating the perceived strength of a leader who had a penchant for bullying to achieve his ends. Ends that included allegedly harassing women who worked for him and ultimately denying he ever crossed a line with anyone, rather that, ‘I didn’t realize the extent to which the line had been redrawn’ and that there were, ‘generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate’. Yet Cuomo was very much in his seat of power in the wake of the reporting on Weinstein, Epstein and a host of other scandals, an environment that, unless you had been in a cave, would make the argument that you were unaware of the shifting culture, moot. It was after the MeToo reckoning that seven of his eleven accusers claim his inappropriate behavior took place and in August 2019 that the Governor himself signed laws strengthening protections against workplace harassment. Perhaps, the power of the office warped Cuomo’s perception of decency.

Powerful people, particularly men, sexually harassing subordinates, very frequently women, is old news (of course, no one is immune to this though the statistics are particularly high for certain vulnerable groups such as younger women, Black women, transgender individuals and others). In the wake of MeToo, a different man seemed to be knocked off his perch every day after strings of allegations made it impossible to keep those very people, who had seemed untouchable, in power. Matt Lauer once the handsome, comforting face of American morning television via The Today Show was fired, after twenty-five years at network NBC, following a complaint of inappropriate sexual behavior. It turned out there had been numerous such instances, including one where he purportedly summoned a female employee to his office, dropped his pants and then reprimanded her for not engaging in a sexual act. Celebrity chef Mario Batali had to step away from his restaurant operations after several allegations of sexual misconduct. Comedian Louis C.K. was canceled after multiple instances of masturbating in front of women. Famed hotelier Andre Balzas’ hotels lost their shine after he was accused of groping several women. Veteran journalist and 60 Minutes correspondent Charlie Rose was fired from CBS and PBS after tens of women came forward with allegations of sexual misbehavior. 

Repercussions or resolution in these cases of harassment, be it firings or statements that range from denial, to semi-apology, to contrition, fall into large, grey areas as compared to trials and potential criminal prosecutions for rape or sexual abuse as with Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby or Jeffrey Epstein, but the one surety is that accusers name the same things that initially held them back. They were accusing men who wielded immense power in a society that provided those men protection, men who people were more likely to believe and men who had exhibited bullying or entitled behavior, from whom they feared retaliation. Cuomo was a case in point – a larger-than-life figure, coming off a moment of being revered for his leadership, who was part of one of the most powerful families in New York politics and who supposedly had a pattern of using intimidation tactics. What set the Cuomo episode apart was the scope of the investigation undertaken to look at the allegations by the State Attorney General of New York, the public disclosure of the findings and the subsequent pressure on Governor Cuomo to resign, from officials up to the President. Whilst a larger discussion about vetting harassment claims before discrediting the accused in such situations is crucial, the investigation is a vindication that the behavior that women have long been encouraged, even taught, to sweep under the rug, is deeply troubling and worthy of censure. It offers hope that we have entered a time where women’s voices matter in the face of entrenched power.

In this particular moment of New York crisis, a pandemic from which the hero came out the other side looking like a villain, I initially exhibited what I thought was a healthy dose of skepticism. In December of 2020 when a teaser of the first allegation surfaced, the city, after a summer of relief, was barreling towards its second pandemic peak and toppling our New York Tough Governor seemed a tad too much of a crisis on top of a crisis. Lindsey Boylan, the Governor’s former aide and first accuser, tweeting about her experience, said that Cuomo had harassed her for years as people watched his behavior, saying specifically, ‘I could never anticipate what to expect: would I be grilled on my work (which was very good) or harassed about my looks’. Cuomo flatly denied any harassment. I recall thinking that it had not been unusual over years working in various industries from finance to film for male colleagues or superiors to ‘comment’ on my appearance; comments which I occasionally registered inwardly as inappropriate but wrote off outwardly as the ‘harmless’, verbal babble of people who were out of step, of a different generation. I wondered briefly if Boylan’s reality had been ‘so bad’ before registering the cognitive dissonance of also knowing any kind of ‘bad’ should not be okay.

