The “Me Too” Movement and the Rights of the Accused

Have the men and women accused of sexual harassment lost their right to a fair hearing?

Marilyn Katz

On December 15, Andrea Ramsey, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, announced she would drop out of a race to represent Kansas's 3rd District. In 2005, Ramsey was accused of sexually harassing a male subordinate, an accusation she has denied. As the allegations resurfaced, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided to withdraw its support for her campaign. "In its rush to claim the high ground in our roiling national conversation about harassment, the Democratic Party has implemented a zero tolerance standard," Ramsey said. "For me, that means a vindictive, terminated employee’s false allegations are enough for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to decide not to support our promising campaign. We are in a national moment where rough justice stands in place of careful analysis, nuance and due process." (Image: Andrea Ramsey for Congress)

Like many women of the Baby Boom gen­er­a­tion who’ve worked out­side the home, I’ve expe­ri­enced the full range of sex­u­al harass­ment and attempt­ed abuse from absurd com­ments to unwant­ed touch­es or gropes to absolute­ly scary assaults.

We, as women and as a society are strong enough to create a process that provides justice to the perpetrators as well as the victims of harassment and abuse.

I’m delight­ed that we women have won the right to declare our bod­ies off lim­its to attack­ers and to call them out is a vic­to­ry. That the men who engage in the full spec­trum of sex­u­al harass­ment from the juve­nile to the crim­i­nal are being brought to account is good. That those called out have lost their right to a fair hear­ing and self-defense is not.

I am dis­turbed by the mob men­tal­i­ty that seems to have over­tak­en the nation in address­ing the prob­lem. It is one thing to accuse, quite anoth­er to equate accu­sa­tion with guilt.

While old enough to cat­a­logue decades of the harass­ment, I am also old enough to remem­ber or know about par­al­lel peri­ods in his­to­ry that are stains on the nation. Those who are call­ing for and enact­ing sum­ma­ry judge­ment — par­tic­u­lar those who con­sid­er them­selves pro­gres­sives and lib­er­als — might want to con­sid­er their actions in the light of history. 

As a young woman work­ing in the film indus­try in Los Ange­les, I expe­ri­enced first-hand the many faces of sex­u­al harass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion. But what also stayed with me were the lessons I learned from the screen­writ­ers, direc­tors and pro­duc­ers who had been vic­tims of McCarthy­ism. While his­to­ry has record­ed the plight of the most famous among them — the Hol­ly­wood Ten” — hun­dreds of oth­ers were sum­mar­i­ly ban­ished from the indus­try on the sus­pi­cion that they were mem­bers of or had sym­pa­thy with the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Writ­ers like Dal­ton Trum­bo, Ring Lard­ner and Lil­lian Hell­man. Direc­tors like Abe Polan­sky. Singers like Paul Robe­son and Lena Horne. Some moved to Europe, oth­ers worked under assumed names and still oth­ers were sim­ply unem­ployed. They and more than 500 oth­ers were fired by the stu­dios just as their coun­ter­parts in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment were fired from their jobs. 

One need not look only at Hol­ly­wood or Wash­ing­ton for exam­ple unjust sum­ma­ry jus­tice. No one should for­get the hun­dreds of black men lynched, not by the deci­sion of any court but as a result of accu­sa­tions that they had assault­ed or whis­tled or looked the wrong way at a white woman. One can also harken back to the Salem Witch Tri­als where 14 women and 6 men were exe­cut­ed on the accu­sa­tions that they were pos­sessed by the devil.

I sus­pect that, if asked, those who are call­ing for imme­di­ate fir­ings and res­ig­na­tions of accused abusers would hearti­ly con­demn these pri­or events.

We, as women and as a soci­ety are strong enough to cre­ate a process that pro­vides jus­tice to the per­pe­tra­tors as well as the vic­tims of harass­ment and abuse. Women have long fought for the acknowl­edg­ment that they are to be believed. And all should be glad that this is final­ly hap­pen­ing. But just as it is time for the abused to have their voic­es heard, we must allow that the accused, rather than being sum­mar­i­ly con­demned, have theirs heard as well — be it as an apol­o­gy or a defense or a denial. And then we must weigh the evidence. 

As impor­tant, we need to move for­ward in a man­ner that dis­tin­guish­es the degrees of harm we have endured. While we women right­ful­ly call for an end­ing to all unwant­ed sex­u­al over­tures, we also know that there is a dif­fer­ence between the unwant­ed pat on the butt or the unasked for kiss by a cowork­er and the unwant­ed pat on the butt or the unasked for kiss by some­one who has pow­er over our jobs or our futures. Sim­i­lar­ly, there as a dif­fer­ence between such harass­ment and attempt­ed or actu­al rape. To blur the dis­tinc­tion and just use the term sur­vivor” exag­ger­ates the impact of the for­mer while dimin­ish­ing, unwit­ting­ly or not, the trau­ma inflict­ed by the latter. 

We can do bet­ter. Just as we begin to define what is accept­able behav­ior, we can enact work­place poli­cies that pro­tect women (and men) — both from harass­ment and as impor­tant, from retal­i­a­tion from boss­es and super­vi­sors when inap­pro­pri­ate behav­ior is called out. We can — indeed must — estab­lish or strength­en review process­es so that the rights of both the accusers and the accused are protected.

We can use the pow­er of the vote to expel those who tram­ple women’s rights and pro­mote those who cham­pi­on women, and the eco­nom­ic and social poli­cies that empow­er us.

And final­ly, under­stand­ing that sex­u­al abuse is more about pow­er than about sex, we can place more women in the board rooms, in the pro­duc­er and director’s chairs, in the House and the Sen­ate where pow­er is wield­ed and held.

One of the things that struck me dur­ing the women’s march­es of this past Jan­u­ary is the strength and lead­er­ship of women. As I looked at the assem­bled speak­ers here in Chica­go, it was clear that vir­tu­al­ly every strug­gle — from the Fight for $15 to immi­grants’ rights to the Move­ment for Black Lives is being led by women. At this crit­i­cal junc­ture, it’s time for women to lead on the issue of sex­u­al abuse, mod­el­ing the kind of lead­er­ship that will bring both an end to exploita­tion and a mod­el of res­o­lu­tion with justice.

Mar­i­lyn Katz is a writer, con­sul­tant, pub­lic pol­i­cy com­mu­ni­ca­tions strate­gist and long-time polit­i­cal activist. She is pres­i­dent of MK Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a part­ner in Democ­ra­cy Part­ners and a founder and co-chair of the new­ly formed Chica­go Women Take Action.
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