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Sexual harassment isn't red or blue

By Sally Kohn, Special to CNN
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Wed November 2, 2011
Herman Cain speaks at the National Press Club on Monday, where he called the accusations against him
Herman Cain speaks at the National Press Club on Monday, where he called the accusations against him "a witch hunt."
  • Allegations surfaced that Herman Cain was accused of sexual harassment
  • Sally Kohn: The gravity of sexual harassment is lost as politics dominate discussion
  • Cain supporters even condemn women who report harassment, Kohn writes
  • Kohn: Harassment is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it's just wrong

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a strategist and political commentator. She is the founder and chief education officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a progressive grassroots think tank that promotes the ideas of local communities to solve national problems, and a contributor to American Prospect magazine.

New York (CNN) -- This week, Politico reported that two female employees accused GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain of sexual harassment when he was chair of the National Restaurant Association. "The women complained of sexually suggestive behavior by Cain that made them angry and uncomfortable," Politico reported, "and they signed agreements with the restaurant group that gave them financial payouts to leave the association."

The evening the story broke, even before Cain had addressed the allegations himself, conservatives were out in force defending Cain and attacking his supposed victims. In the most stunning of such displays, conservative commentator Ann Coulter --- who made her career by attacking Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky --- accused the left of "high-tech lynching" against Cain, a black conservative. "There's nothing liberals fear more than a black conservative," Coulter said. "Ask Allen West, ask Michael Steele, and ask Clarence Thomas."

To be fair, liberals can be racist just like conservatives can be racist --- consciously or unconsciously treating black and brown candidates more harshly than whites. But at the same time, conservatives can be sexist pigs just like liberals can be sexist pigs. When anyone of any party or any race or, for that matter, gender, is accused of sexually inappropriate behavior, shouldn't we put aside partisanship and be equally concerned?

Disregard for a second what Cain did or did not do. There's certainly enough evidence from Cain's own admissions to justify taking the allegations seriously. During the course of a Fox television interview on the topic, Cain contradicted himself repeatedly, veering between saying he did and did not remember the alleged victim or the alleged accusations of harassment. And while Cain has denied any inappropriate conduct, he admits money was paid to one of the women. Politico reports both were paid. That raises the question whether something unseemly might have happened. Voters are at least justified in investigating whether the potential leader of our nation has an inappropriate relationship with the truth.

Atty: Member may have leaked story
Attorney for Cain accuser speaks out
Politico: Cain validates our facts

But more than fodder for partisan pundits, these are learning moments. Sexual harassment is a serious issue. One in six Americans reports having been sexually harassed in the workplace, according to an AOL survey. Two thirds of those who experienced harassment didn't report it. Although sexual harassment can be limited to inappropriate jokes, it can also mean losing your job for rejecting sexual advances. And much, much worse. In one highly documented case, a manager of a rent-to-own store in Missouri started with lewd jokes directed at a female employee, which escalated to pinching, which escalated to the manager hitting the woman with his genitals and masturbating over her while he held her body on the ground. For women like Coulter to imply that sexual harassment claims are simply whiny women saying "Ooh, I don't like that he called me honey" suggests that women should be complacent in the face of harassment, no matter how minor or extreme.

Commenting on the Cain situation for the National Review Online, conservative anti-feminist Suzanne Venker wrote, "That women now have the power to ruin men's lives using a boatload of resentment but no evidence to speak of tells you all you need to know about feminism and its effect on our society."

Rather than, uh, protecting working women such as herself from the sort of unwanted sexual advances and quid pro quo that dominated the workforce of the mid-20th century, Venker argues that sexual harassment laws threaten "the reputation and livelihood of countless unsuspecting college guys, adult men and fathers." Is that the kind of world we want to raise our children in, where men and boys can be free to express whatever inappropriate sentiments they want while women and girls are made to feel ashamed and blamed?

Bill Clinton had an affair with a young and impressionable intern over whom he had enormously disproportionate power. Arnold Schwarzenegger had an affair with a housekeeper over whom he had enormously disproportionate power. Former Republican Rep. Mark Foley sent sexually suggestive e-mails to young congressional pages. Former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner sent sexually suggestive texts to young supporters.

And earlier this year, Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings was sued by a conservative legal organization on behalf of a Republican female employee who said Hastings sexually harassed her -- which Hastings denied.

Cain may rise or fall depending on how this story plays out. Frankly, I don't care. What I do care about is whether, in the way we talk about this story, we're creating a climate in which sexual harassment is allowed to fester --- letting it slide because we like the offender's politics or, at our own workplaces, think the guy is nice and don't want to shove political correctness down his throat. Wanting a world in which men and women can work alongside each other equally without fear of harassment is not political correctness. It's just correct.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Kohn.