In February of 2021 Boylan detailed her experience further, in a Medium post, saying that the Governor had suggested a game of strip poker, would touch her lower back, would make requests for her to come to his office without reason and had kissed her on the lips. I remember cringing and feeling angered and at the same time trying to temper the emotion in my response with the thought that Cuomo should only have to step down after some sort of due process or inquiry. After all, I thought – only belatedly conscious of the societal complicity of this note-to-self – people had remained in power after purportedly doing a lot worse. At the close of her post Boylan says, ‘I know some will brush off my experience as trivial. We are accustomed to powerful men behaving badly when no one is watching. But what does it say about us when everyone is watching and no one says a thing’. The person that would ultimately have a domino effect, spurring others to come forward, had kept quiet for a long period of time and when she eventually did speak, she recognized that people, many people, would not think this was worthy of attention. We are all aware of the iniquitous rules of power and abuse and we keep mum. Why? 

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In the weeks and months that followed, several more women came forward about their own experiences of harassment with Governor Cuomo. As the story grew larger and appeared increasingly problematic, the voices, in echo chambers, in the media, in halls of power, that had initially suggested it was going a step too far to think that a single man should be forced to step down in light of an account – that he denied – of making unsavory moves on an attractive staffer, quietened. In that quiet, what became louder for me personally were the times that I myself have experienced unwanted or inappropriate touch and the ways in which I reacted or more importantly didn’t react. None of these situations would be considered severe enough at the time to merit the term assault and that is precisely what made them harder to know how to deal with because we had neither the language nor the systems in years past. In fact, at the time, in their context, they might be responded to variously with: ‘it happens’, ‘it’s an annoyance’, ‘this is just what girls/women deal with’, ‘it’s a part of life’, ‘be more careful’, ‘cover your arms, your legs, yourself’. These and others are the statements I told myself and that society repeatedly tells us about situations which I still recall in no uncertain terms, which every woman I know recalls in no uncertain terms.

The first happened when I was not even a teenager, walking in a crowded market when a man thrust a hand in between my legs as he walked by. My mother was just a pace ahead and in the throng of the crowd the hand was invisible and yet the touch itself irrefutable. I was so confused at how to feel, even though it clearly felt wrong and about where the wrongness should be directed, that I said nothing. And besides, he was gone, although the body, it seems, remembers forever. In the second instance, an older teacher who came over to give me biology tuitions at home in Mumbai, put his hand over my breast, claiming he was showing me how to feel for my heartbeat. It is creepy just to put on paper. I told my mother immediately after the lesson, although I had to overcome a considerable amount of embarrassment to do so and the man never returned. Still, I waited till he was gone, till it felt ‘safe’ to tell her. A similar thing happened years later when I was twenty-nine and a meditation instructor, under the auspices of performing reiki, since he was also a trained reiki master, or so he said, put his hands on my chest in a way that was decidedly inappropriate. This, under the guise of a form of healing. This time, I didn’t have to tell a parent. I could make sure a repeat didn’t occur myself but I was relieved by this. Something about it felt shameful and I remember thinking, thank god I don’t have to tell someone else. 

I count myself lucky, given the statistics, that I haven’t experienced rape, workplace harassment or an inappropriate situation that I feel trapped in, all of which are all too common but it is not enough to just feel fortunate that something worse didn’t happen without questioning why things like this happen in the first place. It is not enough to say that this is just the world we live in, where we function on the assumption that women, or other vulnerable groups, need to exercise vigilance over their space and their bodies because ‘boys will be boys’ or other such platitudes. I can almost guarantee that if you are a woman reading this (or in some cases a man), chances are that even if it has been long buried, there will be an instance on a bus, subway car, dark room, well-lit office or corner of your own home, where you have experienced touch you didn’t want and that if you are man, even one who has walked through the world oblivious of the unwelcome brush of an arm against your backside or chest, you have a mother, sister, daughter (or son), or friend who has a story, if not stories, of unwanted advances that she/he/they can call up as clear as if it was yesterday. 

