Commentary Politics

Herman Cain and School Kids: New Research and New Allegations Show Us that Sexual Harassment Is Still a Problem

Martha Kempner

As the nation tries to decide what to make of allegations of sexual harassment against Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain, a new study was released showing that 48 percent of middle school and high school students experience sexual harassment in school.  Clearly, we still have a long way to go on this issue. 

At five o’clock this evening, Republican Presidential Hopeful Herman Cain held a press conference to directly address the allegations of sexual harassment that have been piling up against him in recent weeks. “I chose to address the accusations directly rather than in a series of continuous statements or spokespeople because that’s the kind of person Herman Cain is,” the candidate said as he began to address the press (frequently in the third person).  Of course, this isn’t the kind of person Herman Cain was two weeks ago when the claims of sexual harassment first surfaced in a story on Politico. 

At the end of October, the website reported that during Cain’s tenure as head of the National Restaurant Association, “at least two female employees complained to colleagues and senior association officials about inappropriate behavior by Cain.”  The article explained that the complaints had ended with the women receiving monetary settlements and leaving their jobs. According to Politico, in the days leading up to the story, the Cain team: “repeatedly declined to respond directly about whether he ever faced allegations of sexual harassment at the restaurant association.”  

As the weeks went on and the story gained momentum – with a third woman telling the Associated Press that she too had been harassed but had not filed a complaint – the Cain team seemed to settle on a series of talking points: the candidate didn’t have to respond to anonymous allegations; he only vaguely remembered something about the settlements but they had been handled by the association’s lawyers and he didn’t know the details, and the liberal media was clearly behind this story.  

While they stuck close to their talking points, some of the interviews that Cain gave seemed a little confused.  NPR described the candidate as giving “evolving accounts about his knowledge of the complaints and settlements.”  In one interview, he said that he was not aware of a settlement and then clarified, when the host seemed surprised that as the head of the organization he wouldn’t know anything about it, “I was aware of an agreement but not a settlement.” He went on to say that, “if they did settle, I hope it wasn’t for much because I did nothing wrong.”  In other interviews he suggested that the incidents in question (the same ones he couldn’t remember) were benign in nature and “that the women who complained about his behavior didn’t understand his brand of humor.”

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Then on Monday, a fourth woman came forward.  Not only did she have a name and a face, her story was about harassment of a different nature – she alleged that Cain had groped her and suggested she exchange sex for a job. Sharon Bialek, said in a televised press conference that she met with Cain in 1997 to ask for help getting a job.  After dinner and drinks, she claims that Cain “stuck his hand up her skirt and tried to pull her head toward his crotch.” 

“I said, ‘What are you doing?'” alleged Bialek… “You know I have a boyfriend. This isn’t what I came here for.”

According to Bialek, Cain answered, “You want a job, right?”

Many pundits agreed that this could potentially change everything because the woman herself was making the rounds of talk shows (along with her high-profile attorney, Gloria Allred, who seems to represent all women during their 15-minutes of sex-scandal-related fame) and the claims were harder to laugh off as misinterpreted jokes.  So, Cain called his press conference for this evening and went on Jimmy Kimmel Live last night where he promised he never sexually harassed anyone, claimed that there was no truth to Bialek’s story whatsoever, and quipped that he couldn’t imagine what he would have hired her for anyhow. 

As I waited to see if Herman Cain would say anything other than the 2011 version of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” I decided to read a new study out this month on sexual harassment. It focuses not on powerful men behaving badly in the political spotlight but on awkward teenagers doing the same in the cafeteria.

In its new publication, Crossing the Line; Sexual Harassment at School, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) analyzes the results of its survey that found that 48 percent of all 7th through 12th grade students have experienced some form of sexual harassment. 

Sexual Harassment in the Halls
Though the term sexual harassment was originally coined in 1979 to refer to behaviors that occurred in the workplace, it is now understood that this can happen at school as well. “In the school setting,” the report explains, “sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual behavior that interferes with a student’s educational opportunities.”  According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights:

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Thus, sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX can include conduct such as touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes, or gestures; writing graffiti or displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials; calling students sexually charged names; spreading sexual rumors; rating students on sexual activity or performance; or circulating, showing, or creating e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.

In one interview last week, Mr. Cain suggested that sexual harassment was “in the eye of the person who thinks maybe I crossed a line,” but in truth, today, there are very specific definitions of what constitutes harassment as well as specific protections against it.  When it comes to school, Title IX protects students from two types of sexual harassment. The first is “quid pro quo” which we all know translates into “this for that.”  This is what Bialek is accusing Cain of – in her case sex for a job.  When it happens in school it is usually an administrator or teacher who tries to coerce a student into sexual activity in exchange for a good grade or some other privilege, such as a spot on a team or a role in the school play. The vast majority of school-based harassment, however, falls into a category more similar to what Cain’s first three accusers reported. Called “hostile environment harassment,” it includes unwanted sexual conduct that “is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive” to “limit a student’s participation in an educational program or activity.” 

