Bil Straub: It’s about time to talk about sexual harassment; but not all instances are the same

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WASHINGTON – I just informed my glorious wife that, with Thanksgiving upon us, I would rather suffer through a barium enema than write the column that follows. But the odious subject of sexual harassment/abuse, and the new public standards for judging such crude and loutish behavior that appear to be falling into place, simply cannot be ignored.

Why the dread? Because no matter how heartfelt one might prove in expressing support for taking these incidents more seriously, removing barriers that have subjugated women and immobilized them for centuries, leaving too many bruised and battered, one step off the reservation likely will lead to claims of misogyny or – perhaps my least favorite word in the Queen’s English – mansplaining, thus alienating those who don’t deserve to feel alienated.

But what the hell.

It seems appropriate to approach a touchy subject by invoking Kentucky, which has a long, unfortunate history that could accurately render the Commonwealth as ground zero for sexual harassment and abuse on the political and governmental levels. Evidence gathered during the BOPTROT investigation back in the early ‘90s revealed, for instance, that the office of then-House Speaker Don Blandford, a Philpot Democrat, operated pretty much like a cathouse for a lengthy period of time before it all came crashing down by way of federal indictments.

A few years later Kent Downey, a longtime legislative aid, pled guilty to federal charges for promoting prostitution out of his Capitol office. Among other things he organized golf outings attended by lawmakers that featured hostesses in skimpy attire who would, with proper inducement, engage in sexual activity.

In 2013, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting learned that two employees with the Legislative Research Commission accused then-Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, of inappropriate touching and making lewd and vulgar comments to them on multiple occasions. The pair sued the LRC for covering up Arnold’s activities, reaching a settlement in 2015.

And it continues to this day. Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, was recently forced to step down as House Speaker, while maintaining his legislative seat, for dispatching what has been described as inappropriate text messages to a member of his staff. At least three other lawmakers joined Hoover in settling a sexual harassment complaint.

And lest we forget, a former girlfriend of U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Tompkinsville, maintained that he was physically and mentally abusive during the course of a two-year relationship she characterized as “toxic, abusive and caused me a lot of suffering.’’

That accusation, denied by Comer, came during his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2015. He was elected to Congress from the First District the following year.

So these unfortunate antics have been going on for a while. But it now appears the public’s willingness to abide such doings has reached a saturation point. It seems, quite suddenly, that a whole lot of people, primarily women, many of whom have been victimized, are finally saying enough is enough and anyone stepping over the line merits all the opprobrium that can be mustered.

It’s about time.

Over the years many women’s lives have been ruined by unwanted sexual come-ons, including rape, that have virtually been ignored by an uninterested public. Women have been abused, degraded and victimized and there’s a new determination to put a stop to it.

Some of the stories now coming out, involving folks like entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K. and even newsman Charlie Rose are way beyond the pale, and any condemnation aimed in their direction is warranted. In some instances men have used their power over women, threatening loss of livelihood if they failed to succumb.

All that is unacceptable now and should have been unacceptable then. Because they would either be shunned or disbelieved, many women opted not to speak when they experienced a sexual assault. The “MeToo” campaign has led to many of those women finding their voice, bringing such abuse to the forefront.

There’s also new interest in men who literally prey on women. Roy Moore, running as the Republican candidate for an open U.S. Senate seat, was reportedly banned from a mall in Alabama because, as a man in his thirties, he constantly made unwanted advances on teenage girls. The president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, has openly bragged about grabbing women in their genitals without invitation.

“I don’t even wait,’’ he said in a taped conversation. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.’’

Trump made his lewd comments shortly before the November election in 2016. If the remarks cost him dearly, it didn’t show up in the election results. Now, a year later, all sorts of activities are under the microscope and drawing, appropriately, near universal censure.

(Now for the mansplaining.)

But instances of sexual harassment/abuse are not all the same. Calling for the figurative death penalty in each instance without considering the severity or the changing attitudes that launched this necessary pushback isn’t justice and may simply result in revenge.

Times are changing. Things played for laughs just a few years ago now appear out of bounds. Sarah Silverman, the great comedian, used a line in her routine, “I was raped by a doctor. Which is, you know, so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” Now she tells The Guardian of London that “There are jokes I made 15 years ago that I would absolutely not make today, because I am less ignorant than I was.’’

Women who have been harassed in the past are maintaining that their claims must not only be taken seriously but that those making the accusation should always be granted the benefit of the doubt. There’s some logic in that – those making such assertions rarely have ulterior motives. But it would be nice, as Reagan used to say, to “trust but verify.’’ If someone is going to make a serious charge that ultimately could ruin an individual’s reputation or life, it might be nice to have a little something to back it up. It may happen only rarely, but justice isn’t served if no consideration is given to the possibility that an accusation is made on a mistaken premise or personal agenda.

There are, have been and will continue to be a grey area between what constitutes sexual assault and a clumsy pass. But at least the issue appears to be moving in the proper direction.

Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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2 Comments

  1. H. Seiler says:

    Good article, but where do we draw the line re level of severity? At the donut shop this morning, a customer commented that a lot of the women making accusations were out to make money. I responded that might sometimes be the case, but too many men in positions of [comparative] power thought they were entitled to a free pass or free pat. The lives and careers of many young women were derailed or ruined.

  2. G. Adams says:

    Perhaps it should also be mentioned that the same act by the same man at the same point in history may well have entirely different effects on different women.

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