The sexual harassment allegations against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain have been on a low boil since Politico first reported that at least two women complained to senior staff at the National Restaurant Association that Cain had behaved inappropriately towards them in the workplace. But, with the accusers bound by confidentiality agreements, details were not forthcoming, and pundits and politicians on the right were free to run with “gender harassment denialism,” as Dahlia Lithwick put it—dismissing the claims, as they cast sexual harassment as a “mass delusion of hyper-sensitive ladies.” If anything, the accusations motivated Cain’s supporters—he raised $2 million in the week after the allegations became public—and boosted his poll numbers—Cain is now tied with Romney as the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Now, a fourth woman put her face, and her name, to the allegations. She’s Sharon Bialek, and she sought Cain’s professional advice after being let go in 1997 by the educational foundation of the National Restaurant Association. She and Cain had met at an industry conference a year prior; they had gotten along well, and once she was out of a job, Bialek sought to reconnect with Cain in DC for advice on seeking work. She thought they would meet in a bar in the lobby at the Capitol Hilton, but they ended up in a car together, and in the course of their discussion about employment options she might pursue, “He suddenly reached over and he put his hand on my leg, under my skirt and reached for my genitals.” He also, she said, “grabbed my head and brought it towards his crotch.” (As Jeffrey Toobin and and E.J. Graff quickly observed, this describes sexual assault, and could also be considered sexual harassment.) She told her boyfriend and another friend at the time, but did not press charges or notify the NRA. She didn’t make a complaint at the time, she said, because she wasn’t working at the National Restaurant Association anymore; she is still not pursuing a legal claim. She’s speaking out now to “give a face, and a voice” to the women who can’t or don’t want to.
After Bialek finished speaking, her lawyer, Gloria Allred, was immediately peppered with questions. Why did Bialek wait so long to come forward? What kind of work does she do? So she’s a full-time single mother—is she on public assistance? Allred’s responses were media-ready: she did tell two people at the time—both of whom have submitted written statements to that effect, under oath—and she’s coming forward now because of the other women’s accusations; no, she’s not on public assistance. But the rush to find vulnerabilities in Bialek herself—not only her story—typifies the character-based scrutiny that accusers of sexual harassment or assault face. It’s a stated reason why one of Cain’s other accusers decided not to come forward.
Time will tell how the pontificators who used the previous allegations to deny the very existence of sexual harassment will react to this story and this accuser. Perhaps now that they have a concrete example of what sexual harassment can look like—what can happen to women when they seek professional advice from male mentors—they’ll change their tunes. But even if they do, the bigger problem may be that even if voters generally come to believe that the allegations are true, they just won’t care. In the same Gallup poll that determined that Cain and Romney are tied for front-runner status, over a third of Republican voters said the charges are “probably or definitely true.” An ABC poll found that 55 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents “say they do not regard the allegation of sexual misconduct as a serious matter.” In focusing on the consequences for Cain’s campaign over the reporting on sexual harassment as an issue, E.J. Graff points out that the news media share the blame for minimizing the reality of workplace harassment. And plenty of pundits have lumped these accusations in the “sex scandals” category, neglecting to recognize the distinction between bad choices that were consensual and bad choices that were abuses of power. It’s not only Republicans who misunderstand the severity of sexual harassment, and its relevance to the pursuit of public office.
For her part, Bialek, a registered Republican, seems to want Cain to admit wrongdoing and go on running for president. “Mr. Cain, I implore you, make this right,” she said. (Cain gave a keynote at one of the events where Bialek met him and she found him inspirational; afterward, she asked him, “When are you running for president?”) I can’t imagine Cain fessing up and staying in the race. But I can hope that Bialek, who will be on at least two morning shows tomorrow, will use her platform to educate the American electorate about what sexual harassment really is.
Last thing: after attending last month’s Sex, Power, and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill at 20 conference, my colleague Frank Reynolds and I were lucky enough to interview a number of presenters, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Emily May, Ai-jen Poo and others. We created the video below to celebrate Hill’s legacy—and it’s more relevant than ever.