The survey, based on a nationally representative sample of 1,965 students, asked young people to share their experiences with both kinds of harassment either in person or on the internet. It defined sexual harassment for students as “as unwelcome sexual behavior,” enumerated possible experiences that students may have had, and reminded participants that “if everyone involved likes and agrees to the sexual behavior, it is not sexual harassment.” It found that 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys had experienced sexual harassment during the 2010‒11 school year.

When it comes to in person harassment, the survey found:

  • 33 percent of students had someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about them,
  • 18 percent of students were called gay or lesbian in a negative way,
  • 13 percent of students were shown sexy or sexual pictures that they didn’t want to see,
  • 8 percent of students were touched in an unwelcome sexual way,
  • 6 percent of students were physically intimidated in a sexual way,
  • 7 percent of students had someone flash or expose themselves to them, and
  • 2 percent of students were forced to do something sexual.

As for the internet:

  • 20 percent of students were sent unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or pictures or had someone post such things about or of them,
  • 17 percent of students had someone spread unwelcome sexual rumors about them, and
  • 12 percent of students were called lesbian or gay in a negative way.

Not surprisingly girls were more likely than boys to encounter most forms of sexual harassment.  For example, 46 percent of girls heard unwelcome sexual comments or jokes in person compared to 22 percent of boys, and 16 percent of girls were shown sexual pictures in person that they didn’t want to see compared to just 3 percent of boys.  (Interestingly, in the press conference, Mr. Cain made a point of how it was not always that women were sexually harassed by men, sometimes women sexually harassed men, and when he was an executive he didn’t tolerate that either.) 

The Impact on Students
Herman Cain’s accusers are now part of a national story whether they like it or not.  Woman Number 1 has been identified publicly as Karen Kraushaar, the communications director for the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration. Kraushaar has acknowledged through her lawyer that she did receive a monetary settlement and has said she does not wish to discuss the matter further:  “She and her husband see no value in revisiting this matter now, nor in discussing this matter further, publicly or privately. In fact, it would be extremely painful to do so.”  Of course, now that her name has been released, numerous articles have been written about her and we know, among other irrelevant things, that she’s an accomplished equestrian and that she has scoliosis (a curvature of the spine). 

Bialek, who chose to come forward to “force” the presidential contender to tell the truth, is faring poorly in the press. She’s been described as a “blonde bombshell” who has a history of bankruptcy and was once sued over an issue involving paternity issue.  (A combination of phrases which I can’t help but interpret as meaning “don’t believe her, she’s an irresponsible slut.”)  Rush Limbaugh, once again displaying his polish and tact, pointed out that her last named sounded a little like “Buy-a-Lick.” And in his press conference this evening Cain himself (who swears he has no recollection of her) referred to her as a “troubled woman” and insinuated that she was being used by his opponents. Whatever the end result of stepping forward is, this media circus is clearly going to be a life-changing event for her. 

While high school victims of harassment will likely not make the cover of People Magazine or earn nicknames from conservative talk show hosts, they too suffer negative consequences.  The survey found that:

  • 32 percent of students who indicated they had been harassed did not want to go to school,
  • 31 percent felt sick to their stomachs,
  • 30 percent found it hard to study,
  • 19 percent had trouble sleeping,
  • 12 percent stayed home from school,
  • 10 percent got into trouble at school,
  • 9 percent changed how they went to or from school,
  • 8 percent stopped doing a school activity or sport, and
  • 4 percent switched schools.

While students experienced many of these reactions only for a short time, some described their reaction as going on “for quite a while.”  

Coming Forward
Bialek’s decision not to say anything until now (she says she was embarrassed by the events that transpired) has many people doubting her story and questioning her motives.  While it remains possible that she is after money or fame, she is not alone in keeping incidents of sexual harassment to herself.  Almost half of all students who experienced sexual harassment (49 percent) ignored it even while it was happening, 24 percent told the person to stop, 24 percent tried to defend themselves, 15 percent tried to turn it into a joke, and 7 percent said they did nothing because they didn’t know what to do.  After the fact, only 9 percent of the high school students who were sexually harassed reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school, while 27 percent mentioned it to their parents or family (including siblings), 23 percent talked to friends about it, and just 1 percent went to the police.  A full 50 percent did nothing.   

Interestingly, students were more likely to take action if they saw sexual harassment happening to someone else with 24 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys who witnessed harassment saying they tried to help.  Of these students, 60 percent told the harasser to stop, 54 percent asked the person being harassed if he/she was okay, 24 percent reported the incident to a teacher, administrator, or school employee, and 22 percent reported the incident to their family. 

Given the likelihood that incidents go unreported, one has to wonder whether more women are going to start to come forward to discuss Herman Cain’s behavior. We have two women who took the matter to their supervisors at the National Restaurant Association, a third who said she experienced unwanted sexual advances but didn’t file a claim, a fourth who is telling her story to the world through the talk show circuit, and a new allegation that surfaced just this evening. So, are there five more or fifty-five who have said nothing… yet?

