My worst habit involves reading the comments and quote tweets on The New York Times articles about sexual misconduct allegations. They are, without fail, a dumpster fire of victim blaming. However, given the well-corroborated account of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment of former aide, Charlotte Bennett, I thought the discourse might reflect reality.
No such luck.
It doesn’t matter that the simplest explanation is that Cuomo did, in fact, do what he’s accused of, at least in the case of Bennett. For some, it is apparently easier to believe that Bennett lied to both Cuomo’s Chief of Staff and the administration’s special counsel and planted contemporaneous text messages to several different people only to sit on the lies for months to wait for a convenient time to let them blossom. I haven’t heard anyone outright suggest that she did all of those things, even defenders of Cuomo, probably because it would be ridiculous. Skeptics of sexual misconduct allegations hold themselves to a low standard. It is simple to invoke a horrible hypothetical without considering publicly available information, but that doesn’t make it smart or logical.
For some, it seems it is easier to believe that Cuomo’s lack of a categorical denial is inconsequential. However, Cuomo has denied other allegations — his press secretary called an earlier allegation of sexual harassment by a different woman “quite simply false.” In other words, if he could plausibly deny Bennett’s accusation, his own history indicates that he would. To me, the cries that Bennett is lying or that we must wait to pass judgment ring hollow. Cuomo has rights within the American legal system, but in the court of public opinion, I don’t know what stops people from simply being rational.
Cuomo even issued a pseudo-apology, emphasizing that he never touched anyone inappropriately (Bennett does not accuse him of touching her) but that he may have made people feel uncomfortable without knowing he was doing so. Whether he intended to harass Bennett is irrelevant to her experience of harassment.
So let’s recap: Cuomo is accused of sexual harassment, and the accuser has an extensive paper trail to back up her claim. Cuomo has not denied all the allegations but has issued something that appears to be an apology. Same page?
I believe Charlotte Bennett because I am typically far more willing to risk the small chance that someone who has experienced sexual misconduct or harassment is lying than the much larger chance that they are is telling the truth. In refusing to believe a survivor, one makes their worst nightmare even harder. You should believe Bennett, and the other women making accusations against Cuomo, because they are believable allegations.
There is more research on the instances of false allegations of rape (somewhere between 2-10% are false) than instances of false allegations of harassment, but given it all falls under the umbrella of sexual misconduct, similar principles likely apply. Yes, false allegations are rare, but even the ones that do happen do not look like what Bennett asserts. For example, studies have repeatedly shown that a common type of false allegation is one that comes from a teenage girl looking to avoid trouble with her parents. In those cases, it is almost always the parents who get authorities involved, after which the truth usually comes out pretty quickly. Another common type of false allegation comes from those who use it in order to obtain medical care or medication.
False accusers, much like real perpetrators, also often show a string of similar behavior. They may have a history of filing personal injury claims or committing fraud. But the most important characteristic of most false allegations is that, if they were true, they would be can’t-look-away horrifying (which is certainly not to say that horrifying allegations can’t also be true). These are the aggravated assault cases; the University of Virginia case documented in the now infamous Rolling Stones article is a good example.
False accusers want shock and action, so they wouldn’t make an accusation like the one made by Bennett, which involves no physical violence and one which any woman with access to the internet would know would be met with a solid contingent of people questioning whether or not it was ‘actually bad.’
Some may say it doesn’t matter whether they believe Bennett because Cuomo deserves due process anyway. For the wealth of other allegations that have been made, allegations which he disputes, I would agree. But the original calls for an investigation arose after Bennett came forward.
As author and lawyer Alexandra Brodsky points out, investigations are for disputes and, insofar as she can tell, there is no dispute here. Bennett said she was sexually harassed, and Cuomo conceded that what he did might have made others uncomfortable. “Uncomfortable” is euphemistic, but it definitely isn’t a denial.
Even if Cuomo manages to dodge the ever-growing chorus of voices asking him to resign, the question of whether we believe Bennett matters now. The investigation provides him time to let news cycles pass, to let other scandals take precedent.
The investigation into a matter which the governor has seemingly already apologized for shifts the conversation from an uncomfortable one about workplace ethics to a familiar one about procedure. The conversation we need to be having is this: In the plausible event that Bennett’s accusations are true, what should happen?
He should resign. And all of the not-that-bad naysayers need to take a hard look at their own workplace behavior.
Jessie Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.
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