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“With respect to the most recent…” Herman Cain shook his head. “Accusation.”
This was GOP presidential candidate’s November 8 press conference: his formal response to the sexual assault allegations against him. It had been much anticipated. He’d been commenting in the press – once even laughing aloud about the allegations on Jimmy Kimmel–but he couldn’t blow it off that easily. The front-running Republican candidate for president had a history of sexual assault allegations, and some of those women had received five-figure settlements;href> the media was paying close attention.
Cain seemed confident. His voice was calm and even; he smiled. On certain statements, he paused a bit between each word, keeping that same friendly tone, sounding like nothing so much as a grade-school teacher reading aloud to his students.
“I. Have never. Acted. Inappropriately,” he said. That’s a tough one, class! Inappropriately means bad. “With. Anyone.”
On that last word, he smiled more broadly, as if to reassure us.
“They simply. Didn’t. Happen,” he said of his alleged actions later, in that same kindly-teacher voice. “They simply. Did not. Happen.”
Everyone was watching. Each new statement was being tweeted and analyzed; I could see the updates steadily filling up my screen. The world was paying careful attention. And yet it all seemed familiar. For all the attention we pay to each new case, the way sexual harassment cases are handled seems to have changed very little over the last 20 years, since Anita Hill spoke on Capitol Hill at Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearing. The only thing that has changed is how much practice we’ve gotten when it comes to sweeping them under the rug.
How to discredit accusers
“The question is not if we will have another Anita Hill,” I wrote three weeks ago on this website, but who she will be.
I didn’t expect that question to be so quickly answered. At times, the unfolding Cain scandal seems committed to literally re-enacting the story of Hill and Thomas: Cain’s campaign has already created an ad that uses footage from the Thomas hearings, quoting Thomas’s infamous comparison of the allegations to a “high-tech lynching.” The women accusing Cain of sexual harassment have largely declined to come forward; one accuser’s lawyer, Joel Bennett, said that “she doesn’t want to become another Anita Hill.”
And for good reason. Hill, of course, was subject to numerous public campaigns designed to get her fired. She also received bomb threats. And, of course, her character was attacked. One book, The Real Anita Hill, was such a patent smear job that even its author, David Brock, eventually denounced it. Hill, in Brock’s words, was “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Given all this, who would want to stand in her shoes?
In the years since Hill, attempts to discredit accusers have not changed much. “As we have seen with some of the media’s treatment of Nafissatou Diallo, the accuser of the NY ‘rape cops’ and most recently Sharon Bialek,” feminist media activist Jamia Wilson told me, “victim-blaming and shaming still persists in today’s media landscape.”
Bialek is Cain’s most visible accuser. She alleges he pushed her head down toward his crotch, while reaching up her skirt – which is not just sexual harassment but sexual assault. The attacks on her character have stuck dishearteningly close to the “nutty and slutty” template. Cain himself took up the “nutty” half of the line in his press conference, labeling her a “troubled woman.”
As for the other half, Wilson pointed me to an article in the New York Post by Andrea Peyser, which noted Bialik’s “heavily painted face” and “bleached-blond hair.” (And noted, disapprovingly, that she “comes from a lower-middle-income family” – as if the general implications of “tacky” and “trashy” couldn’t tip you off to the class-shaming already.) Peyser also quoted an anonymous source saying that “It’s easy to see how she won [Cain] over. But the reality of her situation is – she’s a complete gold digger.” That “anonymous source,” of course, sounds a lot like the Cain campaign’s recent e-mail about Bialik’s “personal finances.” But without attribution, there is no way of knowing how connected they are. At any rate, Bialik is cast as a lazy lower-class woman using her sexuality to get money. The “slutty” play has been made, and made soundly.
These accusations are so predictable they seem as if they’re coming from a formula. According to journalist Amanda Marcotte, this is no coincidence. Since the Hill case, she says, “things have changed in a few ways. I think that the response to these kinds of accusations from the accused’s defenders is swifter and more sure-footed. They’re working from a script on how to deflect and discredit the accuser now.”
The predictability of that script does not make it less powerful; in fact, Marcotte argues that it may actually increase the power of the attacks. “[The] discrediting-the-accuser routine is so set in stone now that accusers know exactly what’s going to happen to them,” she says, “and so you probably see more wariness about coming out. But that’s pure conjecture.”
Cain’s accusers know what happened to Hill, whereas Hill could only try to anticipate it. And if you know that coming forward with an accusation means that you are going to be called a “slut” (and a gold-digger or a prostitute or a fame-chaser) and a “nut” (Diallo was called a habitual liar, the “rape cops” accuser was called a drunk, Bialik is “troubled”) no matter what you do, that can be a very persuasive argument for not coming forward at all, or for staying anonymous.
But Cain’s accusers may not have the option of protecting themselves. The woman who said she didn’t want to be “another Anita Hill” was apparently outed yesterday as Karen Kraushaar, on The Daily. And a November 8 post on the Herman Cain PAC blog featured her name and photo (it has since been removed from the website; Daily Kos has a screenshot). Its title described her as “ugly” and its first line is “Ew, gross! Who the hell does this ugly bitch think she’s fooling?”
Back to Cain: His smiles, his reassurances that sexual harassment should be taken seriously, his claim that his wife believed he was really too nice to be capable of such an awful thing. Behind that press conference podium, Cain unleashed none of the fury that Thomas did, 20 years earlier. He didn’t have to.
“The real issue in the Cain case is that we think of sexual perpetrators as ‘monsters,’” author and sometimes colleague Jaclyn Friedman says, “and so when someone we (I’m using ‘we’ loosely in the case of Cain, of course) like or respect is accused, we automatically blow off the accusations because he doesn’t ‘seem like’ someone who would do ‘something like that.’”
Even Cain’s mildness during that press conference – as contrasted to the relatively vicious attacks on the accusers leveled by his associates – played into the system. The attacks have worked the same way they always do: By making it unsafe to allege sexual misconduct in public, and in some cases by making sure that the accusers are forcibly dragged out into public. But the script is seemingly so well-established that men know not to seem angry. Anger too easily reads as cruel. Better to smile as you tell the world she’s “troubled.”
Each of the feminists I spoke to said that Anita Hill’s appearance at the Thomas hearings had moved progress forward – it had given people a new understanding of sexual harassment, and it had let victims know that harassment was a serious offense. And illegal, too: A federal law allowing harassment victims to seeks damages, back, pay and reinstatement went into effect soon after the hearings. The number of harassment complaints filed at the federal, state and local levels soared afterward. (But complaints this year fell to their lowest level since 1991, the New York Times reported this week.)
But as cultural awareness of sexual harassment advanced, so did defenses against it. The accused know precisely which buttons to push – whereas those seeking to discredit Hill had to be creative. Women are afraid to report harassment because of a pre-established threat – whereas Hill was encountering relatively new ones. The accused know how to deploy smear tactics while presenting a pleasant face – that of a kindly teacher announcing today’s lesson – to the world:
“They simply. Didn’t. Happen,” he said. “They simply. Did not. Happen.”
Class, repeat along with me.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.