The More Difficult Conversation We Need to Have About Sexual Assault

Immediately after Leeann Tweeden came forward with the story about what Al Franken did to her on a USO tour back in 2006, the conversation turned to whether or not he should resign (or be forced to resign) from his Senate seat. Apparently he’s not going to do that right now. But I agree with what Rebecca Traister said on “Real Time” Friday night (4:47-6:06).

The question about punishment is driven by the media when something like this happens. The outcome is totally predictable: everyone goes into their partisan corners and we fight it out on those terms. Nothing really changes because everyone knows the script and easily slides into their position.

In order to truly tackle the way that the power differential between men and women plays out in the sexual arena, there is a much more difficult conversation we need to have. Here is how Traister talked about that:

It’s about the culture that empowers white men to abuse their power in a million ways, from villainous predators to the fact that there is a sense of humor that we all understand in this culture that if a woman’s asleep, it’s funny to gab her tits.

That is precisely why I highlighted the back-and-forth between Franken and Tweeden after this incident was exposed as a powerful case of restorative justice. The victim in the situation judged that the perpetrator had done some soul-searching and came to understand that what he’d done was wrong. He apologized and she accepted. Tweeden went on to say that this is how the culture begins to change.

That is a whole new kind of conversation that we’ve never had on this topic before. It’s complicated and not easy, especially given the fact that sexuality is still something most of us aren’t comfortable talking about.

The other thing Traister did in that short quote up above is that she alluded to the million ways that our culture enables men to abuse their power. She suggested a progression from the way it is embedded in a sense of humor to the actions of villainous predators. When divorced from political partisanship, we’ve typically been able to identify the behavior of villainous predators as wrong. As we scale back to the less obvious ways that power is abused, it becomes more difficult to identify, precisely because it is more embedded in our culture.

That is where the conversation becomes more challenging, because it requires listening and self-reflection. There are those who can’t identify what Franken did that was wrong and there are those who lump his behavior in with that of Roy Moore and simply want him punished. Neither of those responses allows for the kind of conversation that will be required for real cultural change.

One of the risks of not having this conversation is that we could very well be on the verge of a successful exploitation of this topic by political operatives. Immediately after I heard about the Franken story, I tweeted this:

Since Tweeden told her story, there has already been one attempt to pile onto Franken by a woman named Melanie Morgan. Luckily, her story was so lame that almost no one picked up on it. But Erin Gloria Ryan is right to be concerned.

I’ve been worried that we’re cruising toward the #MeToo moment’s trip wire, the point where a public’s over-credulity means that opportunists could exploit the movement and bring it all crashing down, worse off than before. And then stories of sexual misconduct will again be relegated to cocktail hours and DM’s—feminist ghost stories women share with each other with the knowledge that the demons that torment us still lurk in corner offices.

Brian Beutler explains how our media narratives are ripe for that kind of exploitation.

Unfolding against the backdrop of the post-Weinstein revolution, the Moore scandal exposes the conservative propaganda machine in the ugliest and most discrediting possible fashion. But these cultural changes are all but destined to collide with one another in the opposite direction, in a way that exploits both the beneficence of the “believe women” campaign, and the even-handedness of the mainstream media. It is a collision we as a political culture are not equipped to handle, the consequences of which are almost too awful to contemplate.

We’ve seen how Steve Bannon played the mainstream media on the Clinton Cash lies. Anyone who thinks he (and others) won’t exploit this situation in an attempt to destroy their enemies wasn’t paying attention when Bannon rounded up Bill Clinton’s victims for a pre-debate press conference after the Access Hollywood tape emerged to discredit Trump.

What will be required going forward is that we avoid a knee-jerk emotional reaction (either defensive of condemning) to allegations in the future. Instead, a thoughtful response that is willing to err on the side of believing the victims, but also weighs the evidence carefully will be required. When stories are credible, having the maturity to engage in the kind of conversation Traister was referring to is the only way to move forward in the direction of cultural change.

None of that will be easy and, frankly, I agree with Beutler that our political and media culture are not equipped to handle it. So as I tweeted, we’re probably in for a bumpy ride.

One of the things that I can promise you is that those of us here at the Washington Monthly are committed to a thoughtful response and the difficult conversation. I hope that we can be a reference point for you during the bumpy ride ahead.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.