Andrew Cuomo has, at long last, announced his resignation from the position of Governor of New York, amid scandalous revelations about his sexually motivated abuse of at least eleven of the women in his employ. As recently as one day before the announcement, after the nation got to hear the fact findings regarding Cuomo’s abusive behavior, the governor showed no shame and no remorse and denied the allegations against him, stating that “simply put, they heard things that I just didn’t say.” Though Cuomo may have abused more women than the typical inspiration for a #MeToo allegation, his reaction and the expectations he appeared to have were all too familiar. In this column, I will examine the structure of allegations of gendered misconduct (including sexual harassment and assault as well as gender-based hostility or violence). It is a structure that calls for more women engaging with the #MeToo movement.
Everyone Is Terrified?
In the film “Promising Young Woman,” which I reviewed here, we hear some of the common refrains of those who believe the #MeToo movement has gone too far. One character insists that “[i]t’s every man’s nightmare getting accused like that.” Cassie, the heroine of the film, replies, “Can you guess what a woman’s worst nightmare is?” Although some men might imagine that a false sex-assault allegation is just around the corner, the reality of sexual abuse is that it happens far too often (though I suspect a small minority of men are, like Cuomo, repeat perpetrators), and false claims as a serious threat to male innocence are in fact rather unusual. In the contest between “he said” and “she said,” in other words, there is good reason to dismiss the former (because everyone accused of misconduct is highly motivated to deny it) and to credit the latter (because accusers do not systematically benefit from inventing attacks that never took place).
If you believe what I would call the “he said, she said” myth, consider whether you would bring the same skepticism to other eyewitnesses to a crime where the alleged perpetrator was a stranger to the alleged victim. One rarely hears an armed robbery case described as a “he said, she said.” If you are a man and you have not and will not engage in sexual harassment or misconduct or domestic violence, you need not identify with accused perpetrators. Indeed, publicly identifying with them makes you look suspicious to women, so you might think about that reality when you proudly declare your belief in “he said, she said.” Identify instead with the complainant who is very likely to be telling the truth despite the “cautionary instruction” that used to require judges to tell juries in this country how easy it is for women to lie about rape and thereby condemn innocent men. Anyone can in theory lie about any accusation, but it was this one in particular that officially invited such skepticism.
The Anti-Women Three Step
Cuomo’s initial reaction to the many accusations he faced was a perfect example of what men typically say when someone comes forward to accuse them of gender-based misconduct such as rape. He insisted that he was innocent (surprise!). He added that he did not say what the women heard. That formulation, though it sounds vaguely validating, in fact accuses his accusers of being crazy. If a person hears things that no other person said, then the person hearing the things has lost her grip on reality and may be hallucinating. Men called out for sexual misconduct often try to tar their accusers with the “crazy” label: it allows abusers to simultaneously discredit their accusers while seeming to feel sympathy for the poor, mentally-ill women. One can only hope that this strategy will prove increasingly futile, as it did for Cuomo.
The third step in the trio is to minimize and trivialize what one has done by selectively referring to the less egregious of one’s actions (I kiss everyone! “I kiss their cheeks and foreheads! I kiss people on the street! Men and women!). Taken together, the three-step goes like this: I am innocent of the misconduct that the women here accuse me of; the women making the accusations are crazy [fill in the plural misogynist expletive]; the women are also oversensitive, making a big fuss over some simple affection that I express toward men and women, friends and strangers alike. The day before he announced his resignation, it was clear that Cuomo, who seemed not at all ashamed of himself, believed that what he said would work.
Why It Didn’t Work
Someone far better than Cuomo at reading a room must have told him that it was over, that he would certainly be impeached and removed from office if he did not take the opportunity to resign of his own volition. There is a long and proud tradition of miscreants “resigning” from their jobs from which they would otherwise have been fired. In comedy, it is known as “You can’t fire me! I quit!” The reason that Cuomo had to give up his post is that it was not one woman who brought accusations against him but eleven. In Evidence law, there is a principle known as the Doctrine of Chances. It holds that when something that could be an accident keeps happening over and over, the odds that any one of the events is an accident drop dramatically. The example I like to give students is to imagine that you go to dinner with a new friend. The check comes, and your friend feels for his wallet and then says “Oh no; I must have left my wallet at home. It’s on me next time!” You pay and barely think about the transaction. Then, the next time you go to dinner with this friend, the check shows up and again, your friend frisks himself and shakes his head. “I can’t believe I forgot my wallet again!” You cannot believe it either. Indeed, you no longer believe that he forgot it the first time. The accident hypothesis looks less persuasive for both occasions than the deliberate freeloader hypothesis.
The same is true when more than one person accuses someone like Cuomo of sexual misconduct. Each additional voice suggests that all accusers are telling the truth. We have corroboration even though it is not the conventional sort of corroboration in which a party adduces additional direct evidence of the one particular event. If eleven women say that Cuomo abused them, then the hypothesis that he abused all of them looks far more plausible than the hypothesis that all of them are lying, crazy, or making a big deal out of nothing. That Cuomo thought otherwise shows how shockingly successful the three-step often is.
It should not take eleven women to persuade people (including the perpetrator) that the jig is up. Most of the time, women have no reason to lie about sexual abuse, Gone Girl and other works of fiction notwithstanding. It is not prestigious to be a rape victim or a groping victim or the victim of other gender-based aggression through word or deed. In fact, although the law technically prohibits employers from retaliating against a whistleblower, people who bring complaints continue to attract the suspicion that ought to attach to their abusers. And do abuse victims suffer from mental health infirmities? I suspect that if they do, it is because of the abuse they suffered. Despite ubiquitous stereotypes, mental health conditions do not frequently lead anyone to make false accusations of sexual misconduct. And are women oversensitive? No. Indeed, women must have a thick skin to survive day to day in what can be extremely misogynistic environments. When they finally come forward to describe the abuse, their complaints may be just the tip of a very rotten iceberg. Even just one lone complaint could be all we see of a community of victims, waiting to find out what will happen to the canary in the coalmine.
Let me close by reiterating that most men do not engage in this kind of misconduct. And let me repeat that if they do not manifest gender-based aggression, they can relax about becoming the target of an accusation. The small number of men who victimize women tend to do it repeatedly unless and until someone puts a stop to it once and for all. We should be grateful for, and celebrate, the courageous women who act as Good Samaritans for the other women who have thus far been spared. We are well rid of Governor Cuomo, and no one innocent needs to worry that “there but for the grace of God go I.”