One of the much-repeated details of the state attorney general’s report on Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment probe is a message sent by one of Cuomo’s longtime apparatchiks, Josh Vlasto. Watching the coverage of his former boss unfold, he observed to an unidentified friend, “It’s not even close to what it was really like to work there day to day.”
The “abuse and mind games” were, in fact, “so much worse.” It’s the next line, however—missing from much of the coverage—that surfaces something uniquely revealing about the gendered abuse directed at men: “But for me, it never really bothered me. It was part of the deal.”
One of the most damaging effects of Cuomo’s 11 years as New York governor is the way he defined power. Abuse, in his construal of what effective governance truly entailed, was a necessary ingredient; it was part and parcel of competence itself. We know how this played out for women. Less discussed is the insidious way it applied to men. For them, it meant aping the man in charge and conforming to his specific performance of masculinity—which was inextricably linked to their own subjugation and willingness to prove themselves by dominating others.
Looking back on the sheer tonnage of news reporting starting from February 27, when former Cuomo aide Charlotte Bennett gave an exclusive interview to The New York Times, there are exactly two male ex-Cuomo employees who said on the record that they or others were abused: Joel Wertheimer and Peter Yacobellis. The rest are either spokesmen or former but loyal aides, supporting some version of the Cuomo company line: It’s a tough place to work, high standards, demands much to deliver for New Yorkers, it’s not for everyone, blah blah blah. Among former Cuomo staffers who spoke on the record, it was overwhelmingly women who corroborated the presence of abuse. The conversation in cases like this usually proceeds with questions like: Why don’t men speak up when women are being harassed right in front of them? Why is it always on women in the most vulnerable position to take all the risk? Who are these Billy Bush–esque men who laugh along or look away? These are all valid questions. But Vlasto’s feigned nonchalance offers some insight into Cuomo’s specific form of predation on men, which required them to disavow their own victimhood and, more broadly, buy into the notion that men cannot be harmed.
The pervasiveness of that lie forms the basis of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s theory of gender equality: that in order to advance the rights of women, it’s necessary to show how sexist laws hurt men too. One of her biggest successes on this front was the case of Stephen Wiesenfeld, a widower who wanted to stay home and care for his son but was denied Social Security benefits, which were reserved exclusively for women. Arguing that “just as the female insured individual’s status as a breadwinner is denigrated, so the parental status of her surviving spouse is discounted,” Ginsburg fought for the idea of men as valid caregivers while making the case for women in the workplace. She pointed out that Wiesenfeld’s son was also a victim of the law that “includes children with dead fathers, but excludes children with dead mothers.” The all-male Supreme Court found it harder to impose sexist restrictions on women when that meant penalizing a man. But the logic worked both ways, and once Ginsburg got her foot in the door for men, it flung open for women too.
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Men’s liberation is good for them and necessary for women, who cannot and should not have to carry the entire burden of dismantling their own oppression. The trick is to get men to see themselves not as “allies” in some other group’s struggle but as direct stakeholders with something to gain. Part of the problem is that men are not supposed to complain about abuse, and when they do, there isn’t much of a language to explain it, so their pain becomes illegible.
“A man saying, ‘Well, he exerted a lot of control over my life,’ is probably hard for people to see as a thing that was harmful,” explained Wertheimer, who worked for Cuomo after serving in the Obama administration and first spoke to New York magazine about his experience in March. “How many of those men, though, were missing part of their kids’ lives? But it was work, and men are expected to do that. A lot of men might not have conceived of the harms as harms, but I did.”
The earliest example of someone who refused to just take it “like a man” was of course the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, the ex-governor’s favorite whipping boy, who loudly rejected the abuse and called it out for what it was. And for that, Cuomo mocked him endlessly, and the press mostly reduced it to just a “petty feud.”
Something changed when Assemblyman Ron Kim spoke to the press. The governor’s screaming at a man while he was trying to bathe his children was newsworthy. Kim was invited on every major television show, including The View, where he connected his experience to the verbal harassment of his female colleagues by top Cuomo aide Rich Azzopardi, who’d previously referred to a trio of female lawmakers as “fucking idiots.” That show of solidarity is exactly what’s been missing from Cuomo’s male staffers. They have an opportunity now to own their experiences as part of a continuum of abuse, but it must also include acknowledging whatever role they may have played in Cuomo’s reign of terror. Men like SUNY chancellor Jim Malatras, who shot back at former Cuomo aide Lindsey Boylan in 2019 when she first tweeted about the governor’s less-than-friendly workplace for parents, posting pictures of himself with his child and smearing her as politically motivated. He can’t blast out statements now applauding the “bravery” of the women who came forward without also taking responsibility for bullying them into silence in exchange for power and professional advancement.
Own up or shut up.