Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images; TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Republican primary candidate Herman Cain firmly denied allegations of sexual harassment in a press conference today, after a fourth accuser, Chicago mom and former marketing executive Sharon Bialek, came forward yesterday to describe how Cain allegedly put his hand under her skirt and pushed her head towards his crotch in July of 1997 after a networking dinner. When she rebuffed his advances, Bialek says Cain responded, "You want a job, right?"
"I have never acted inappropriately with anyone. Period,” Cain said at the press conference. He cited his wife as a character witness and even suggested that a long-time coworker would vouch for his incredible recollection of faces. He said he had never met Sharon Bialek before, let alone harassed her. And he said he would take a lie detector test to prove it.
Watch iVillage's Kelly Wallace and author, blogger and iVillage contributor Joanne Bamberger dish about whether Herman Cain can survive the allegations.
The Cain camp had already called Bialek's story "completely bogus," and conservative pundits are eager to paint her as a "money-grubbing slut," but let's remember this is the same guy who has claimed no knowledge of the National Restaurant Association's settlements with the first two women who made harassment claims -- even though he disclosed the details of those settlements to his general campaign consultant when he ran for the Senate in 2003.
So it's hard to hold out much hope for Cain's innocence -- but there is another possibility: We've allowed sexual harassment to become so normalized in our society that Cain did not realize that his behavior towards these women was inappropriate. That's how much we've lost the plot.
This isn't meant to let him off easy: If Bialek's allegations are true, Cain's behavior was not only inappropriate, it likely surpasses harassment and deserves classification as assault. But, a study released Monday by the American Association of University Women shows just how widespread this problem has become: Nearly half of all 7th to 12th graders (56 percent of girls; 40 percent of boys) experienced sexual harassment during the past school year. 87 percent of those harrassed reported negative effects such as absenteeism, poor sleep and stomachaches. "It's pervasive, and almost a normal part of the school day," Catherine Hill, the director of research at the association and a study co-author told the New York Times.
Estimates of sexual harassment in the workplace are more difficult to pin down (perhaps because so many settlements -- like Cain's -- require silence on the part of the victims) but a Cornell Law Review article estimates that between 40 and 90 percent of working women experience some form of harassment on the job. This makes sense: Kids who aren't taught to identify and rein in harassment during middle school and high school grow up to continue that pattern as adults. After all, the consequences for complaining about harassment are severe -- at the very least, you can expect to be perceived as uptight and unable to take a joke. At the worst, you'll lose your job. A study of federal employees reported that those who have been harassed lose $4.4 million in wages and 973,000 hours in unpaid leave each year. Two of Cain's alleged victims may have received cash settlements, but they also suffered some professional consequences -- and are now probably experiencing a great deal of personal stress as they're forced to relive the experience again through the current news cycle.
Rather than getting caught up in the he said/she said details of the Cain case, we could better serve these women and the collective 48 percent of teenagers who were sexually harassed last year by using this news cycle as an opportunity to jumpstart more conversations about harassment itself: What it looks like, why it happens, and what to do if it happens to you. Maybe that way, the next time a politician gets accused of sexual harassment, we'll all be a lot clearer on what really happened and why it was so wrong -- Herman Cain included.