In the wake of yet another scandal in which a man in a position of power has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, it stirred up a series of emotions-ranging from anger to fear, from mama-bear-how-dare-you protectiveness to incredulity that in the era of #metoo, someone could in broad daylight cross the line and think he could get away with it. New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo is in the glare of the spotlight, not only for neglect of accounting for COVID deaths of nursing home residents but major personal boundary violations of unwanted touch and unwarranted words. As of today, seven women have indicated that the Guv. needs to govern his own impulses. Each statement I have read or heard about on the news is cringeworthy. What the hell was he thinking? Did he, like many who came before him, believe that he was immune from consequences or that as someone in a position of authority decided that he was entitled to operate sans filters?
His job is on the line as politicians on both sides of the aisle are calling for him to step down. Refusing to do so, he volleyed back that he had no ill intent and was merely being friendly and collegial. “I never, ever meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone pain. I feel terrible that these people felt uncomfortable, felt hurt, felt pain from the interactions, and I’m embarrassed by it, and I feel bad from it,” he said.
One woman who offered hours’ worth of deposition said that he had asked her questions related to her sexual abuse history and whether she dated older men.
The latest came from an aide who told her story of meeting him in 2018 at a holiday party during which he told her she was beautiful (in Italian, ‘ciao bella’) and in the guise of admiring her necklace, had looked a little lower to her cleavage under her shirt.
This is my response to men who are concerned about women mistaking their flirting for harassment, My thought is that unless the flirtatious talk is mutual and welcome, speak to women the way you would speak to a man you respect or you would want to be treated by other men. Yes, I understand that some men engage in the art of busting on their bros and wouldn’t speak to a woman that way, even if she was seen as ‘one of the boys’.
I love to flirt. I enjoy playful banter, smiling (even now under a mask, with my eyes fully engaged) winking, and projecting a desire to connect heart to heart. I’m a writer and professional speaker, so I know the art of just the right turn of a phrase. It doesn’t, however, imply an invitation to sexual intimacy. I flirt with platonic friends and former lovers even after all these years. I also enjoy being considered an attractive woman, especially as I am approaching 63. The well-earned laugh lines and wrinkles are more pronounced than they were in the previous few decades. I appreciate compliments as long as they are not icky, sleazy, or cringey in nature. My Spidey Sense can tell me on which side of the line they fall.
In the past few months, I have been receiving Facebook messages and posts on my profile page from men wanting to ‘get to know me better’. Generally, their profiles indicate that they are widowed and either in the military or medical fields. I don’t kid myself thinking that they are enamored of me personally; likely they are reaching out to any woman, single or otherwise (some of my married friends receive them also), hoping to get a response. It may seem rude, but I don’t respond. I delete the post. What I’ve learned and what I teach as a consent educator, no one owes anyone time, attention, friendship, or intimacy (emotional or physical). I am intimate at varying levels with people in my life. A hug may be as far as I venture with some. Sexual engagement over the years, with others. I know my boundaries in the workplace. While I have hugged co-workers, it is unlikely that I would get involved romantically. The last time I did that was in college which turned into a few years of partnership and more than 40 years of friendship. There was no power differential between us. We were peers.
When I think about the difference between flirting and sexual harassment, I consider the words of comedian Kate Willett, “Good flirting is fundamentally empathetic. It’s about building desire and it’s often pretty subtle. It’s paying such deep attention to another person’s emotions and body language that you create more intimacy with them. It’s a two-way, playful, fun exchange that makes everyone feel good.”
The interactions between Governor Cuomo and the women who are speaking out did not meet any of those criteria. I also wonder how he, as a father of three young women, would feel if a man treated them the way he treated the women who now challenge his integrity. For any man who is tempted to cross the line, first, know what that line is and consider that every woman is a human being and treat them accordingly.
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