These sexual harassment scandals are giving me déjà vu

Why should a man’s political affiliation determine how swiftly he is judged in the court of public opinion and terminated from his job?

Sen. Al Franken

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

What happens when someone you love is accused of sexual harassment? While fans may feel that way about Kevin Spacey, Al Franken, Matt Lauer and, gulp, Garrison Keillor, I had a stickier situation.

When I was in grad school at Temple, I had an affair with an instructor in my department. I didn’t think of it as an abuse of power because: A) I wasn’t in his class; B) we were consenting adults in our 30s; and C) the sex was off the charts. However, several months into our torrid relationship, he asked, “You didn’t sign the petition, did you?”

“Uh, no. What petition?” I asked, sitting up in bed.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one indulging in extracurricular activities between his sheets. The amorous professor had bedded so many of his undergrad class, they were circulating a petition demanding his termination. While assuring him that I wasn’t a signatory, I felt a strange mixture of disgust and disbelief. It’s one thing to find out there’s another woman. It’s quite another to find out there’s a grievance committee. I never saw him again.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

That was back in the early 1980s when institutions had a vested interest in sweeping such issues under the rug. Sure it happened. But you never heard about it while grabbing your morning coffee. Now, as politicians, actors, and journalists are accused of sexual harassment, stripped of their jobs and metaphorically flogged in the media, I am experiencing varying degrees of déjà vu. Men I admire are going down fast and furious. Goodbye Kevin Spacey and Charlie Rose. Oh, Matt Lauer, not you too! Garrison Keillor? The mind reels. (Does the fact that I binge-watched House of Cards make me an enabler?)

The political fault lines are clear. Our president is now claiming that his lascivious remarks recorded by Access Hollywood microphones were fake news. (Apparently, what he was grabbing was Putin.) Senate candidate Roy Moore’s stalking of underage girls? Just a Good Ol’ Boy being attacked by the liberal media. No one loses his status, power or income.

Meanwhile, Democrats head straight to the chopping block. While I am not excusing their alleged behaviors, I am questioning why a man’s political affiliations should determine how swiftly he is judged in the court of public opinion and terminated from his job. Hard to believe, but there are conservatives still chafing at the bit to retry the Clinton-Lewinsky Affair.

With this in mind, I await Al Franken’s ethics investigation with glee. While Republicans categorically deny their accusers, Franken says, “Bring it on,” potentially opening the floodgates to launch ethics investigations into behaviors on the other side of the aisle, going all the way up to the harasser-in-chief.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

I am concerned that accusations of sexual misconduct are a new form of voter suppression and gerrymandering. While both sides of the aisle might be guilty, with GOP control of the House, Senate and Oval Office, I suspect that cries of “lock him up!” will be aimed at Democrats while Republicans continue to duck and cover.

Ultimately, I hope this current focus on sexual misconduct leads to more than public shaming, job loss, and a deepening of the political divide. I hope it leads to clarification of acceptable versus actionable behaviors and inappropriate versus criminal. Contrary to the old song, a kiss isn’t just a kiss anymore.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal