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Why do Cain adultery allegations stick more than harassment charges?

By Barbara J. Risman, Special to CNN
updated 5:35 AM EST, Fri December 2, 2011
Herman Cain has been accused of extramarital affairs as well as sexual harassment.
Herman Cain has been accused of extramarital affairs as well as sexual harassment.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Barbara Risman: Why do Cain adultery accusations seem to stick, but not harassment ones?
  • She says men dismiss harassment because of worry about own workplace actions
  • She says adultery hurts the spouse; harassment hurts every woman in a workplace
  • Risman: We will have a real post-feminist era when workers all treat colleagues the same way

Editor's note: Barbara Risman is professor and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and executive officer of the Council on Contemporary Families. She is the author of "Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition" (Yale, 1998) and editor of "Families as They Really Are" (Norton, 2010).

(CNN) -- Why is having an affair worse than being a sexual harasser?

Why does a woman's claim that she had a 13-year extramarital romance with Herman Cain seem to be more deadly to his Republican presidential campaign than accusations by several other women that he aggressively pressured them for sex -- behavior that would be not only sleazy but criminal?

Cain himself has said that donations to his campaign have fallen off since the adultery allegations. This is a far cry from the surge of support that followed the allegations of harassment. Why is this?

My take is that working women who allege sexual harassment arouse fear in men, especially men who have conservative views about sex, marriage and women's place at work and in the home. The guy in the office in the gray flannel suit fears that his taken-for-granted sexualization of the women in his workplace may be interpreted as harassment when he doesn't want it to be.

He doesn't think he's a bad guy, but can't imagine treating his female co-workers like, well, colleagues first and only, and not like ladies. He would never dream of harassing someone, and is terrified that the quick little pat on a co-worker's butt or comment on her appearance won't be interpreted the way he means it, as just a sexual compliment.

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He thinks the women in his office might be infected with the crazy feminist idea that a little playing around makes for a chilly workplace climate. Reports of sexual harassment terrify him -- might he be charged next? So he denies that such a thing exists. The rules really aren't that clear, and besides, he doesn't really trust women to tell the truth.

A consensual affair, on the other hand, is a lot easier to understand. It's sleazy, something that a good tradition-bound husband recognizes and knows he can avoid, so he's comfortable in holding that against Cain.

But whom does an affair really hurt? The victim in these new allegations, it seems to me, is Mrs. Cain, and so far, she seems to be the stand-by-your-guy sort of wife. And if she is hurt by the charges, she's not likely to go public with the pain. Their children too might be hurt, and that too, is a family affair.

I don't really care who Mr. Cain is alleged to have slept with as long as she's willing. This is not the first man who ran for president who has ever had an affair. In fact, it might be a good parlor game to try to find one that hasn't. My guess is that there isn't a strong relationship, historically, between being a good president and never having had an extra-marital affair. Women simply haven't been that important; the wives and the mistresses have not been their men's equal, but merely their mates. Perhaps that's changing in the 21st Century. I hope so. But I'm not putting my money on it.

And whom does sexual harassment really hurt? Every woman who works for a living. Every time a high profile man gets away with treating women who work with (or especially for) him primarily as sexual objects, and not as workmates, every woman who works for a living is reminded that she too is at risk.

When women make public charges, they go on public trial themselves, with their pasts mined for anything that might discredit them. Have they ever gone bankrupt or lost a job? Intimate details of their lives are held under the microscope. Why should their past matter? The issue is whether a man in authority misused his power to coerce sexual favors from a subordinate or take other liberties. If women make a charge, they have to live with an assault on their own character.

The guy down the hall needs to learn one very simple lesson: Treat your female colleagues just as you would treat the guys. If you pat the guys on the head, and put your arm around them, or pat their butt to show you like their outfit, go ahead and do it to the "girls" in the office.

But if not, keep your hands to yourself, and learn to treat the women you work with like colleagues, not ladies. If every man learns to treat women in the workforce as, well, regular people, the fear of behavior being "misinterpreted" as a sexual harasser will disappear. No one should make a sexual overture to a subordinate, a gay man shouldn't come on to his male assistant, and a heterosexual woman shouldn't hit on her male secretary.

No one likes a sleazy cheat. But harassing women who work for you is far more than sleazy. It is criminal. It's time for a fourth wave feminist movement to create a world where being a woman doesn't mean you are treated differently at the office. When that world comes, we will be finally be in a post-feminist era.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barbara Risman.

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