Herman Cain’s allies seem intent on tying his sexual harassment scandal to the most famous case of inappropriate workplace behavior in American history, the saga of Clarence Thomas.
And in one unexpected way, they’ve already succeeded: much of the right wing is now pulling the dust cloths off the same old criticisms of the very concept of sexual harassment that they’ve kept in storage since the ’90s. Namely, that the behavior is often harmless fun and women really need to lighten up already.
Advocates of women’s rights are noticing.
NOW Vice President for Action Erin Matson said what she’s heard coming from the right in the two days since the Cain story broke has been “disheartening.”
“[There’s a] strain of blaming and shaming women and calling them crazy,” she said.
Kathleen Parker asked Cain to define sexual harassment in a recent column and paraphrased his answer this way: “forcing a female to do something against her will; inappropriate touching; making inappropriate comments in the presence of a female.”
But then Parker explained that even that basic definition of harassment is in the eye of the beholder. “To Cain’s generation (age 65), a casual remark about someone’s appearance is often viewed as a gesture of friendliness,” she wrote. “To someone younger, who has been versed in the catechism of sexual harassment, it could be viewed as hostile or at least inappropriate.”
That eye of the beholder thing — a line that Cain and has repeated as the story has grown — is itself a retro view of harassment that Matson said makes things tough for women at work.
“Both Mark Block and Herman Cain have said sexual harassment ‘is in the eyes of the beholder I guess,’” she said. “Which suggests women do like sexual advances at any time, or should like sexual advances at any time. Or that women are crazy.”
Among the right, that last idea seems to be catching on as the Cain tale is rebuked.
“There are people now who hesitate to tell a joke to a woman in the workplace, any kind of joke, because it could be interpreted incorrectly,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said. “I don’t. I’m very cautious.”
Many conservatives believed Anita Hill was, at best, out for craven political gain. And at worst, she was nuts. Even as details are scant and sketchy about what happened during Cain’s tenure at the National Restaurant Association, conservatives are already casting the same aspersions on Cain’s accusers. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) told the National Review that there were similarities between the Cain allegations and those leveled at Clarence Thomas. “There are some parallels here, and to the extent that they played a role in this, it’s very, very offensive, and it’s going to backfire severely,” he said.
Right-wing talk show host Laura Ingraham, a former Thomas law clerk, was also ready to blame the women. “We have seen this movie before and we know how it ends. It always ends up being an employee who can’t perform or who under-performs and is looking for a little green,” she said on her show.
“How much money did it take for you to swallow your principles?” she continued. “‘Oh, I was so offended.’ So in other words, you lose the fact that you’re offended if you’re paid money? Does anyone understand that? If something was truly horrible, then why wouldn’t you just stand up, ‘I want to be known, my name — I want my name to be out there.’”
Ann Coulter had a similar take. “It’s not groping, it’s not touching or demanding sex,” she said Sunday on Fox News. “It’s that he had remarks that they found inappropriate. One is he had inappropriate gestures that were not overtly sexual. Well, what were they then? This isn’t dropping your pants and saying ‘kiss it.’ This is an outrageous attack on a black conservative who is doing extremely well and will be our vice-presidential candidate.”
Coulter and Sean Hannity continued this line of reasoning on his show. Hannity told Coulter: “Do you realize as friends, the conversations and the things we joke about on a regular basis…do you realize in any work environment?…Because people are humorless. And I’m not saying real sexual harassment doesn’t occur. That’s not it.” Coulter replied: “But they don’t care about real sexual harassment.”
On America’s Newsroom, Fox News contributor Bob Beckel said it’s no big deal because these things happen, you know, everyday. “Let’s keep in mind that there are thousands of these things everyday, across corporate America, where people make these complaints and they get a payoff, and they call it severance, and they go away,” he said. “Now what doesn’t go away is the file and the accusation. No evidence, but they pay them off cause as you said Bill [Hemmer, host of the show], get them out of the way.”
Contributor Andrea Tantaros echoed Beckel, throwing in her own totally not-sexual harassment anecdote: “But if you believe Herman Cain, the story that he told Greta last night, it was such a small deal, it wasn’t anything that was sexual harassment at all. So he’s right on that. I mean Bob [Beckel] threw a candy corn down my dress yesterday, and I didn’t sue.”
Greg Gutfield on Fox News’ The Five also argued that sexual harassment allegations happen so often, they can’t possibly all be true: “We’re beginning to understand the ubiquitousness of sexual harassment claims and how because they’re happening so often and they’re everywhere, many of them are inherently meaningless, done to safeguard future reputation-damaging things, and you might not be guilty.”
And of course, the gang on Fox & Friends weighed in, arguing that they have seen some stuff, and this is definitely not sexual harassment. “How in the world does that rise to the level of sexual harassment?” Peter Johnson Jr. asked. Gretchen Carlson replied: “As a female, when I’m listening to that, I’m thinking, I’ve heard a lot worse than that in the workplace. I mean, I have! Come on, that is not sexual harassment.”
Brian Kilmeade concurred: “True.”
Not that you’d know it from those examples, but Matson said things really have moved on in the country since Hill and Thomas. But now the Cain scandal threatens to take them right back.
“Culturally we’ve changed quite a bit. A number of institutions now have formal policies in place,” she said. “On the flip side, you still have people — even people running for president — suggesting sexual harassment is in the eyes of the beholder.”