I feel sure about this because when I first began to recall and recount these buried instances, I shared them with the women in my life and every single one had a story of her own, that she responded within kind. Every. Single. One. A friend whose tennis instructor had repeatedly asked for a shoulder massage when she was a teen. A friend who had been groped on a train, another in a crowd. A friend whose boss had kissed her in a bar on the first week on the job and continued to proposition her until she had to make up an excuse to be transferred. The stories came fast and furious, including when I shared with my own mother and she shared with me her own story of having someone follow her and expose themselves to her in a building corridor when she was a girl. She remembered exactly where it had happened even though we were talking decades later and I was the first person she was telling since that time. In almost all these instances women shared with me how they hadn’t talked about it since it happened, hadn’t told anyone in many cases, had ‘forgotten’ until this very moment – except that not a detail was forgotten, hadn’t thought it was worth talking about, because who would care.

The silence around these stories is absolutely deafening, especially when we realize that the ones we hear, the ones that make it out of the whisper networks and into the public domain are just the tip of a very large iceberg. It is only when we talk about it that it begins to end but we have been taught that not talking about it is the way to address the issue. Why revisit what you can bury? Why make a fuss? Why attract the negative attention that disgusting acts provoke? Why get someone into trouble? Why risk being disbelieved? Why face the questions and the consequences? Why be the problem when you can hide the problem? But isn’t this what is problematic?

What keeps us from sharing is the guilt, shame and the fear that these situations are shrouded in. Guilt, the sense that ‘I did something bad’ commonly accompanies situations of harassment or assault because when situations feel unsafe or unpredictable, guilt is a way of taking back control. If you convince yourself that something is your fault, you can tell yourself you can prevent it from happening again. You can provide safety for yourself and the person who harassed you. And in many cases, you want to provide safety for this person because they are someone who has a stake in your well-being or future. 

Society then provides a fertile environment for the ‘I did something bad’ of guilt to turn into the ‘I am bad’ of shame. Survivors regularly feel that they may have ‘asked for it’. In everything from advertising to pornography, girls and women are still objectified, presented as existing for sexual pleasure and vulnerable to being categorized as a ‘good girl’ or ‘slut’ which entitles abusers and destabilizes victims. Social stigma is conveyed directly by blaming those who speak up, typically via the ‘What were you thinking?’ response, implying that the victim should have dressed better, known better, prepared better and indirectly through variations on the rape myth; that it is only those who are loose, scantily clad, flirtatious or a host of other meaningless labels, that are harassed or assaulted. Boys and men similarly fall prey to the myth that being victims means that they lack strength. 

It is precisely because of this collusion of society that even though one in four girls and one in six boys are abused in childhood and over eighty-five percent of women experience some form of harassment in their lifetime, that we refuse to see the truth in numbers and no-one quite believes it. This is why we saw Simone Biles, the world’s greatest gymnast, address a courtroom on Sept 15, along with three former U.S. gymnastics teammates, in testimony concerning sexual abuse at the hands of former team doctor Larry Nasser and say, ‘I blame Nasser but I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse.’ The four women were four of several hundred that Nasser abused over decades and was indicted for in only 2016 after allegations had been mishandled by both gymnastics officials and the F.B.I. It is why over twenty women, including well-known former hosts Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, said they experienced sexual harassment for years while working at Fox News. It is why cultures of harassment have been revealed everywhere from restaurant kitchens to VC boardrooms. We prefer to look away.

Moreover, when talking about sexuality is taboo, which it is to a greater or lesser extent everywhere, sexual harassment cannot be defined and talking about harassment takes on an element of disgust. Recoiling from abhorrent acts, people often project their disgust, the feeling of ‘that’s horrible, I don’t want to know’ onto the survivor who is speaking about it as opposed to the hidden perpetrator. When victims freeze during inappropriate behavior, a natural defense against provoking the predator, they are told they didn’t protest effectively enough, as if it is akin to refusing sugar in their coffee, instead of the focus being on why it took place at all. 

