Editor’s Note: Deborah Tuerkheimer is a professor of law at Northwestern University, a former prosecutor in the New York District Attorney’s office, and author of the forthcoming book “CREDIBLE: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The New York attorney general’s report on Gov. Andrew Cuomo paints a devastating picture of a man who routinely used his power to harass women. It’s also powerful evidence of what can happen when investigators push beyond the initial “he said, she said” contest that, in the vast majority of cases handled by authorities, portends an allegation’s demise.
What’s most striking to me about the report is not its depiction of Cuomo, who has denied the allegations. It’s what the report reveals about those around him and their ways of dismissing the women who came forward that is maddeningly familiar. In the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with survivors of sexual assault and harassment over the years, these survivors describe a dynamic that is commonplace and patterned. I call it “credibility discounting,” and it happens as a matter of course to those who lack social power in relation to their abuser.
Take Lindsey Boylan, a staffer in Cuomo’s office whose internal account of having been sexually harassed by the governor wasn’t passed along as required. “No one in the Executive Chamber took Ms. Boylan’s complaint seriously — characterizing it immediately as ‘crazy,’ and ‘made  up,’” the attorney general’s report concludes. Some saw Boylan’s accusations as politically motivated, a typical response when the accused man works or aspires to work in government. In Boylan’s case, rather than endeavor to determine whether the allegations were true, Cuomo’s team of current and former senior staff members proceeded as people often do: “They simply assumed the allegation false,” according to the report.
Even today, in the wake of countless #MeToo stories, a starting point of disbelief remains the commonplace default. The attorney general’s report outlines a deliberate campaign on the part of Cuomo’s team to distribute disparaging information about Boylan to the press. These tactics are effective because they tap into deeply seated tendencies to doubt accusers — especially when the accuser is naming a powerful man.
Undue skepticism is not the only mechanism for discounting credibility. Many accusers experience a different kind of dismissal — dismissal by disregard. For an allegation of abuse to be credited, we must not only believe that it happened, but also that it matters. If instead we decide that the conduct is beneath our concern, we dismiss it much as if it was deemed false. Disregard, like distrust, means the complaint goes nowhere.
Consider Cuomo’s Executive Chamber’s decision not to report the complaints of an aide, Charlotte Bennett, to the proper channels. The problem was not that Bennett’s account was perceived as untrue – the report stated the governor’s chief of staff and special counsel Judy Mogul found Bennett “to be credible.” Rather, Cuomo’s special counsel viewed the harassment as not serious enough to warrant further action.
“Rather than looking at the ‘totality of the circumstances,’” reads the attorney general’s report, “[Mogul] parsed each comment or incident.” In doing so, she utterly minimized the harm. For example, according to the report, Mogul characterized Cuomo calling Bennett “Daisy Duke” as merely a reference to her wearing shorts. But as the report noted, “Daisy Duke” is “a commonly understood sex symbol (as any quick internet search would reveal).”
Another of several examples from the report: Cuomo, who had asked Bennett questions about her personal life, at one point said he was open to dating someone as young as 22, knowing that she was 25. Mogul later stated that this interaction did not count as harassment because it was not “sexually explicit.” Despite policies that require supervisors who are aware of conduct “of a sexually harassing nature” to report it, Mogul determined she did not have to do so, but investigators flatly rejected her reasoning.
The lengths to which Cuomo’s team went to protect him might seem extreme, but this pattern is in fact quite ordinary. Across the board — in workplaces around the country, in courtrooms, on college campuses, even during encounters between well-meaning friends and family — credibility is meted out in ways that correspond to social power and this pattern extends to the realm of care.
It turns out our concern, or what matters to us, is distributed unevenly and predictably: the suffering of an abuser who could face accountability for his misdeeds often matters far more than the suffering of his victim. The disparity between inadequate regard for survivors and excessive regard for offenders reflects what I call the “care gap.”
Survivors are well aware of the care gap (even if not by name), which explains why underreporting is more the rule than the exception. Of the women whose allegations are detailed in the attorney general’s report, most waited before coming forward.
Executive Assistant #1, as she is described in the report — who later publicly identified herself as Brittany Commisso – was “terrified” that she would lose her job if her allegations reached Cuomo’s senior staffers. “Because I knew that I certainly was going to be the one to go,” she explained. Ana Liss, a former Cuomo aide, testified that “if she had complained, she would have been ‘laughed out of town.’” She understood that complaining would have been, in her words, “‘a fool’s errand’ that probably would have come at the expense of her job.”
Another employee identified only as State Entity Employee #1 didn’t report Cuomo’s harassment at the time because “it felt very scary to report something against someone who has so much power so — and [she] very much felt like the burden and impact was going to be … fully on [her].” The women’s reasons for delay show how the credibility discount operates preemptively to keep allegations from surfacing.
Now that these allegations have been made public and thoroughly corroborated by the attorney general’s office, it remains to be seen whether they will have the cumulative effect of ending Cuomo’s political reign. Perhaps 11 women — and 165 pages documenting their abuse — will be enough. But even if Cuomo’s time in office is nearing an end, it seems important to note that it took way too long. However this particular story ends, it’s clear that much more work lies ahead in the #MeToo era.
The attorney general’s report has made it easy to condemn Cuomo — and we should. But if we want to end impunity for abusers, we must also grapple with how accusers are treated when they come forward. The credibility discount is a collective wrong, which makes it ours to right.