Earlier this week, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a damning report in which 11 women accuse New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment. In his videotaped defense, Cuomo suggested that his behavior was “cultural” and not gender-specific. He displayed photos of himself kissing the cheeks of other men, political figures and citizens as proof that his behavior is not predatory towards women. He even indicates that he learned it from his mother and father as behavior meant to convey “warmth.” What Cuomo fails to acknowledge is that culture, passed down by family or learned within community, is never an excuse to violate someone’s personhood rights. His proclaimed “gesture of warmth” could be received by someone as cold and repulsive. Worse still, Cuomo fails to address the more disturbing claims in the report. I am sure that if some strange man were accused of doing to his mother or his wife what he is accused to doing to numerous women, he would never pass it off as a gesture of warmth.
In one case, Cuomo claims he was seeking to provide help and support to one of the women who came forward and that his effort to help was misunderstood. This is an effort on his part to conflate and provide cover for behavior that can only be understood as reprehensible. What his sad defense brings forward is a telling lesson for anyone in authority, but, most especially men who are accustomed to being pardoned in their pursuit of patriarchal privilege. Claims of seeking to support a subordinate in their time of personal need are actually confessions of veiled forms of coercion. Claims of cultural tradition to excuse unwelcomed behavior and sexually inappropriate gestures do not evidence understanding of the dangers of sexual harassment and assault. Further, they weaponize culture and misuse culture for the purpose of abuse of power. No culture worthy of its name would validate sexual harassment. And any culture that did is an oppressive culture. Sexual harassment is unwelcomed attention, communication, behavior, gesture and touching. It does not require consummation. It does not require violence.
To state it without room for confusion, you do not have the right to impose your cultural traditions on others. Your behavior may be acceptable among others of your “group” (however that is defined or understood), but that never grants you permission or gives you the right to expect others to receive or welcome that behavior — even others who are in your group. As governor and attorney, Cuomo knows this better than most. The evidence that he threatened the women he is accused of harassing and others in the know further confirms his awareness that his behavior was unwelcome, inappropriate and illegal.
Yes, Cuomo must go. And this lesson needs to be drilled into any man or woman who would behave inappropriately toward others and shield themselves behind culture or family tradition. No one should be touched or spoken to in ways that expose them or exploit them or are otherwise dehumanizing or disrespectful of their identity and personhood. Period.