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Herman Cain Says Sexual Harassment is Just Women Not Understanding Jokes?

December 2, 2011
MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 16:  Republican President...

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Or, wait, maybe that was his cohort, Republican Senator Rand Paul. (Stellar, in office already…) Let’s just start out this discussion by saying that reps for  Herman Cain have paid settlements to two women for his sexual harassment tactics.  Let’s just say that these were not disputed as “just joking,” or as women not “getting jokes” (at their own expense, no doubt).  But then we can talk about how Herman Cain has brushed aside the settlements by stating that his problem with sexual harassment is really a woman’s problem, namely that they don’t “get his jokes”:

Sexual harassment is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is used either to create terms of employment (“quid pro quo” sexual harassment) or intimidate (“hostile work environment” sexual harassment).

A joke misunderstood, a come-on not reciprocated — this is not the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission’s definition of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is an abuse of power, a means of defining women and girls (or, less often, men and boys) as outsiders, subordinate objects for the sexual pleasure of those in power, typically men.

Departing from defined provisions within law, Mr. Cain has suggested that sexual harassment originates in the eye of the beholder. He would have us believe that sexual harassment is not defined by the actions of the perpetrator, but rather by women who are particularly sensitive or sexually unavailable. In so doing, he has led a chorus of right-wing politicians and commentators in suggesting that sexual harassment is a myth that has made it impossible to tell jokes in a co-ed environment (Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY.), could be solved by having women wear burqas to work (Rush Limbaugh) or, perhaps most confusing, as a concept disrespects the strength, power and creativity women bring to the workplace (Katie Roiphe).

In short, we have been hearing that sexual availability defines women, and it’s up to women to manage their sexuality on behalf of everyone around them (sounds like an extra job, compounding the injustice of longstanding wage gaps). There are two words for this: sex discrimination.

Sex discrimination in the workplace is often dismissed as part of the natural order. Men are paid more because they work hard. Women are passed over for promotions because they’re too busy trying to juggle their careers with their personal lives. That’s why men wield the lion’s share of control over the means of production — at work, within the payroll, in public life. Or so the story goes.

Which brings us back to Mr. Cain and the sexual harassment allegations. We don’t know if they are true, but we do know Mr. Cain’s campaign has handled them by issuing a full-on assault on women in public life. Mr. Cain’s lawyer issued a threat for women to “think twice” before coming forward with more allegations. The two women with names made public have been openly smeared with allegations they are unstable, unable to hold a steady job, incompetent in the management of their finances, subject to paternity disputes. Even as Mr. Cain was protesting that he didn’t know Sharon Bialek, his campaign was emailing a smear with her name on it around the country.

We also know that Mr. Cain refers to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as “Princess Nancy.” In the last week, he has taken the time to crack a joke about Anita Hill, who knows a thing or two about the chorus that surrounds a man in power accused of abusing that power in private, and how harshly a woman can be excoriated for telling her story to the public.

What this country does not need is another case of a man in a supreme power position denigrating women as “princesses,” or as “unable to take jokes,” when men make unwelcome sexual advances and then threatening them for telling people when it happens. Guess according to Cain, only “husbandless women” are vulnerable to forms of sexual harassment.  With a track record like that, Ms. Cain may be the next in line–watch out Herman Cain because not even wives like abuse…

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