Opinion | How Cuomo is exploiting public confusion over the definition of sexual harassment

As a legal matter, the sexualized definition of harassment most commonly provided and publicized is over 20 years out of date.

Reporters finally had a chance this week to ask New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo about “all the groping, the sexual harassment” that current and former staffers have alleged in recent months. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” Cuomo insisted, despite having apologized in March for “acting in a way that made people feel uncomfortable." He also denied even engaging in the underlying acts several women have reported.

How can all these claims be true?

Cuomo seems to be following the tried-and-true playbook used by powerful men accused of sexual harassment throughout modern history: deny and obfuscate. Use your public stature to reinforce a flat denial of sexual assault or other unwanted sexual advances. And seize on definitional ambiguity to deny that any other actions “that made people feel uncomfortable” count as sexual harassment.

A lawyer for Cuomo has defended the governor’s unsolicited kisses and “ciao bellas” by saying that he’s not a sexual harasser — he’s just “old-fashioned.” But what’s actually old-fashioned, and obsolete, is the definition of sexual harassment used by many popular media outlets and workplace harassment trainings where most people get their understanding of what sexual harassment is. For decades, legal cases have made clear that sexual harassment includes sexist insults and gendered demands, not just sexualized advances. But most people get their understanding of sexual harassment from the stories told in the news and at work, not from esoteric legal sources. Cuomo is taking advantage of people’s confusion about the nature of the problem — and what needs to be done about it.

Take the news media. Even The New York Times has promoted an overly narrow sexualized conception of sexual harassment in its reporting, as we explained in a 2019 article. In 2017, the Times helped ignite the #MeToo movement with its Pulitzer prize-winning reporting on alleged harassers like Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly. The coverage followed a familiar pattern: A powerful man in an influential field is accused of making unwanted sexual advances with women whose careers depend on him. The harassment is top-down, male-to-female, and, most important, sexualized. The Times even defines sexual harassment this way, as “a range of behaviors that are sexual in nature and nonconsensual.” Most other media outlets have viewed and covered sexual harassment in a similar way.

So, too, have employer policies and training programs, the sources designed to inform people about their rights. More Americans probably receive training on sexual harassment than any other legal topic, except perhaps drivers’ education. Yet, a comprehensive survey one of us conducted many years ago found that, without exception, employer policies defined harassment exclusively as unwelcome sexual advances and other sexual conduct, including sexual jokes and remarks. A more recent study found that little had changed. In an extensive analysis of sexual harassment trainings up to 2016, the vast majority of companies continued to define harassment in purely sexual terms.

As a legal matter, the sexualized definition of harassment contained in these everyday sources is over 20 years out of date. Worse, this definition leaves out most of the harassment women (and others) actually face on the job. Study after study shows that most harassment doesn’t involve sexual advances or coercion. More often, harassment involves nonsexualized acts that demean, exclude, sabotage, assault or otherwise mark women as unwelcome, incompetent, insignificant or just “different,” because of their sex. Sexist put-downs are more common, and just as illegal, as sexual come-ons.

The Supreme Court recognized this broader conception of sexual harassment as far back as 1998, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia involving a man harassed by his male co-workers on an oil rig. The court ruled that “sexual harassment” doesn’t have to be sexual in motivation or content to constitute unlawful workplace sex discrimination; the misconduct simply has to occur “because of sex.” So, harassment rooted in stereotypes about what constitutes proper work or behavior for men or women violates the law, just like male-female sexual advances. Gay men and others seen as not “man enough,” like women who take on traditionally male jobs or in other ways don’t keep to what some see as “their place,” frequently are harassed in both nonsexual and sexualized ways, more often by their co-workers than their bosses. The conduct is legally considered sexual harassment nonetheless.

But what does this have to do with Cuomo? Former aides have accused him of unwanted kissing and touching, ogling and commenting on their appearance, asking about their sex lives, and otherwise suggesting he wants to have sex with them. So, the allegations against him fall squarely within the popular understanding: A powerful man makes unwanted sexual advances toward the women who work for him. No need for a clearer or expanded definition, right?

Wrong. If we focus solely on sexual advances and misconduct, we fail to see that these behaviors are typically part of a broader pattern of sex-based and generalized harassment, and often other abuses of power, too. We also fail to see the deeper motivations behind the abuse and the institutional structures that enable it. For even when it does consist of gross sexual advances, sexual harassment is less about securing sexual gratification than it is about enacting a sense of macho authority and superiority over working women and others. It’s a way of reinforcing gender hierarchy.

We saw this with Harvey Weinstein, where media coverage that focused on his awful sexual transgressions obscured the fact that he wasn’t just a sexual predator. According to the New York attorney general, he was also engaged in a gross pattern of sexual and nonsexualized harassment against female and gay male employees, alongside misuse of corporate resources. Tying it all together was an outsize sense of entitlement, enabled by an industry and institutional position that gave Weinstein unchecked discretion to make or break other people’s careers and lives. And a sense of impunity about flatly (and in Weinstein’s case, falsely) denying the allegations, like other powerful harassers before him.

So too with Cuomo. Instead of debating how many uninvited gropes or lewd advances it takes to establish a sexual harassment claim, we need to see these stories within a larger pattern of reported verbal abuse, gendered dress codes, demeaning nicknames and threats of career-ending ruin, both by Cuomo and by others in his orbit. All are part of Cuomo’s projection of patriarchal power and authority. And it all constitutes sexual harassment, under the law, whether it fits the narrow popularized definition or not.

Ultimately, no one should be surprised that Cuomo, like so many other powerful alleged sexual harassers before him, has also been accused of broader misconduct, including lying about the death toll in New York’s nursing homes and using campaign money to promote his book. Research shows that the more unfettered the institutional power that bosses and leaders are given, the freer they feel to lord it over others and use it in abusive ways. To end sexual harassment and abuse, then, we can’t just remove individual harassers. We have to remake the structural positions they occupy, constraining unnecessary, arbitrary discretion and imposing public accountability. Properly understanding sexual harassment is just the necessary first step.