Why Harassers Do It
Herman Cain has not only denied the specific allegations leveled against him, he said unequivocally that he “has never acted inappropriately with anyone period.” (A line he repeated more than once in his press conference by the way.)  It turns out most high school students believe the same thing about themselves.  You see, while 48 percent of students experienced harassment, only 16 percent admitted to doing the harassing.

When asked why they did, admitted harassers had this to say:

  • 40 percent said “it’s just part of school life/it’s no big deal,”
  • 39 percent thought it was funny,
  • 34 percent said they were being stupid,
  • 23 percent said they were getting back at the person for something done to them,
  • 7 percent said they were angry about something else in their life,
  • 6 percent said they thought the person liked it,
  • 4 percent said their friends pushed them into doing it, and
  • 3 percent said they wanted a date with the person.

Cain’s press conference did not contain any of these excuses/explanations.  In fact, he acknowledged many times that sexual harassment is very serious, he just refused to acknowledge that he had ever participated in any. 

A New Set of Talking Points
After an introduction by his lawyer who reminded us that sexual harassment is very serious, so serious in fact that it would never be settled with a financial payout of just tens of thousands of dollars, Cain himself took the stage with notes so he didn’t miss any points.  The points he made, he made repeatedly, and they didn’t seem all that different to what he’d said earlier. 

He categorically denied Bialek’s story saying that despite trying to, he did not remember either her name or her face; he continued to remind viewers that the other accusations were anonymous; he called the original allegations false and baseless and argued that the reported settlements were merely agreements about “personnel matters,” he blamed the liberal media (who is now stalking his family) and the Democrat machine; and he hinted that this was a conspiracy brought about to keep a business man out of the White House.   

Cain acknowledged that there will likely be other allegations of sexual harassment against him:  “not because I am aware of any but because the machine to keep a business man out of the white house is going to be relentless.”  He was, of course, right as new allegations have surfaced this evening.  Donna Donella reported that she hired  Cain to give a speech in 2002 when she was working for the United States Agency for International Development.  After the speech, Cain approached Donella and a colleague, asking: “Could you put me in touch with that lovely young lady who asked the question, so I can give her a more thorough answer over dinner?” Donella and her colleague were uncomfortable with the nature of his request:  “I couldn’t swear that he had some untoward intentions, but we all thought his tone was suspect and we didn’t feel comfortable putting him in touch with that woman.”   

Throughout the press conference, Cain referred to himself as “Herman Cain” and his accusers as “the lady.” Cain used his wife’s reaction to Bialek’s allegations (she apparently said “that doesn’t even sound like something you’d do”) as proof that he was the victim here.  I believe that putting his hand up another woman’s skirt and demanding sex for a job is not something his wife is accustomed to seeing him do but I have to say that this doesn’t do much in terms of convincing me that the allegations are false.  Plenty of wives don’t know how their husbands act when they’re not together.

My favorite part of the press conference, however, was when Cain answered a question from Fox news about whether he felt these allegations were part of a conspiracy.  The man who had spent the first half an hour of the press conference repeatedly reminding us that we had to look only at the facts and that there were no facts to show he had ever done anything wrong, had this to say:  “I cannot say that it is a conspiracy –we do not have definitive factual proof.  We can only look at some coincidences to suggest it that maybe someone is deliberately behind it.  So we have not been able to make any determination to point any fingers to place any blame on anybody at this point.  When we step back and look at the fact that there’s not factual evidence to back this up we can only infer that someone is trying to wreck my character.”

We Are Talking About Sexual Harassment Again

If the press conference was designed to put an end to the media’s fascination with this story, it didn’t.  And given the new allegations that have been added to the discussion this evening, the story is likely going to be in the news for quite a while as Herman Cain tries to hang on to his tenuous place as a front-runner for the nomination. 

The only good news I can see in all of this is that our country is once again talking about the uncomfortable topic of sexual harassment. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of Mad Men knows that once upon a time in this country what we now see as inappropriate sexual remarks and even advances were tolerated if not celebrated in the workplace. Advocates worked tirelessly to get this issue taken seriously but since the spotlight of Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas faded, we have not talked a lot about it.  Some suggested that Herman Cain’s poll numbers did not suffer, at least initially, because we are all too jaded: “Twenty years after Anita Hill accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment at his confirmation hearings, searing the issue into the national consciousness and spawning an untold number of workplace seminars, the issue generates little shock value.”

In the age of Anthony Weiner texting pictures of his genitals, Elliot Spitzer sleeping with prostitutes, and Senator Larry Craig allegedly soliciting sex  in an airport men’s room, it’s understandable that it is hard to get worked up over a few inappropriate remarks spoken over a decade ago.

But the UUAW’s report tells us that we can’t be complacent because while we may be bored with talking about the topic, we certainly haven’t solved the problem of sexual harassment, and our kids are suffering for it.

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