The XX Factor

Cain Story Reignites Debate Over Sexual Harassment

Reports of sexual-harassment suit settlements have surrounded Herman Cain of late

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The latest news in the Cain sexual harassment debacle will no doubt disappoint those who are following this story closely; one of the women who settled with the National Restaurant Association in the ‘90s after claiming that Cain sexually harassed her is not going to come forward. This in no way should implicate the woman as a liar, of course. Victims of sexual harassment and abuse live in our culture and know what comes next if they tell their stories: accusations of being a liar, mentally ill, and slutty. In fact, the woman in questions specifically cited not wanting to go through what Anita Hill endured, which was quite literally being called “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” (David Brock, who wrote those immortal words, has since recanted.) Rape victims have been known to call the abuse that you endure for coming out a “second rape,” and it’s understandable that someone could be telling the unvarnished truth about her circumstances and still want to avoid the spotlight.

We’re beginning to get an answer to the question of how the revelation that the National Restaurant Association settled with these women over these accusations will affect Cain’s chances at the Republican nomination. Early indicators suggest that it won’t hurt him at all. Despite the nervousness of right-wing pundits regarding this whole situation, early poll data shows Cain up with potential Republican primary voters, despite the blanket coverage of this story. Since most coverage of this story has wedged it into the ill-fitting “he said/she said” model, the explanation for why Republican base voters aren’t holding this against him is that they’re eager to buy the notion that there’s a liberal conspiracy to deny Cain the nomination.

Still, I think there’s a counter-explanation for why GOP base voters could be rallying around Cain in light of these revelations beyond a simple disbelief that he said or did anything. After all, Cain hasn’t really been so great at outright denials, and, of course, there’s the problem of the National Restaurant Association settling with the women involved. My alternative explanation is that many conservatives have still not come around to agreeing that there’s anything wrong with men saying lewd and harassing things to women they work with. Cain has certainly been playing to this sentiment, arguing that the women involved just don’t get his “sense of humor.” John Derbyshire of National Review denied that there is such a thing as sexual harassment, trotting out the dusty canard that sexual harassment is men “complimenting” women, and that women who are upset at being hounded with lewd comments and unwanted sexual attention are just sensitive babies. (My favorite part of the post: “Aren’t there any grown-ups around?,” as if using juvenile sexual comments and a game of ass-grab to make women uncomfortable is the gold standard of mature, professional behavior.) David Brooks used this opportunity to ask if consensual sexual relationships should count as “harassment,” which of course is a total red herring since Cain wasn’t accused of having consensual sexual relationships with the women involved. We don’t know the dirty details, but what we do know is that the women are saying he creeped up on them, not that he charmed their pants off. Brooks is doing the same thing as Derbyshire here, if in less obnoxious terms: arguing that women just made up the concept of sexual harassment so they could gain monetarily off perfectly reasonable behavior. Of course, as anyone who has felt threatened or demeaned by sexual harassment can tell you, it really isn’t a compliment, but would better be described as bullying. 

In other words, if you thought we’d seen the end of the ‘60s-era argument that being groped, leered at, and taunted with sexual insults is just the price women have to pay if they want to be in business, well, you were wrong. It’s alive and well in conservative circles, though there is some evidence that it may be fading as more conservative women become prominent politicians. Which is why I don’t think it’s quite right to apply the “he said/she said” model to this story, where each side claims the other is lying and we all pretend not to have an opinion on that. The debate that’s really springing from this Cain situation is not over whether or not sexual harassment happens; we’re back to debating whether or not it’s wrong.