How NY Gov. Cuomo’s ‘apologies’ fail to recognize that power imbalances are at the root of sexual harassment

andrew cuomo
New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

  • Andrew Cuomo has issued denials, defenses, and apologies in response to misconduct accusations.
  • His “I never intended” responses miss the point – that power is at the heart of sexual harassment.
  • Ending sexual harassment will require a critical rethinking of the distribution of workplace power.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In recent weeks, multiple women have reported demeaning and sexualized workplace behavior by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In response, Cuomo has issued a combination of denials, defenses, and apologies.

Much of the public analysis of his statements has focused on the adequacy of these apologies – whether he took sufficient responsibility or expressed sufficient remorse.

Apologies deserve attention. They can help right wrongs and heal relationships.

Yet in the focus on apologies, an opportunity is missed to learn something about power. Power, after all, is at the heart of sexual harassment.

‘Unwanted imposition’

As Catharine MacKinnon, the architect of modern sexual harassment law, has argued, sexual misconduct at work can be defined as “the unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in the context of a relationship of unequal power.”

If responses like Cuomo’s are viewed through a power-informed lens, different patterns emerge. In my own study of over 200 such statements, I found many references to the accused’s own long careers, to their many professional accomplishments, and to their excellent reputations. In short, when challenged, the men in my study (and all but three were men) did what came naturally: They reached for their power.

This pattern is connected to another theme that I discovered in the statements I studied: repetition of explanations and defenses centered on the accused person’s own subjective intent and perceptions.

It’s me being funny. I’m not trying to sexually harass people,” for example, or “I come from a very different culture,” or “I remember trying to kiss [her] as part of what I thought was a consensual seduction ritual.”

However, the accused’s intentions, thoughts, or beliefs – so central in the statements I studied – are only peripheral under sexual harassment law.

Not a joke

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the main federal law that covers workplace discrimination and harassment, an employee may sue her employer when she has experienced severe or pervasive workplace harassment.

Severity and pervasiveness are judged subjectively, from the harassed person’s point of view, and objectively, in the view of a theoretical “reasonable person.” The law also requires that the conduct be unwelcomed by the harassed person.

Though different courts have interpreted these requirements differently around the edges, sexual harassment cases do not turn on whether the harasser thought his conduct was a joke, or culturally acceptable, or ritualized seduction.

Instead, the law’s subjectivity and “welcomeness” requirements ask a superior – like Cuomo – to evaluate his own conduct from his subordinate’s point of view. Superiors who want to avoid committing harassment to begin with (before anything gets to a judge, jury, or media story) need to step outside their own perspective.

This requires empathy. And the more power that a person wields in the workplace, the more difficult it may be to step outside one’s own position and consider the circumstances from another person’s perspective.

‘I never intended’

Here’s where Cuomo’s responses are revealing.

In his first official statement, released on Feb. 28, 2021, out of 18 “I” statements, over half were versions of “I never intended,” “I was being playful,” or “I do, on occasion, tease people.”

Cuomo followed suit in his press conference on March 3, repeating over and over variations on the “I never intended” or “I never knew” or “I didn’t mean it that way” theme.

These statements suggest that, over his long career, Cuomo did not pay attention to the effects of his words and actions on his subordinates, and that the power of his position may have reinforced his heedlessness.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission warns about just this type of scenario in its list of harassment risk factors: “High value employees may perceive themselves as exempt from workplace rules or immune from consequences of their misconduct.” Workplaces with significant power imbalances, too, make the risk factor list.

If the movement sparked by #MeToo focuses only on taking down individual bad actors, it will leave intact the workplace structures that enable and protect the powerful – and that produce statements like Cuomo’s. Ending sexual harassment requires a critical rethinking of workplace power, whether it flows from ownership of a company, management of an office, supervision of a shop floor, or the office of the governor.

Charlotte Alexander, associate professor of law and analytics, Georgia State University

The Conversation
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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio calls sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo ‘disgusting’ and says ‘he can no longer serve as governor’

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation on Thursday.
  • “It is disgusting to me, and he can no longer serve as governor,” de Blasio said.
  • Cuomo and de Blasio have long feuded during their Empire State overlap.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday blasted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo over the string of sexual harassment allegations against him.

