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The inexcusable offense of Cuomo's statement: Gaslighting his victims

Shortly after independent investigators appointed by New York Attorney General Letitia James released their 165 page report detailing findings that Governor Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women he appeared in a 15-minute video denying any wrongdoing while simultaneously excusing his actions as misunderstood, misinterpreted. Cuomo’s statement in response to the independent investigation that he called for, and conveniently now challenges as politically-motivated, was not an apology but a malicious and victim-blaming rebuttal. As an advocate for survivors of sexual assault over the past decade I recognize the public has largely become jaded about this topic as we've seen countless examples of politicians being accused of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse from Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Donald Trump to Anthony Weiner.

We can't let this pervasiveness normalize how we react. We must demand for better from our leaders and draw a line in the sand. We must remember that behind the headlines there are always brave survivors who at the expense of their own privacy and safety come forward to relive their experiences of trauma and abuse. Cuomo’s indiscrimintate denial of all wrongdoing is itself abuse that revictimizes and discredits the 11 women who have come forward to report his inappropriate behavior and all victims of sexual harassment and assault. Responding to the extensive factual findings of the five-month investigation, corroborated by evidence and credible witnesses with the claim he “never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances'' throughout his 63 years of living in public view is an example of the abusive behavior of  gaslighting -- asserting that no one else’s recollections of these events nor the mounting evidence can be trusted. 

The investigation substantiated Cuomo engaging in unwelcome and non consensual touching and making numerous offensive and sexually suggestive comments that created a hostile work environment for women, which all constitutes sexual harassment under federal and New York State law. The report shows that the governor and his senior staff took actions to retaliate against at least one former employee who reported harassment, and that the executive chamber fostered a toxic work environment that enabled harassment through fear and intimidation. Still, Cuomo refused to take accountability. Instead in his statement Cuomo defends his conduct as old timey charm and good-humored compliments. He wants us to know he kisses a lot of people, ”I do it with everyone”  -- it’s how he was raised.

The issue is that no one's personality, upbringing, or charisma entitles them to violate the personal space and boundaries of others. Nor does it negate our responsibility to read the body language and reactions of others around us, which is a part of consent --a skill that can be learned and practiced.   The fact that consent is an afterthought in your daily interactions, personal or professional, is a serious problem.  In the era following the resurgence of the “Me Too” movement we have also seen countless examples where public statements are used by people who have committed sexual harassment and assault as an opportunity to frame and control the narrative, for example Matt Lauer.

There is no surprise in crafted apologies absent of meaningfully naming harmful behaviors and addressing their impact. Rather than public figures using an apology to repair their own image they have the opportunity to model reflecting on and taking ownership for their actions. Instead, Cuomo’s retort   inexcusably attacks the credibility of his victims, minimizing the harm they experienced, and blaming them as they “heard things that I just didn’t say.”

Cuomo’s manipulation further escalates as he argues his empathy toward a sexual assault survivor in his own family is evidence of his character and sidestep accountability. Disturbingly he specifically uses his loved one’s experience of trauma to  belittleCharlotte Bennett and downplay his inappropriate behavior toward her as evidence of his heroism looking out for survivors like Bennett.. Cuomo is not the first man in politics to wield the experiences of a sexual assault survivor in his own life and a track record on “womens issues” to absolve himself from blame.  Not only is this tokenizing to all survivors of sexual assault, but it’s likely the case that this survivor’s story was shared without their consent or regard for whether they were comfortable with their personal trauma being used to discredit the validity of others. As activist Tarana Burke said “His family’s story does not exonerate him, and he does not get to use someone else’s trauma as his own shield. Although Cuomo claims that “he wishes nothing but good to you and all survivors of sexual assault”  as long as he refuses reflect on his own actions and their impact these words are meaningless. 

We live in a society where even recorded admissions of guilt rarely result in charges for people who commit sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. So that is why moving the conversation forward in public statements like this is so critical. This was a missed opportunity for Cuomo to do some good for the movement to end violence by leading the way in what true accountability and support for survivors could look like.

For too long our society has chosen to focus on the character and accomplishments of individuals facing allegations of sexual harassment and assault, rather than on the harm they’ve caused. We must hold those who commit harm accountable, especially when they are in a position of power and authority.

Workplace sexual harassment will remain a persistent problem until it is taken seriously. Excusing sexual harassment as unintentional is not acceptable. Attitudes that minimize these behaviors only further contribute to the problem and are why survivors most often never come forward.

We must not tolerate  sexual harassment in politics, the workplace, or any other setting. The public and private actions of leaders at every level, regardless of political party, must be taken into account as they have a responsibility to be a part of the solution to end sexual violence.