Sexual misconduct? Say it’s not so! When U.S. Sen. Al Franken and then Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor were outed for sexual misconduct in November 2017 by new accusers, my inner lioness roared, “No! It can’t be!” I wanted to race into the fray, snatch them out of danger. Me. The Zero Tolerance woman, the “Kick’em in the nuts” gal.
“These men are different!” I wanted to shout. “And these are ‘lesser’ offenses. And where’s our good old American due process? And . . .” In short, it was bound to happen: Someone I hold in high regard would get caught up in the sexual misconduct feeding frenzy of #MeToo. It pulled me up short. Should everyone be judged by the same standards – or are criminal, immoral, and raunchy really different from one another? How do we judge?
But I didn’t know whether these men were actually different, not for a fact. In addition, I hadn’t objected to the summary dismissals of the many accused men who had preceded them. My discomfort around these new accusations grew after The Washington Post revealed an organization that tried to run a sting operation by planting a fake story about Roy Moore that could then be used to embarrass the newspaper.
So, how can we tell what’s true and right and what’s not? Or what’s criminal and what’s “merely” immoral, or in bad taste, or just plain stupid? And where does raunchy fit? Should we establish different standards for different types of sexual misconduct?
But if we hesitate, if we wait for the slow grind of justice, does that leave the predators free to prey on other women? Shouldn’t we hold our public officials and our media to a higher standard? Shouldn’t we work quickly to protect young girls from child molesters? What if the sexual misconduct was a one-off . . . or happened decades ago? My head spins with questions.
Judging Sexual Misconduct: Balancing Protection and Fairness
In the end, I conclude, not all sexual misconduct offenses are equal. Nor should we apply the same remedies to all who commit them. Still, we need to act quickly: We must interrupt their predatory behavior.
But nowadays, my more cautious self has ginned up what I think of as an “outrage scale” – a set of filters that help me judge whether to be outraged – and how much – as each new set of sexual misconduct allegations comes up.
So these are my preliminary thoughts. Readers are invited to contribute their own ideas – and, if you wish, assign weights according to the seriousness of the offense. For my purposes, these factors give me a way to talk about sexual offense. It would be interesting to see whether we would have generational differences about what amounts to sexual misconduct – though we all would probably agree that it has been around for centuries. Nevertheless, we would probably conclude that mores about what is “normal” have changed over the years. The next section lists a number of factors I would consider in evaluating a case of sexual misconduct – and the perpetrator.
First Cut at a “Sexual Misconduct Outrage Scale”
- Offensiveness. Was the act illegal, immoral, nasty, bad manners, or just “wrong” enough to make a woman or girl uncomfortable?
- Injury. Was it physical, verbal, emotional, or financial? Did it involve threats, bullying, sex talk, stalking, or financial loss? Was the victim exposed to pornography, naked body parts, or other lewdness?
- Numbers of victims. How many victims have come forward with their stories? What pattern emerges over time?
- Victims’ ages and physical or mental capabilities. Were any victims under-age, elderly, physically or mentally disabled, and if so, how many?
- Power imbalance. Was the perpetrator an employer, supervisor, boss, client, adviser, law enforcement officer, or in some other position of power over the victim?
- Location. Did the incident(s) occur in a school, church, office, public park, home, jail?
- Aggravating circumstances. Did the perpetrator use force, kidnap the victim, make threats against the victim if she/he tells anyone?
- Perpetrator’s response. Did he deny the accusation(s), destroy evidence, verbally attack, humiliate, or threaten the victim, sue, enter a settlement agreement and require a non-disclosure requirement?
Hypocrisy. Was the perpetrator in a position of religious or community or medical or legal trust? What has the perpetrator said publicly – in the media, in the locker room, from the pulpit, from an elected office – about his or other people’s sexual misconduct? Has he apologized to the victim, made a real apology that takes responsibility for his actions? What has he done to make things right for the victim and for other people who have trusted him?
- When did the offense occur? Was it prior to 1950, the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, or more recently? Have social mores around sexual misconduct changed over time? Does it matter? If so, how?
Figured out your Outrage? Now What?
Take a deep breath. It’s time to stop decrying sexual offenders: Let’s confront them. What would you say to your perpetrator? See my answer in my next blog. – Ann Marshall
Watch for my next blog: #MeToo-5:Sexual Offense? Let’s Arm Ourselves
Check my previous blog: #YouToo? Sexual Assault: What We Must Do