In the past week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been accused by three young women of sexual harassment or unwanted sexual contact, accusations that have engulfed his already beleaguered administration. While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as well as advocacy groups have called for an investigation into the accusations, and in some cases for his resignation, others, including Cuomo himself, have minimized the claims.
The accusations range from unwanted kissing to asking an employee about her sex life to soliciting a former aide to play "strip poker."
The governor said in a statement that "sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny." On Twitter, some users suggested the governor's behavior was "not a big deal." Some of Cuomo's conservative critics expressed disbelief his alleged mistreatment of women could cause so much damage. Commentator Matt Walsh said "He’s accused of flirting with a few women and that’s what takes him down. Incredible."
The accusations against Cuomo should be taken seriously, sexual violence experts say, and the tendency to minimize the behaviors he's been accused of show how normalized they've become. A 2018 survey found 81 percent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime and research shows workplace sexual harassment is widespread.
The problem with minimizing certain kinds of sexual violence
When people minimize these kind of behaviors, they minimize impact. Without recognizing impact, experts say, culture cannot change.
"Minimization fits the larger myth that women often exaggerate claims of sexual harassment and make 'mountains out of molehills,'" said Lilia Cortina, a professor of psychology and women's studies at the University of Michigan who researches women's victimization at work.
"We know from research that myths specific to sexual harassment serve two aims: denial and justification. That is, some myths deny that any wrongdoing has transpired, often by questioning the veracity of victim reports. ... When denial becomes impossible, myths justify sexual harassment, in many cases by blaming the victim."
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