The vocabulary of bad behavior: Adultery, harassment, assault, and rape.

Source: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Herman Cain is imploding. If anyone’s still pretending this is a surprise, can we stop that right now? I would also be grateful if we could finally stop acting as if he was ever a serious contender for the GOP nomination. He wasn’t, and not just because he’s black. Cain was never a serious contender because he’s wildly ignorant, and borderline crazy. The GOP has a history of allowing these people (Bachmann, Perry, Santorum, Paul, Cain, etc) to toddle out onto the stage and push the boundaries of civil conversation a little farther out, squeezing out every last drop of anti-social outrage they can, and then tossing them onto history’s famous scrapheap, in favor of the one fella who has money and isn’t certifiable. In 2008, it was John McCain. In 2012, it’ll be Mitt Romney. Have we cleared that up? (No, it won’t be Gingrich. Stop that! He’s made too many Republicans mad. Much as they hate Romney, they hate Gingrich more). (No! Not Huntsman either! He’s too reasonable, and too poor. Maybe 2016, when they’re done purging the party of the crazy following what they already know will be Obama’s re-election). (Yes. That’s what’s going to happen. Can we get to the point now? Thank you).

Herman Cain’s silly White House run having served more as useful foolishness than reality, I don’t have any interest in discussing it as a political exercise. I do, however, have a very real interest in using it to continue the conversation we began earlier this month about the ways in which harassment and assault shape women’s days, and to move into the vocabulary we use in conversations about sexual violence, whether they are about Herman Cain, or Jerry Sandusky, or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or the asshole down the street.

Cain stands accused of three things:

  1. Adultery
  2. Harassment
  3. Assault

One woman has said they conducted a 13-year affair, and Cain’s lawyer has all but admitted this to be the case. Several woman have accused him of harassment, and in the one case where the details have emerged, it became an accusation of assault at the very moment in which the accuser said he’d groped her inner thigh, and attempted to pull her head toward his crotch.

We (and here I think I mean pretty much everyone, not just Americans) have a terrible problem remembering that these are three different things, and that the latter two legitimately overlap.

Adultery means you’re bad at monogamy. Depending on your relationship, it probably means you’re a bad spouse. In most cases, I believe adultery to be an entirely private matter, but if you happen to be running for office on a platform of some kind of mythical family purity, it also means you’re a dangerous, damaging hypocrite, and your peccadilloes are justifiable fodder in my efforts to defeat you.

Harassment, however, and assault are something else altogether. Adultery presumes consent. Harassment and assault (and rape) presume a relationship of dominance, one in which one person is Subject/Actor, and the other is Object/Acted-Upon.

When men ask our cup size, or yell at us to smile, or suggest the workday might go better if we go down on them first – they’re not treating us as people, they’re treating us objects, tools through which they may express their own desires and their position of social dominance. They’re creating an environment in which women are set on a knife edge of, at the very least, discomfort, if not fear.

When men grab our breasts, attempt to kiss us uninvited, or pull our heads toward their crotch, they’ve not just ignored our humanity and treated us as tools, but they’ve acted on that bias, handling our very bodies as objects with which they may do as they please. The discomfort or fear is no longer in response to a vague, difficult-to-judge level of threat, but a reaction to events which say quite clearly that we’re at risk.

And it bears noting (and repeating endlessly) that as much as we may dislike adultery — harassment and assault are actual crimes.

As is rape.

Rape is on a continuum with harassment and assault, and while each step along that continuum is worse on increasing orders of magnitude, they start at the same root: The denial of another person’s humanity, the erasure of that person’s autonomy, the transformation of a blood-and-bone human being (a chamber maid, a co-worker, a boy who’s turned to you for guidance) into a thing.

I wrote about this with far greater heat when Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of rape (and for what it’s worth: I still believe the accuser. Like I still believe Anita Hill), but I actually think we have a harder time drawing these linguistic lines when the crimes under discussion are lesser. We still find it far too easy to interpret harassment as boyishness, and assault as crossed signals. We still find it far too easy to presume that in matters of sexual congress, men are predators because they should be.

When we lump Cain’s adultery in with his (alleged) harassment and assault, when we lump Strauss-Kahn’s infidelities in with his (alleged) rape, when we somehow talk about these things in the same breath in which we discuss Sandusky’s serial rape of young boys — we further the problem.

Cheating for 13 years, or repeatedly, or on one ill-considered night — that’s a sex scandal.