“It is disgusting to me, and he can no longer serve as governor,” de Blasio said during a news conference. “It’s as simple as that.”

De Blasio’s comments come after a sixth woman has accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. The Albany Times Union reported on Wednesday that an unnamed female staffer said Cuomo “aggressively groped her in a sexually charged manner” last year after she had been called to the Executive Mansion, his residence, to solve a technology issue. Once there, the governor allegedly closed the door, reached under her shirt and began to fondle her, a source with direct knowledge of the unnamed aide’s claims told the The Albany Times Union.

“It’s deeply troubling,” de Blasio said. “The specific allegation that the governor called an employee of his – someone who he had power over – called them to a private place and then sexually assaulted her is absolutely unacceptable.”

The women who have come forward in the past month have accused Cuomo of sexual harassment, inappropriate workplace behavior, and non-consensual advances while he has been governor and during his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Clinton administration.

Lawmakers across New York state have urged Cuomo to resign in light of the allegations, but the governor has said he will not step down. Fifty-nine New York Democrats released a joint letter on Thursday calling for his resignation.

In recent weeks Cuomo has also come under attack over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in nursing homes and safety issues on a billion-dollar bridge the governor named after his father.

Cuomo and de Blasio overlapped during their time at HUD in the Clinton years, but their relationship became publicly toxic over the course of the mayor’s first term.

The Cuomo-de Blasio feud spilled over to New York’s coronavirus response, with the governor often contradicting the mayor hours or even minutes after de Blasio would hold a press briefing.

The mayor also dug into Cuomo in mid-February as the governor’s management style was coming under scrutiny, saying “bullying is nothing new” for Cuomo and that he had received threatening phone calls from him in the past.

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Cuomo says kissing and hugging people is his ‘usual and customary way of greeting’ but apologizes ‘if they were offended by it’

Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference on September 29, 2020.

  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his “usual” way of greeting people involves hugging and kissing.
  • “You can go find hundreds of pictures of me kissing people,” Cuomo said Wednesday.
  • Cuomo apologized for his behavior with women who have recently accused him of sexual harassment. 
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday responded to sexual harassment accusations against him, and said that his “usual and customary way of greeting” involves kissing and hugging people and apologized if the behavior offended anyone.

“You can find hundreds of pictures of me making the same gesture with hundreds of people: women, men, children, et cetera,” Cuomo said during a news briefing in response to a newly circulated photo of him placing his hands on a woman’s face at a wedding reception in New York City in 2019. “You can go find hundreds of pictures of me kissing people, men, women. It is my usual and customary way of greeting.”

“It was my father’s way of greeting people,” Cuomo said, referring to former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. “You’re the governor of the state, you want people to feel comfortable. You want to reach out to them.”

“I kiss and hug legislators,” he added. “I was at an event in Queens the other day, hugged the pastors and the assembly members who were there. So that is my way to do that.”

The woman in the photo, 33-year-old Anna Ruch, has recently accused Cuomo of sexual harassment. She told The New York Times that their interaction made her feel “uncomfortable and embarrassed.” Two other women, Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, both former aides to Cuomo, have also recently come forward with sexual harassment claims against the governor. Both alleged the governor had made unwanted sexual advances towards them.

Cuomo apologized on Wednesday for his past behavior with the women and said that he was “ashamed” over it.

“What I also understand is, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter my intent. What it matters is if anybody was offended by it,” Cuomo said. “And I could intend no offense, but if they were offended by it, then it was wrong. And if they were offended by it, I apologize.”

New York Attorney General Tish James is kicking off an investigation into the sexual harassment claims. Cuomo on Wednesday urged New Yorkers to wait for the results of the case before forming an opinion on the matter.

Several lawmakers have called for Cuomo’s resignation in light of the allegations, yet the governor on Wednesday made clear that he does not intend to step down. Some have also called for Cuomo’s impeachment.

“I apologized several days ago. I apologized today,” Cuomo said. “I will apologize tomorrow. I will apologize the day after.”

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