We've Got to Decide How to Treat Accusations of Sexual Misconduct

We've Got to Decide How to Treat Accusations of Sexual Misconduct

Since the emergence of accusations alleging repeated assault and sexual misconduct of Hollywood megaproducer and film-executive Harvey Weinstein, a steady stream of women have come out with accusations of various forms of sexual assault, misconduct, or harassment against men in positions of power. Some of those accused include actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis CK, producer Brett Ratner, NPR Vice President Michael Oreskes, political commentator Mark Halperin, former President George H.W. Bush, and most controversially, GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore and US Senator Al Franken (D-MN).

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After the President aggressively attacked Al Franken on the basis of recent allegations, debate resurfaced over then-candidate Trump's own sexual misconduct scandals, including an Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about sexual assaulting various women and his response to the 17 women who alleged similar conduct after the release of the tape. In turn, debate was revived over the Left's attempts to ignore allegations of sexual assault against former President Bill Clinton. Notably, the vast majority of accusations against these figures of interest have been credible and true, though a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll shows that voters are less likely to believe accusations against predators from their own political party or cultural base. 

Everyone can agree that sexual assault and harassment are morally reprehensible acts, and  they usually indicate a person's propensity to utilize their position of power to take advantage of others. But when it comes to repercussions for uncovered sexual assault or harassment, how to punish the perpetrators remains a question of critical importance. It extends to our political sphere--we must decide whether our political beliefs are more critical than our personal ethic--as well as private workplaces, college campuses, and churches. 

And because a decent number of those accused have denied the allegations against them (Roy Moore, George Takei, Jeremy Piven, President Trump, etc.), as well as the serious repercussions that can come with allegations of sexual misconduct, we must also decide how we determine which claims are verifiable, and how severely we should punish someone based off of allegations which have not been proven in a court of law.

There is a fundamental tension in this issue. On one hand, accusing someone who has (or had) power over you is an incredibly difficult thing to do for a variety of reasons, and attempts to discredit accusers often suppress the accounts of others who have experienced sexual assault or harassment. For this reason, most widely publicized claims of sexual misconduct have turned out to be true. But on the other hand, there are some instances in which erroneous or untrue allegations have caused serious damage to institutions and persons without cause, before they were proven in a court of law.

The line is often blurred, and although I believe that the "preponderance of evidence" standard from title IX is often used poorly, elected officials or those running for office ought to resign or end their campaigns upon the emergence of credible, corroborated evidence (photographs, multiple verifiable sources, recordings). This standard applies to Al Franken and Roy Moore. In both of their cases, it is the inertia of their position which makes their departure unlikely--Franken is a rising-star US Senator during a controversial period in American politics,  Moore is his party's nominee for a crucial Senate seat with an election fast approaching, and both are difficult to replace. But it doesn't matter. Both men are where they are because voters made a decision before they knew the whole picture. If they wish to run again, they should be able to do so, and it is then up to voters to decide upon their fate. 

And we should demand the same of others in positions of power, whether they be Harvey Weinstein, a predatory teacher, or a manager at CVS: a record of sexual harassment and/or assault should always disqualify someone from serving in a position of power, provided that the accusations against them are credible. Just because we presume someone legally innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, doesn't mean we should ignore verifiable accusations against them until legal proceedings are complete. 

This much seems clear to me, but I don't wish to oversimplify the issue. Louis C.K. is a great comedian, Woody Allen made some great movies, and Thomas Jefferson had some pretty good ideas about government -- this basic problem has existed for centuries and will continue to be difficult. It's hard to know if we can admire someone's work the same way when we consider their moral transgressions, even though we often choose to do so anyway. But the best we can do is make decisions based on the information we have and the institutions we can affect, and that means taking things at face value, and doing our best to decide what kind of people we want to represent us in positions of power. Not all sexual misconduct is the same, and differing types deserve different punishments, sometimes depending on the era in which they were committed, but all sexual misconduct is bad. And when it comes to elected officials specifically--people who we choose to represent us-- we have the special duty to hold them accountable. 

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