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.

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