Rape Culture, Media Accountability, and the Republican Presidential Campaign

Back on November 9, I awoke to a breaking news headline about Karen Kraushaar, a woman who accused Herman Cain of sexual assault in 1999. Up to that point, three women had accused Cain of sexual misconduct anonymously; she was the first to identify herself publicly. The headline was, “AP Exclusive: Accuser filed complaint in next job.” Perish the thought. A woman who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by the former GOP presidential candidate in a case settled out of court in 1999, had, in her many years of employment, filed another official complaint at a different job.

I walked away from the article wondering what the AP was trying to insinuate. How dis this “revelation” even relate to the Herman Cain scandal?

The Cain scandal is in some ways comparable to the Anita Hill & Clarence Thomas hearings of the 1990s: a conservative African American man in a position of power allegedly sexually harasses a female subordinate. To put Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court into context: he was a conservative voice replacing the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, a national Civil Rights advocate who fought in the 1950s Brown vs. the Board of Education case to desegregate public schools. The NAACP, the Urban League, and the National Organization for Women were not supportive of Thomas’s appointment by President George H. Bush due to his conservative views. Thomas may have lost some credibility with the public after the harassment hearings, but not with Congress.  He was still appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991.

While television and entertainment news media coverage of the 1991 scandal is difficult to locate today (other than a Saturday Night Live sketch mocking the gravity of the hearings), it was reported that a chief witness, Angela Wright, was never questioned during the trial. Because Wright had been fired by Thomas, it was assumed that she harbored lingering resentment towards him and that her testimony would not be truthful. If a witness of a sexual harassment case doesn’t have credibility because of her hurt feelings unrelated to the case, how could an accuser have credibility?

Back to November, and Herman Cain – the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and head of the National Restaurant Association, a man who has never held any sort of political office, Cain was one of the frontrunners for the GOP presidential primary until he released an announcement on December 3rd announcing he was suspending his (later terminated) campaign.

The news of Cain’s prior alleged harassment, assault, and affairs broke on October 31, with articles in Politico, the New York Times, and the Economist. The articles stated that two anonymous women complained about Cain’s inappropriate behavior while he was the head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in the 1990s. The women later settled with the NRA, leaving their jobs, receiving cash settlements, and agreeing to not speak about the terms of the departures. The New York Times additionally reported Cain claimed the harassment accusations were “a witch hunt.” Only days later, the BBC reported about a third woman accusing Cain of “unwanted comments” during her time as his subordinate at the NRA. On November 8, Kraushaar came forward publicly as one of the first two women who accused Cain of inappropriate behavior, revealing the details of the behavior to be sexual assault.

The week the first story about Cain’s alleged past misconduct ran, his campaign donations increased by 1.6 million dollars in only 5 days. Clearly, the accusations and accompanying publicity did not hurt his campaign. While Cain continually denied allegations of sexual advances, harassment, and assault in the 1990s (including a thirteen-year consensual affair) he confirmed that the NRA reached settlements with the women involved. Within a few days of the story breaking, four women came forward claiming that they received unwanted sexual advances or were sexually harassed by Cain.

So, what does it matter to the Associated Press whether one of his accusers filed a different complaint against sexist emails and unfair employment practices at a different job? Not only does the “revelation” have nothing to do with her credibility or the gravity of her accusations, it had nothing to do with Cain.

I see the AP article as one example among many of how heavily steeped the media is in rape culture—a culture that turns quickly to disbelieving, discrediting, blaming, and vilifying women, rather than taking women’s and survivors’ charges seriously; diminishing and even denying the very existence of workplace sexual harassment and assault. We still live in a social community more inclined to believe that a man has been wrongly accused by a woman “looking for a handout,” than that a man in power may have done something wrong and should be held accountable for it.

Watching right-wing commentators report on the matter, I saw them attempt to twist the situation by accusing the women of making too big a deal out of the situation, or claim that the allegations were unwarranted. Sean Hannity of Fox News, accused the mainstream media (Fox News is not part of the mainstream media according to Monica Crowley) of making too much out of the allegations:

“So, all of these women together are now going to come out publicly and the story never goes away and the media will never stop asking this, there never comes an end to this? When in each case it’s he said, she said, she said, he said?”

To Hannity, alleged sexual assault and harassment by a presidential candidate is simply is not news.

Bill O’Reilly claimed, “there could be 57 [accusers], it just depends on what their credibility is” while referring to how the accusations could effect Cain’s campaign. Dick Morris, a former Clinton advisor, has been quoted as calling the entire situation “meaningless,” accusing Sharon Bialek, Cain’s fourth accuser of sexual assault, of being a “gold digger” and saying he looks forward to her “spread in Playboy” Magazine.

In an interview on the Today Show, the host accused Bialek of seeking financial gain. Instead of focusing on the implications of sexual assault, harassment, and Cain’s contentious history, the host went on to accuse Bialek’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, of playing political games. In an interview later that day with CNN, the commentator asked Bialek the same questions about financial and political gain. Commentators from other media outlets have chosen to focus on Cain’s other campaign problems, giving insufficient attention to the issue of sexual assault

Rather than taking seriously allegations that a man in power is accused of sexually harassing and assaulting women in the past, many in the media, specifically television political commentators, move directly to questioning the motives and honesty of the women making the allegations.

Democracy Now presented the same facts and details as the other news organizations, but instead of degrading the accusers, Dahlia Lithwick of Slate discussed how sexual harassment and assault are discredited by mainstream news. She critiqued popular news programs, primarily Fox News and conservative news radio programs by saying that if all else fails, these news outlets, “just accuse women of being insane, accuse them of being trampy, accuse them of being hysterics.” Democracy Now’s coverage did not present new information about the Cain scandal, but it discredited news outlets portraying the women as “gold diggers” and the case as “a witch hunt,” by describing how the commentators twist the story from a presidential hopeful allegedly assaulting numerous women to hysterical women looking for handouts and trying to destroy a Black man’s campaign.

Nigel Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality calls the accusations a “high-tech lynching” and a “sequel to what was done to Justice Clarence Thomas in the 90s.” He describes the situation a bit differently from the way I do. I think we’re dealing with a man who likely sexually harassed and assaulted multiple women but denies ever doing so, but he describes the situation as “a high ranking Black figure who dares to break away from the liberal orthodoxy, who dares to challenge the Republican elite as well.” Instead of discussing the accusations of harassment and assault, Innis uses a fraught and violent racialized experience to insinuate that Cain is the true victim. Melissa Harris-Perry, an African American professor of Political Science at Tulane University, argues strongly against this use of lynching imagery:

“Neither Thomas nor Cain was ever in any imminent danger of torture or murder, both of which are fundamental aspects of lynching. Neither man was attacked by a mob acting outside the normal structures of society and government; the inquiries into both men’s actions have followed standard media, employment and governmental practices. And while television and the Internet helped promulgate their stories, there was nothing particularly technological about their experiences.

I suspect that what Cain and Thomas meant was that they were the victims of a symbolic lynching, not a high-tech one. On these terms, at least, Cain’s case contains some of the expected narrative elements: a black man seeks a position of power and influence, white women accuse him of sexual aggression, white men attack and destroy the black man and claim their actions are motivated by defense of the women’s honor. Except, as far as I can tell, the third aspect of the story, the part that would make this a symbolic lynching, has not happened.”

In our society, women are rarely trusted to be truthful, or to make good decisions . Questioning, critiquing and dissecting the behavior of people who are targets and survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and rape attempts to control their behavior. Instead, we need to focus on holding people who harass, assault, and rape accountable — and challenge even the more subtle, seemingly less violent, ways our communities and media propagate rape culture.

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