This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.
Recently, an extremely good-looking man put his arm around my waist. It was a completely innocuous gesture that lasted a few seconds, more of an organic reaction than anything else to the light-hearted bantering that had been going on among good friends, the man’s wife included, about setting me up with his brother. But, after everyone had gone, I wondered, in light of the current watershed moment brought about by women speaking out after decades of keeping silent, how an incident like this could easily be spun into a case of sexual misconduct.
For the record, I was not at all offended that this man had given me a quick squeeze. There was nothing predatory about the gesture. Neither was it disrespectful, I felt, or remotely in the realm of groping. I did not sense he was asserting any sort of power over me, or attempting to demean me. As I said, it was spontaneous, friendly, and in a way even conspiratorial, as he had been building up his brother as a potential date.
Had the context been different, however—had he been, say, Al Franken, and I’d been the journalist who posed for a photo with the senator and later alleged that he had “immediately put his hand on my waist, grabbing a handful of flesh. I froze. Then he squeezed. At least twice.”—I might have felt my boundaries had been abused in some way.
This is not to belittle the journalist at all; if she felt Franken’s gesture was inappropriate, then it was inappropriate. But inappropriate enough to be bullied into resigning from the Senate?
There are crimes, and there are misdemeanors. (How ironic that one of Woody Allen’s movies, starring Mia Farrow at that, was titled Crimes and Misdemeanors.) here are those who molest teenage girls and are still likely to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, and there are those who grope women and are still forced to give up their seat in the U.S. Senate.
One should face a criminal investigation after credible accusations from several women that he had sexually assaulted or initiated inappropriate sexual relationships with them, seeing as they were minors, and he was at least twice their age at the time. But he should never have run for the Senate, and he sure as hell should not be voted in.
The other should have faced a congressional ethics inquiry into allegations that he had “forcibly kissed” or made unwanted sexual advances towards a handful of women, including touching their breasts or squeezing their waists. But he never should have resigned his seat, despite what looks increasingly like political opportunism on the part of the female senator who led the lynch mob to pressure him to go.
Al Franken is, unfortunately, collateral damage in the massive cultural shift effected by the #MeToo tidal wave. Equally unfortunate, it was bound to happen, and there is indeed a school of thought that shrugs its collective shoulders at the “few good men” who will be sacrificed in the process. After all, women have been silenced and sidelined forever because of the patriarchy and the behavior it has propagated and protected all this time. And now, women are fighting back, demanding to be heard, to be listened to, to be believed. Women are demanding that action be taken, that consequences be felt, that power be redefined.
For the most part, yes, the likes of Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Harvey Weinstein et al deserved what befell them. The likes of Al Franken honestly leave me torn. His actions seemed like juvenile pranks yet at some point the grabbing no longer seems harmless. But as the actress Amber Tamblyn, who had previously blasted fellow actor James Woods for his inappropriate behavior, wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
“We’re in the midst of a reckoning. It’s what toxic masculinity’s own medicine tastes like. And people should allow the consequences to unfold, regardless of how it affects those they consider to be friends. The only way to enforce seismic, cultural change in the way men relate to women is to draw a line deep in the sand and say: This is what we no longer tolerate. You’re either with our bodies or against our bodies. The punishment for harassment is you disappear. The punishment for rape is you disappear. The punishment for masturbation in front of us is you disappear. The punishment for coercion is you disappear.”
But “believe all women” as a battle cry in the fight to take down the patriarchy, resolutely militant as it is, can also be problematic, particularly when there is a political agenda behind an accusation. The journalists who broke TheNew York Times story about Harvey Weinstein had painstakingly researched and interviewed and corroborated every accusation by each of the women. And these journalists happened to be women, too.
Yes, it is a positive development that women are being taken at their word. But in this era of “fake news.” we do everyone a disservice if the accusations are not investigated or verified. In the case of Al Franken, investigation and verification would have meant adherence to due process through the congressional ethics committee, which he had willingly submitted himself to, not the knee-jerk reaction of Senators Gillibrand and Schumer demanding that he step down when the eighth accuser came forward. In the case of the other disgraced senators, there was evidence that they had made payments—out of taxpayers’ money—to cover up sexual harassment allegations. In Franken’s case, where was the evidence—solid evidence and not photos that clearly show that everybody was in on the joke? Even in Sen. Leila de Lima’s case, due process is blithely ignored as the bogus charges against her are modified yet again to suit a political agenda. Ditto the ridiculous impeachment trial of Chief Justice Sereno. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that these women refuse to remain silent even as a wholesale effort continues to mute their voices.
Another recent op-ed piece by Bari Weiss in TheNew York Times put things into perspective rather succinctly: “What we owe all people, including women, is to listen to them and to respect them and to take them seriously. But we don’t owe anyone our unthinking belief.
“‘Trust but verify’ may not have the same ring as ‘believe all women.’ But it’s a far better policy.”
And if anyone cared to verify my recent hand-on-the-waist incident, they would see that there’s absolutely no way the gesture could be construed as sexual misconduct on any level. Besides, even before he did that, I’d already told him and his wife that yes, I’d be happy to meet his brother.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.