Commentary: Sexual harassment is not a joke

Sharon Bialek, a Chicago-area woman, accused Republican presidential contender Herman Cain of making an unwanted sexual advance against her in 1997.
Sharon Bialek, a Chicago-area woman, accused Republican presidential contender Herman Cain of making an unwanted sexual advance against her in 1997. AP Photo/Richard Drew

I don't know whether Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain is a serial sexual harasser of women or not. But with multiple women accusing him of such past misconduct - four at the last count - he at least has (or had) a serious problem in knowing what some women considered appropriate behavior toward them. Recognizing and addressing that would surely have been in order.

In any case, there is a more troubling issue being laid bare in the Cain affair, and it is this: Sexual harassment charges are most often belittled, even derided, and those who step forward find themselves demonized and ridiculed.

These reactions aren't new, and they have no partisan or gender label. All kinds of people engage in such behavior. And that makes it harder for victims to report what happened. It's much easier to remain silent rather than speak up and try to get the abuser to stop.

Reactions in the Cain matter exemplify the problem. It's no surprise that the 1990s charges that became public recently have been fodder for late-night comics. Still the exchange on Jimmy Kimmel Live! between Kimmel and Cain showed a cavalier attitude toward such harassment that was somewhat jarring.

Cain, who has denied the charges, joked that his fundraising had improved since the charges became public. Kimmel asked if other candidates should hire people to charge them with sexual harassment. Cain said, "If they're smart they will."

An accuser who went public at a recent news conference, with high-profile lawyer Gloria Allred at her side, was not amused. Sharon Bialek, who said Cain touched her and tried to grope her, said in an interview on Good Morning America that "there is nothing funny about this." Allred added that Cain "is just adding insult to injury in trying to make this a joke."

But Allred was inappropriate too at the press conference when she made a sophomoric innuendo about Cain's alleged behavior, saying he delivered "his idea of a stimulus package."

Later, Cain's own high-profile lawyer ramped beyond jokes to threats. Libel lawyer Lin Wood warned that other women should "think twice" about making similar allegations.

Wood's words are the real subtext for sexual harassment in this country. Women, and men who've been harassed too, understand the score. You come forward with such charges at your own risk - not just risk to your livelihood but to your self-esteem. Better to just laugh it off and move on - to another job if necessary. And far too many harassment victims have - leaving the victimizer in place and free to harass others with impunity.

Yes, there have been false claims of sexual harassment. There's no doubt about that. Those people deserve scorn, derision and prosecution.

But the idea that sexual harassment is a made-up idea by people - primarily women - who want to make a fast buck through specious allegations is poppycock. It's no fun being sexually harassed or in telling about it.

Yet many commentators have used the Cain matter as an opportunity to promulgate the view of sexual harassment victims as predators. Some can spout such ideas to influential or large audiences. The National Review's John Derbyshire asked recently in a column "Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing?" Former U.S. senator, Republican presidential candidate and actor Fred Thompson chimed in that sexual harassment is a scam. Radio host Laura Ingraham opined snidely that "it always ends up being an employee who can't perform or who under-performs and is looking for a little green."

Words like theirs are maddening to those of us who've been victimized by unwanted touches or sexual innuendoes and chatter on the job. And there are many of us. Studies show at least one in 10 women have been sexually harassed on the job. And whether a victim reports harassment or not, the impact can be profound. Besides facing loss of job and income, victims often exhibit decreased work or school performance, increased absenteeism, stress that causes health problems, ostracism and humiliation at work and oftentimes a tainted reputation.

Whatever the truth is in the Herman Cain case, sexual harassment allegations deserve better treatment than being the butt of jokes. True victims need to be supported in coming forward, not derided. Harassers need to be stopped, not cheered.