Shame inevitably results in silence, the condition in which the source of shame is never pointed at or spoken of. 

When guilt and shame create silence, fear perpetuates it. Abusers, leaning into their image as good guys, effective leaders, beloved celebrities or pillars of the community, goad society into believing they could not be capable of heinous acts and ensure that victims fear the repercussions – a public vilification, a firing or a lost promotion. Barbara Bowman, one of the women who claimed she was assaulted by Bill Cosby was disbelieved for a decade. Even after her story was published in Newsweek no one paid attention because Cosby was ‘Dr. Huxtable’, ‘America’s Dad’ and such a loved and respected actor that people did not want to believe he was capable of harassment or worse. Eventually, almost sixty women accused him of groping, drugging, assault and rape. Even when people do overcome their fear and speak out, the lack of consequences – for example the lenient six-month jail sentence in the 2016 Brock Turner case where the Stanford student raped an unconscious female student – can make using your voice feel hopeless.

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Given these stacked odds, the differences in the brutal questioning of Anita Hill in her 1991 testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, where she testified about the sexual harassment she had experienced while working as an aide to then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas – the differences between this and the handling of the allegations against Andrew Cuomo, are stark and a step in the right direction. Hill testified to all all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee who disbelieved and chastised her. She testified that Thomas had asked her out repeatedly, even after she had refused and that he often talked to her in graphic detail about sex. Senators variously accused her of perjury, called her a tool of slick lawyers, said they had been told she was a woman to ‘watch out for’ and asked her to repeat the most disturbing parts of Thomas’ alleged behavior. 

It is hard to imagine the hearings proceeding the same way today. Despite Hill’s testimony and that of four corroborating witnesses who said she talked with them about Thomas’ actions at the time, the Senate voted to confirm Thomas who serves as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice today (as does Brett Kavanaugh after similar hearings in 2018 where Christine Blasey Ford accused him of rape). Still, there is no question that Hill’s testimony ignited a conversation around workplace sexual harassment, allowed many to realize that they were not alone in their experiences, spurred countless women to break their silence with less associated shame and generated both anger in survivors and awareness in society that altered perception and policies. When Hill, who has continued her work as a lawyer, professor and activist, was interviewed, following Governor Cuomo’s August 10 announcement this year that he would resign, she stated that this showed the conversation around harassment had changed post-MeToo. Pointing at the power of giving voice she said, ‘When you’ve got millions of people talking about their experiences…and understanding they are not alone, I think that sent a message to the American public that we needed to stop being in denial about these problems’.  

The allegations against Governor Cuomo, their snowballing in a MeToo era, the ensuing investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James and the subsequent downfall of the Governor is an almost textbook example of the workings of shame and the power of dismantling it by speaking out. 

Lindsey Boylan, the thirty-seven-year-old former staffer and first to step forward against Governor Cuomo, states in her Medium post of February 2021 that after resigning from the Governor’s office in 2018, she planned never to disclose what happened to anyone outside of her therapist and confidants who already knew. She decided to do so, on seeing Cuomo’s name floated as a candidate for U.S. Attorney General, only after another former Cuomo staffer told her she too had been harassed and Boylan realized she was not the only one. Detailing the history of harassment, including a kiss on the lips, Boylan states her first reaction after the kiss was fear that someone had seen and recounts her shame: ‘The idea that someone might think I held my high-ranking position because of the Governor’s “crush” on me was more demeaning than the kiss itself’. On reading Boylan’s initial tweets, twenty-five-year-old Charlotte Bennett tweeted suggesting people read Boylan’s tweets to know what it was like to work for Cuomo, before sharing her own account. Over the next months, numerous other women came forward with allegations. The domino effect cannot be understated or underestimated.