Harassment, assault and rape, on the other hand, are crimes. Let’s be very clear about that when we open our mouths and start talking. We are all damaged when we fail to do so.



  1. Thank you for bringing clarity to this issue.
    It troubles me that it is needed.

  2. CitizenE

     /  November 29, 2011

    But it is adultery that will bring him down. So Biblical.

    I am sure there’s a place on teevee for him now, however. And for his poor wife, hopefully a very, very rich settlement.

  3. i’ve nothing to add, emily, other than a wholehearted affirmation of your awesomeness. you so rock.

  4. middling

     /  November 30, 2011

    Emily, thank you SO MUCH for this… this safe space, and this clear and sane reiteration of what women and girls struggle to have recognized.

    An hour ago I found out that one of my daughter’s SECOND GRADE classmates, a seven year old girl, was sexually harassed at school by one of their SECOND GRADE classmates, a seven year old boy. Their teacher seems to want to handle it “in the classroom”. No. No, I’m sorry, that IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH. All the parents in the class need to be informed, all the teachers in the school need to be informed, and the boy’s parents need to be called in and told that THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN AGAIN. And to get themselves into some family counseling, pronto, because this kind of seriously messed-up behavior doesn’t come out of nowhere.

    My (female) partner works at the school. She and I will fight this battle. But just thinking about it makes me shake with the cold shakes that comes from extreme stress. After all the good (but hard) recent discussions at your and TNC’s blog about harassment and abuse, I was wondering how many more years it would be before I had to have the first *Talk* with my little girl. Well, that question was answered for me, today.

    I’m forty-five. My daughter’s experience was supposed to be easier than that of my generation. I am ANGRY.

  5. Thank you. I don’t talk about this at the Horde mostly because it doesn’t come up much and mostly because, well, because. Your lines are pure and right, but I wish to hell that Cain weren’t guilty (in all likelihood) on all counts because in addition to being an idiot, he’s going to muddy the public discourse about all this stuff in addition to whatever muddying he’s already managed on race and values and the conservative/liberal divide. I’ve known several adulterous men who would no more harass or rape or assault a woman than they’d cut off their right hands. Love is complicated. So is sex. Also marriage. Life ought to be thrown in there someplace, also too.

  6. Again, you have raised up an incredibly important point and done an excellent job of explaining the basic issue.

  7. Bell

     /  December 1, 2011

    I wrote about this with far greater heat when Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of rape (and for what it’s worth: I still believe the accuser. Like I still believe Anita Hill), but I actually think we have a harder time drawing these linguistic lines when the crimes under discussion are lesser. We still find it far too easy to interpret harassment as boyishness, and assault as crossed signals. We still find it far too easy to presume that in matters of sexual congress, men are predators because they should be.

    Honestly, it feels pretty commonplace to see people refusing to call rape what it is, too, and I think I might have to disagree that it’s harder to draw these lines when the abuses are less severe. I’ve had too many conversations with people who have been ridiculously adamant that rape only ever applies when it’s physically violent, and that even when the victim has been threatened, coerced, or blackmailed, it’s not rape, because they still basically said “yes”, even they’re only saying it to avoid being hurt. Or it wasn’t rape, because the victim didn’t make a big deal out of it later.

    I’ve had these conversations with people who have described me as a “humourless man-hater with a chip on my shoulder”, and I’ve had these conversations with people who have freely self-identified as feminist. I feel like people will try their best to make it hard to call out any level of abuse or objectification, and that any use of the words harassment, assault, or rape will draw people who will accuse you of overreacting. I don’t mean to imply that you haven’t heard this all before; I can say with absolute certainty that you have far more experience with this than I do. I’m just not sure I’ve seen a particular difference in frequency, at any point along the continuum.

    The rest of the post I adore. It’s very important that we call these crimes what they are, and it’s vitally important that we don’t treat an act of sexual abuse as comparable to an act of infidelity when we talk about them. I don’t want to diminish the significance of the post, nor my appreciation of it, and I feel like I’m nitpicking when I poke at a relatively minor aspect of something that really needs to be said. I’m sorry if I’ve misunderstood the point you were trying to make with your phrasing. But that part’s kind of bothering me.

    • You’re right, people do this about rape, too! I just think it’s less frequent, is all, certainly among the progressives that I consider my allies on these things. But it certainly and absolutely still happens.

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