New York Governor Andrew Cuomo doesn’t like to talk about feelings, but these days he can’t seem to shut up about them. “I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional, and I truly and deeply apologize for it,” he said at a press conference in early March, addressing the exploding sexual harassment allegations against him. “I feel awful about it and, frankly, I’m embarrassed by it, and that’s not easy to say but that’s the truth…. I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable…. I certainly never, ever meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone any pain.”
To hear him tell it, you’d think the legal definition of sexual harassment was based on how the perpetrator—or the victim—feels. But here’s Cuomo’s own model definition, which applies to all businesses in New York: “A sexually harassing hostile work environment consists of words, signs, jokes, pranks, intimidation or physical violence which are of a sexual nature, or which are directed at an individual because of that individual’s sex.” The word “feel” appears just once in the seven-page document, which otherwise focuses on conduct, including “subtle or obvious pressure for unwelcome sexual activities.” An internal investigation is supposed to follow an allegation, on top of whatever civil actions the accused individual and employer may face.
For those not keeping score, the governor has been accused of a range of harassment by seven women and counting, including forcible touching. Yet in his various non-apologies, Cuomo has ignored the law, offering up a dinosaur defense of his own purported ignorance while also implying that it’s his victims who are being overly sensitive. “At work sometimes I think I am being playful,” he said, “and make jokes that I think are funny…. I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation.”
As Charlotte Bennett, one of Cuomo’s accusers, put it in a CBS Evening News interview, “It’s not an issue of my feelings. It’s an issue of his actions.”
That’s exactly right, but it’s worth noting whose feelings matter in this equation and why. Cuomo dismissed the claims of Lindsey Boylan, the first woman to come forward, as false but has not disputed the facts of Bennett’s account. A third woman, Anna Ruch, has impossible-to-deny photographic evidence of an incident that Cuomo has tried to explain away as merely a customary greeting. He hasn’t bothered to respond individually to the others.
It’s clear that the governor views Bennett as the most serious threat. So what’s the difference between Bennett and the other women?
While the perfect victim doesn’t exist, an image of who we think she is most certainly does, and Bennett fits the bill: young, feminine, and vulnerable. The prototype, unpacked in a January study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, corresponds directly to traditional ideas about women as gentle, caring, and nurturing of others. And it influences how the courts evaluate harm, which depends heavily on the perception that the defendant’s behavior was unwanted. Few can imagine the 25-year-old Bennett enjoying a probing conversation with her 62-year-old boss about her history as a survivor of sexual violence, being asked if she’s open to sleeping with older men and then told that he’s OK with dating kids fresh out of college. Bennett herself presents a compelling image in the interview—wrapped in the protection of bulky sweaters—as she describes the governor’s gross abuse of power with bracing clarity. Crucially, she has nothing obvious to gain by becoming a focal point. That’s what makes her so potentially devastating. Also, it doesn’t help that the question “How do you feel about the governor soliciting sex from a girl young enough to be his daughter?” probably won’t poll well with the boomer women who make up Cuomo’s base.
Boylan, on the other hand, is the perfect foil. Although she was only in her early 30s when she says she was harassed by Cuomo, she’s disqualified from the same level of sympathy because she’s running for office. And as the former chief of staff for the Empire State Development Corporation, she had more seniority than an entry-level employee and is therefore viewed as more capable of managing a man’s advances. Moreover, she’s attractive and ambitious, which may lead some people to erroneously suppose that she can’t be harmed. That assumption can even be internalized by victims themselves—as Boylan acknowledged in a recent interview, describing how a young survivor reached out to her after she went public about the harassment in December. “I had more sympathy for myself after I heard this young woman’s story,” Boylan said.
Ruch falls somewhere in the middle. She’s young, but most important, there’s a photo of Cuomo seizing her horror-stricken face as a prelude to an unwanted kiss. They’re strangers at a wedding, and here’s the most powerful man in the state locked onto her like a tractor beam. Ruch said that minutes earlier she’d removed Cuomo’s hand from her lower back, after which he called her “aggressive.” Without that photo, Ruch’s story is more easily muddied.
But it’s the “imperfect” victims who make it possible for the “perfect” ones to come forward. As Boylan acknowledges, the reason she can speak out safely is because she has the privilege of being older and more established in her career. It’s precisely the factors that make her “imperfect” that enable her to act as an on-ramp for others. She’s the match that lights the fuse for Bennett, Ruch, and anyone else who wishes to come forward. As this issue was going to press, another woman, Ana Liss, had already spoken out, describing how Cuomo kissed her hand at work, called her “sweetheart,” and commented on her appearance. Predictably, Cuomo’s spokesman claimed that the governor treats everyone like a cocktail waitress, but notably Liss’s current (and very male) employer, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, has taken her side.
Despite the familiar talking point that every woman has a right to come forward and be heard—now popular among people eager to avoid taking a position—the women who’ve spoken out aren’t actually trying to lead a national conversation about their feelings. What they do want is the one thing Cuomo is desperate to avoid: accountability.