Margot Libertini: Democrats can be abusers too

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 - 4:22pm

In mid-November, news broke that Senator Al Franken, D-Minn., had forcibly kissed and groped radio newscaster Leann Tweeden on a USO tour in December 2006. On the morning after the story came out, I woke up and listened to NPR’s “Up First” while scrambling eggs, like every other morning. I had heard about the story via Twitter the evening before, but wasn’t aware of the details. I listened to the podcast hosts report on what had happened, and I began to deliberate about whether I thought he should resign. After a while, I decided I was ambivalent. It felt to me as if forcing him to resign suggested he was the only sitting U.S. senator who had sexually harassed someone. I thought certainly no one believed that.

I discovered later that day that I was entirely wrong. My peers, most of whom are staunch liberals, were shocked by this news. They loved Al Franken — how could he betray them like this? How could such a liberal “feminist” sexually assault women? It was not only my circle of friends who reacted in this manner; even the hosts of the podcast “Pod Save America” discussed how distraught they were that an idol of theirs had turned out to be a predator. As I heard all of this, I was flabbergasted. Did my friends and favorite podcasters really believe that every time they saw #MeToo on their timelines, it was in reference to a Republican? That voting to fund Planned Parenthood and speaking against Donald Trump meant someone was exempt from being an abuser?

It became clear to me that many people did believe these things. While revealing powerful liberal men also abuse women felt to me like “revealing” a lot of the people drinking at Garage Bar are well under 21, it turns out that many very smart people were caught by total surprise. It sometimes feels as though I’m trapped in an echo chamber with the people and media with which I surround myself, so it felt odd to have such a different perspective.

The best explanation I have for my viewpoint is my past experiences. I was groped at 15 by a former friend, I was raped at 16 by a former boyfriend and sexually assaulted at 18 by a former friend and current friendly acquaintance. I’ve spent a lot of time (read: a very painful five years) thinking about those moments. I’ve assessed those men and their actions for so long, and yet it never occurred to me that their political affiliation would be relevant to their behavior. That is because it is not; those three men hold wildly different views on politics in general and on women’s issues specifically. Somehow, their views on abortion never made me feel more forgiving toward or more surprised by one over another. Being a public advocate for women’s rights and a private abuser of women only makes someone a hypocrite, not a “better” abuser.

Sexual assault is a violent crime, not a partisan issue. We were all brought up surrounded by a culture of sexual assault that has historically allowed men to abuse their power and privilege without much punishment. We must all recognize that no matter how progressive or egalitarian our values are, we are affected and influenced by that predatory culture. For example, I was ambivalent toward Franken’s resignation for quite a while. I was convinced otherwise by Ana Marie Cox’s article in Esquire, which is summarized in this quote: “I think Franken should voluntarily relinquish a privilege in recognition that women’s voices and experiences are more important than his short-term political career.” I don’t know why that simple point was so difficult for me to understand from the start. I know I would feel personally insulted, disheartened and enraged each day if one of my abusers held public office. While I also know that there are hundreds of victims who must live with that horrible reality, it is one that we should actively try to reduce.

So, if I was right, and there is at least one other U.S. senator who is guilty of sexual misconduct, and even if there are 30 of them, and even if they’re all Democrats, I sincerely hope they will be outed and removed. If it ruins Democratic chances of ever winning back Congress, so be it. We cannot be a party that puts abusers in power and justifies it by claiming that things would be worse for women if we lost their votes. I certainly understand that argument; I understand that reproductive freedom is at risk, we desperately need maternity leave and that the Republican Party has no intention of helping women on these issues. I also understand that as long as we are complicit in propping up abusers, women’s safety and autonomy is not a priority of the Democratic Party either.

Margot Libertini can be reached at mliberti@umich.edu.