In the 14th minute of a statement broadcast on Tuesday responding to a looming impeachment inquiry, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned. But before he did, he spent 13 minutes responding to the state attorney general’s report that was released last week, a thorough and damning document that included allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct from 11 women. He denied some of the accusations and made excuses for others. “I have been too familiar with people,” Cuomo allowed. “I do hug and kiss people casually—women and men. I’ve done it all my life.”
The gist of Cuomo’s goodbye defense was that he’s never singled women out for sexual conversation or contact. This is just who he is with everyone he meets: physical, imposing, socially inept. As Cuomo tells it, his inability to abide by common norms of social interaction is a function of his age and generation: “In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone. But I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn. There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate. And I should have.”
This pretext for misbehavior has gotten a lot of use in the years since the modern #MeToo movement emerged. I’ve come to think of it as the dinosaur excuse, named for the way Harvey Weinstein’s lawyer Lisa Bloom explained away his pattern of sexual assault and harassment in 2017. Weinstein was merely an “old dinosaur learning new ways,” Bloom said. In his own statement, Weinstein echoed the plea. “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then,” he wrote.
The dinosaur excuse has been deployed across the spectrum of alleged inappropriate behavior toward women, from sexual assault to demeaning comments and unwelcome physical touch in the workplace. After several women accused Joe Biden of the latter in the run-up to the Democratic presidential primary, he recorded a statement that portrayed himself as an old, befuddled grandpa who couldn’t possibly be expected to keep up with the times. In the video, Biden segued from an eye-rolling joke about how everyone suddenly wants selfies nowadays to an observation that, nonetheless, people suddenly don’t want to be nonconsensually kissed by a professional contact: “Social norms have begun to change … and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset,” he said.
The dinosaur excuse also formed a palpable undercurrent in accused harasser John Hockenberry’s bizarre, self-exculpatory 2018 essay for Harper’s, in which he lamented the way women’s militance around sexual conduct had driven the genders further apart. Hockenberry allowed that “being a misguided romantic, or being born at the wrong time, or taking the wrong cues from the sexual revolution of the Sixties” was no “justification for offensive behavior toward women”—and yet, somehow, those justifications found their way into the essay anyway.
Men have landed on the dinosaur excuse so often in recent years because it offers an exculpatory defense of their inappropriate behavior toward women, one that makes their behavior a generational problem rather than a personal one: They’re not lecherous, they’re simply old-fashioned. Most adults, after all, can identify with the experience of observing a new, unfamiliar social practice—or running afoul of one—and feeling hopelessly out of touch. Cuomo is asking us to believe that his misbehavior falls into that category. According to him, he’s just now realizing that the women in his workplace don’t want to be unilaterally caressed, kissed, or badgered about their sex lives. Implicit in the claim is the suggestion that women, generally, have only recently decided this—that the list of behaviors and conditions that constitute sexual harassment has tripled in size so quickly that no regular Joe could be expected to keep up.
It’s all untrue. If Cuomo’s “line” was ever drawn in such a way that groping colleagues fell on the side that said “fine with me,” the line changed positions long before he entered the workplace. Women have been demanding protections against sexual harassment and accountability for perpetrators for generations. Certain categories of workplace sexual misconduct overlooked in the distant past are now widely acknowledged as wrong, and have been for decades. Plenty of Cuomo’s generational peers have kept pace with whatever cultural epiphanies have helped women achieve recognition as full human beings deserving of autonomy and respect. Sexual harassment policies now abound in the law, education systems, and private enterprise. It doesn’t take a legal scholar to parse their details.
Let’s say we give Cuomo the benefit of the doubt and accept that he was completely ignorant of modern sexual mores. If Cuomo didn’t know it was wrong to grope his female colleagues, kiss them on the lips without their consent, and prod them about their sexual history—as his accusers have alleged—he surely should have noticed physical or verbal signs of discomfort from some of the 11 women he allegedly harassed. One woman said she felt “horribly uncomfortable and scared” when he made sexual overtures to her. Another said she pulled away and felt “confused and shocked and embarrassed” when he tried to kiss her. A third said she resisted when he tried to give her a second “intimate embrace.” Another woman said she “froze” when Cuomo groped her breast.
Does Cuomo expect us to believe he was wholly oblivious to the distress he caused? Or does he want us to imagine that he was too daft to learn a lesson from any one unwanted sexual advance, preferring to try anew with the next young colleague to cross his path? The dinosaur excuse posits a Cuomo so lacking in observational skills and empathy as to be absolutely unfit to be a mall Santa, much less governor of New York.
But of course this is moot, because of course Andrew Cuomo knew what sexual harassment looks like. In very recent history, when it suited him to do so, Cuomo was happy to trumpet his awareness of campaigns against sexual harassment and assault. In 2018, as he readied himself for a reelection bid, he sent a fundraising email with the subject line “NY Stands with #MeToo.” He aligned himself with Time’s Up and the #MeToo movement in statements, speeches, and public appearances. In remarks about the Trump administration, after Christine Blasey Ford accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, Cuomo said, “After the Me Too movement, they did absolutely nothing when it came to sexual harassment. They have always diminished the charges of women.”
A man truly committed to staying within the lines of appropriate conduct toward women might have used that time and those alliances to help him examine his own behavior. Instead, when the mics turned off and cameras turned away, Cuomo continued to harass women. He knew exactly what he was doing. He just didn’t think an asteroid would ever come for him.