A Call for Fairness in Sexual Abuse and Harassment Cases

Clearly the “Me Too” movement has ushered in a new age of gender relationships. And this is a good thing as many past practices, once considered normal, are no longer acceptable. But that is not to say that this movement has been without its controversy. While I affirm the right of any alleged sexually abused victim to be heard with all respect and compassion, we must also treat the accused with respect and fairness. We must reject the assumption of “guilt by accusation.”

The sexual abuse issue is again in the news in a way that could cause major political repercussions. Joe Biden has recently been accused of sexual assault related to an incident that allegedly occurred in 1993, or twenty-seven years ago. Biden is now in the impossible position of having to prove a negative, that he did not assault this woman. We cannot allow “guilt by accusation.” Also, we cannot allow a “zero-tolerance” policy to overrule fairness and common sense.

I believe that in the Supreme Court Justice confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, respectively, Anita Hill and Christine Blasé Ford were both credible witnesses. I do not have the same feeling at all about Tara Reade. For one thing, Reade’s story has changed markedly over time. It has grown from an accusation of uncomfortable touching to accusations of a full-on sexual assault

There is a pervasive ambiguity in all human contact. At what point does a simple hug become sexual aggression? Technically speaking, a simple hug could be charged as sexual assault and battery as physical touching occurred.

The pattern of sexual harassment is not only men against women. Men can harass men, women can harass women, and women can harass men. Sexual harassment can be based on an imbalance of power. It is normally assumed that the man is in the position of power and that the woman is powerless. While this may be the norm, it is not always the case. Partly as a result of the current imbalance of power, the normal assumption seems to be that the accused man is automatically guilty. There is a definite gender inequality at work here. We cannot assume that men are always at fault, or that women are always the victims.

There was a time back in the 1980s when I was working at one of my company’s remote offices. I was working with this voluptuous woman. I was sitting at her desk, doing some work on her computer. She came up behind me and cradled my head in her bosom. This contact was not accidental. It made me very uncomfortable. I was there to work not play. Also, I was a married man and did not appreciate her sexual advances. I felt vulnerable. I did not want to have my reputation sullied, or to disrupt the staff relationships at that remote office.

The company had a policy requiring that any sort of sexual harassment needed to be reported. I did report this to my boss. His response was laughter, which was not terribly surprising. I think that most people would have laughed at this, especially back in the 1980s. I never heard about it further. I do not know if my even boss called her boss to discuss the issue. No one takes sexual harassment against males seriously. The common assumption is that men enjoy being harassed (wink, wink, nod, nod).

Had the situation been reversed – had I nuzzled my head on her bosom, or worse, cupped my hands on her breasts, I would have been in very serious trouble. I could have been fired and had my reputation destroyed. I could have also been arrested, or sued, or both.

The rules have changed in the past few decades, I am old enough to remember a time when office banter could sound like this. “Martha, you are looking especially fetching today. I love your outfit and how it fits you! The color really brings out your eyes.” There was a time when women were put on a pedestal, and flattery was the norm. We would find such a comment creepy today, but there was a time, not so long ago, that this banter would have been considered chivalrous.

We must avoid an assumption of “guilt by accusation”. Many men have seen their reputation besmirched in ways that they can never overcome. Victims of harassment have a right to be heard. We also need to respect the rights of the accused as well. We need to investigate accusations as well as we are able. But in many cases, such as in this alleged incident between Joe Biden and Tara Reade, no definitive investigation even possible due to the time lapse and lack of corroborating evidence. In such circumstances we can only look at patterns of behavior, conduct, and decorum displayed by those involved, both the accuser and the accused. It also helps to look at the values expressed by those being examined. We need to look for patterns of behavior that may serve to either substantiate or discredit both persons’ statements.

While I would never want to cast aspersions on all accusers, we still need to recognize that accusations can be made in bad faith or even with criminal intent. The reasons for such false accusations might include, an attempt to extort money from a wealthy celebrity, a strictly partisan attack upon a political candidate or other public figure, a disgruntled employee seeking revenge or a financial windfall, or a person with a grudge to settle.

While every accuser has the right to be heard, we must not lapse into “guilt by accusation.” Also, we need to maintain some balance and perspective. We must never place a Senator Al Franken into the same category as a Harvey Weinstein or a Bill Cosby. We must distinguish between minor breaches of protocol and egregious sexual crimes. We need to allow for human weakness that does not rise to the level of evil doing. Minor incidents should be met with counseling and training in appropriate behavior and relationship building.

We must not make this gender war. It is not about ending the cultural domination of men over women. We cannot judge decades-old behavior by today’s rules, as the rules have clearly changed. We need to acknowledge that these issues are complicated and ambiguous. They are not black and white, but a million shades of gray, and deal with them accordingly.

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