On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a lengthy video statement in response to sexual harassment allegations from multiple women. The 15-minute video featured the governor making defensive statements, sharing assumptions about his accusers and showcasing photos of himself embracing and kissing celebrities, politicians and other New Yorkers. Sexual abuse experts say it’s a blueprint for how not to handle a situation like this one. “This isn’t an apology. It’s a defense video,” said Nicole Bedera, an expert in sexual violence at the University of Michigan. “He’s abusing his position of power to take control of the narrative and tell us that he’s the one with the authority to define what sexual harassment is. And that’s a problem.” Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, called his video harmful to survivors. “So often what we see is people who committed sexual harassment or assault using their apologies to do damage control, and that’s so harmful because attention is being taken away from the victims.”
Cuomo showed kissing photos, spoke about his connection to abuse survivorsCuomo denied many of the allegations detailed in Tuesday’s long-anticipated report from Attorney General Letitia James’s office. To support his claim that he “never made inappropriate sexual advances,” Cuomo displayed photos of himself embracing and kissing people. Why? Because according to him, the photos proved his gestures were “meant to convey warmth, nothing more.” He argued, “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of photos of me using the exact same gesture.” For some, the photos had the opposite effect: “Watching the photo montage of Cuomo kissing people, made me wonder if any of them were asked for consent?” tweeted New York City Council Member Ben Kallos. With these photos, Cuomo seemed to be “propping up his connections to diverse populations and other women to show ‘look at all these women who do like when I touch them this way,'” Bedera said. “We don’t even know they actually feel that way. Maybe they were uncomfortable as well.” In another eyebrow-raising moment, Cuomo told the stories of two sexual assault survivors — an unnamed family member and Charlotte Bennett, who accused Cuomo of propositioning her for sex— to vouch for his innocence and imply that the latter “read into comments I made and (drew) inferences I never met.” This is a common reaction from someone who has been accused of inappropriate behavior, Palumbo said. People in this position often try to “groom their audience to escape accountability by focusing on their character,” she said. “The fact that someone has survivors in their life is really irrelevant from whether or not they themselves are capable of committing abuse or harassment,” Palumbo said, adding that nearly everyone knows a sexual assault survivor. “Trying to use that in defense of one’s character is tokenizing to victims of sexual assault.” While Cuomo did say he was sorry, he did so while also defending his actions. “I want you to know that I am truly and deeply sorry,” Cuomo said to one of his accusers while making his statement. “I accept responsibility, and we are making changes.”
Cuomo’s lack of accountability is part of a larger problem faced by survivors.An analysis from researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta found of more than 200 public statements issued by people accused of work-related sexual harassment and misconduct as part of the #MeToo movement, only one-third included apologies. It found, “statements were, on the whole, full of denials and defenses, including arguments about what ‘counts’ as harassment, and references to the accused’s own career accomplishments.”
Video statement:Andrew Cuomo addresses sexual harassment allegations by showing photos of himself kissing people
The investigation found Cuomo grabbed women in their intimate body parts and made unwanted gestures of kissing and hugging to former and present staff members.
In his response, the governor also painted himself as someone who was well-intentioned and just a little too friendly.
Mariann Wang, one of his accuser’s attorneys, said this characterization is unfair to the women who were on the receiving end of this behavior.
“He is being manipulative, as he always has been,” Wang said. “He is not being accused of being a kindly but gentlemanly boss. And the women who experience his unwanted sexual touching are not fools, as he apparently thinks they are.
“He touched a woman’s breast, another woman’s stomach and the back of her neck and spine, he grabbed multiple women’s backsides or buttocks. These are not charming expressions of affection. They were sexual. He knew that when he did it, and the women experienced this as unwanted sexual touching.”
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Palumbo said people accused of sexual misconduct often fail to show accountability for their actions.
“People who commit sexual harassment and abuse will often sidestep from taking responsibility for their actions that have been called into scrutiny,” she said.
This defense can be particularly harmful for survivors of abuse.
“To see Cuomo acting defensively can be damaging to his victims. He’s hurting the credibility of his and all survivors, and that is something we should never tolerate from an elected official,” Bedera added.
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Contributing: Alia E. Dastagir, Jon Campbell, Joseph Spector