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.

An experiment in silence breaking: Please tell a story about sexual harassment or assault.

Yesterday I wrote that the one way to gain any good out of the rolling clown car that has been the Herman Cain candidacy would be if we use this opportunity to get more honest about how frequently girls and women face harassment and/or assault.

The truth is that I don’t think most men have any idea how prevalent it is. How often our muscles tense, the kinds of calculus we must do before walking down that street or past that co-worker, the sheer reality of our very gender being used against us as a weapon. A tool of control. A platform from which to declare victory or dominance.

So I just tweeted the following:

Dear men: Please turn to a woman who loves & trusts you today & ask one question: “Have you ever been harassed?” Then just sit & listen.

But I think it would really powerful to have something to share, something like the post I did back when I asked my fellow white Americans to sit and listen to black folks’ responses to watching the President of the United States being forced by a racist huckster to show his papers.

If you have a story to tell about harassment or assault, I’m asking you to do so here (men, too). This will not be a space in which your sincerity or the truth of your story will be doubted (and should we garner any such replies, they will be ruthlessly slapped down by me), and of course, it’s the internet — you may be an anonymous as you like.

But please – let’s talk. Let’s tell the truth. Only in telling the truth will we be able to change the reality.

UPDATE:  It occurs to me to provide this information as well – For an online hotline for assault/abuse survivors, click here; telephone hotline here: 1-800-656-4673.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I’ve also started a thread for men’s stories – for that, click here.  I believe that the differences in our experiences make separate threads a good idea — a better way to honor and respect the differences in our realities — but our stories share many elements, and we are wise to not just talk among ourselves, but also to listen to each other.

On wresting good from stupid: Herman Cain, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

A very quick thought:

Herman Cain was never a serious contender for the Republican nomination. He is, in more ways than I have time to enumerate right now, a clown, and he has never been more than a shiny object by which we the people have been duly distracted.

As such, it is my humble opinion that Herman Cain’s candidacy (such as…) has done actual, objective damage to the American political system and those invested in that system (just as we have been damaged by Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, though considerably less than we were damaged by Ralph Nader), because all he has served to do is distract us and suck up wildly expensive time and resources.


With the revelation of what is turning into quite a slew of accusations of sexual harassment and/or assault (“Hey, baby, you’re lookin’ gooood tonight!” [or some such] being the former; grabbing a woman’s inner thigh and pulling her head toward his crotch [the actual accusation that Sharon Bialek has leveled] being the latter) we have an opportunity to wrest some objective good out of this mountain of stupid.

Every woman I know can tell a story of harassment or assault. Every single one.

For some, this has meant being yelled at on the street; for others, horrifying tales of violence and rape. It’s a huge range between the two, and I do not mean to conflate all the various kinds of harassment and assault, but merely want to say: Sexual threat or violence, or fear of same, is a constant in the lives of all women and girls. Full stop.

So here’s what we can do: We can take this Side Show Bob act that Herman Cain has been putting on for a few months, and turn it to our advantage. We can start talking.

We need to talk, and talk, and talk — we need to tell the truth and tell our stories and face the ugliness that always comes out when we tell our truth, but keep telling it anyway.

We, men and women both, need to face the fact of men using sexual innuendo, threats, and violence as a weapon against women on a regular, daily basis. Herman Cain (if he is in fact guilty of the acts of which he is accused) is far from the first, he is not currently the only, and he will not be the last man to treat other human beings as tools by which he has the right to express his power.

Moreover, if we are more honest and open about how often grown men do this sort of thing to grown women — we may be able to be more honest and open about how often grown men do this to female children (whether paying for it and calling the rape “underage prostitution,” or not), more honest and open about how often grown men do this to male children (whether in the Catholic Church, the Penn State locker rooms, or elsewhere), and more honest and open about how often grown men do this to each other (whether in prison, at frat parties, or anywhere else).

I am very, very clear on the fact that not all men are sexual predators, and I know that some women are.

But it’s mostly men — by a hell of a longshot — and far more men do this sort of thing than we admit. Indeed, I would submit that far more men do this sort of thing than are even aware of it themselves (if she was too drunk to say no? It was rape. As but one example).

So let’s take the awful, ridiculous, embarrassing moment in American political history that is Herman Cain, and turn it into something good: Let’s take the opportunity to be honest about the daily, lived reality of sexual harassment and assault.

Then, perhaps, Herman Cain will have actually managed to do some good for the American people. In spite of himself.

Good stuff: The singer-songwriter wrote a song for me!

On Saturday night I posted the now-timeless ditty “No the Civil War Really Was About Slavery,” penned, sung and recorded on Friday by fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates commenter HappySurge (aka Sergi Avteniev), and I urged you to go to listen to the rest of his work on Youtube.

Much excitement abounded about the song in yesterday’s Open Thread, so he wrote another, this one in response to the Rick Perry/Herman Cain/Niggerhead brou-ha-ha, called appropriately enough There Are No Racists Here.

Much excitement abounded about that, so he wrote another one — this one a thank you to me! O_O It’s about the death penalty! (You know you’re loved when your friends write songs about capital punishment with you in mind). And it’s really, really, really good. Really.

So, without further ado, I present to you There Are No Racists Here (favorite verse: “Now, if you want to know some racists, Hitler was a racist/ Because a racist is someone who is racist all the time/ Like Henry Louis Gates who wakes up at Harvard teaching hate/ But there are no racists here”) followed by the chill-inducing Two Hundred and Thirty-Four Graves (“everybody said/ You better kill that kid/ He ain’t no good, but he’ll be damn good dead”). Lyrics after the jump.


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