Cuomo remained largely unapologetic, denying touching or propositioning anyone, admitting only to comments that may have been misconstrued, even as he bent to pressure for an investigation as calls for his resignation piled up. The last woman to speak to the press spoke anonymously, fearing retaliation because she still worked for the Governor and said he had reached under her blouse and grasped her breast and that when she rejected his advances, he told her to keep silent about the incident. 

The shroud of silence was officially broken on August 3 when Letitia James announced the results of her office’s investigation and made a 168-page report publicly available detailing allegations from 11 women and interviews totaling 174 people. In one instance, the report describes how Cuomo allegedly sexually harassed a state trooper assigned to his protective detail, a woman whose job it was to stand by and protect a man who, according to her account, ran his finger down her back and across her stomach. The report also found that the Governor’s office was rife with fear and intimidation and that there was an effort to slander at least one former employee. Cuomo issued a public denial and printed rebuttal calling the report biased and referencing gaps. 

It is important to note such an investigation is not a trial by judge and jury and cannot decide guilt. But it is more than what we have had before and the results in this case are fairly damning, if not irrefutable. American author and columnist Rebecca Traister, who has reported extensively on Cuomo, summed up the perverse nature of Cuomo’s relationship to power in her August 5 piece for New York Magazine titled ‘How Is Andrew Cuomo Still Here’ thus, ‘Cuomo’s denial is all shambolic denial and posturing, a chaotic attempt to make his own reality, without regard to the strength or number of contradictory stories being told about him. It is a mirror of Cuomo’s conception of power, which until now has had no limit’. When I visited the Attorney General’s public website to look at the report, seeing it broken into sections by each woman, in black and white, in the table of contents, was chilling in its breadth. Yet, what that image made clear was that in spite of having civil rights laws around harassment, if we don’t actually talk about it in numbers, nothing happens and without thorough investigations, nothing changes.  

It remains to be seen whether the handling of the Cuomo allegations represent a sea change or simply an aberration. Strong laws around rape and sexual harassment in the U.S. and other countries belie their alarming frequency, so frequent that the W.H.O. and other organizations refer to their ‘epidemic’ proportions. When New Yorkers were polled about whether Cuomo should step down, around the time Boylan made her allegations, many were ambivalent or supported him. That those numbers decreased, as more women came forward, is a testament to the force of a chorus. Power and public sentiment still fuel fear, shame and the weak enforcement of decent laws even when these emotions are overcome to break the silence. Tarana Burke, the activist who coined ‘Me Too’ in 2006, before its viral hashtag, to help women with similar experiences of assault stand up, now sits at the center of a movement without which Cuomo and a host of others might not be exposed. And yet she told the New York Times in an interview recently that she had come across the man who raped her when she was a seven-year-old, a man who has become a police officer with two daughters, at a recent Father’s Day barbeque. She went on to say that until she heard the poet Sonia Sanchez read a poem about how her sister was assaulted because she was beautiful, she thought she herself had been assaulted because she was less attractive. 
Burke understands shame and fear intimately. She knows firsthand the challenges of speaking out and tirelessly supports people in honoring their own survival first. But she also lives and breathes the experience of turning shame into power and harnessing voices of survivors to hold society accountable. Whether the Cuomo story represents the durability of the MeToo movement or whether the future will be marked by events such as Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Brett Kavanaugh turning into a lightning rod for partisan warfare or Bill Cosby being released on a technicality, is a question that hangs in the balance. What the Cuomo reckoning has shown is that if power begets power, survivors are seeing that they have power of their own to multiply. That when their power is robbed through harassment and shame, it can be re-appropriated by giving voice or amplifying others’ voices to place shame squarely where it belongs – on the shoulders of the aggressors. And that when society’s judgement is turned in this direction, in the right direction, it is the aggressors who will wither into the shadows. Andrew Cuomo flaunted a New York Tough mantle, but wasn’t real toughness emblazoned in the resilience of those who turned vulnerability into strength by speaking up?

Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani

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