Whether Governor Andrew Cuomo is guilty of predatory sexual behavior has become the new media sensation of this last week. During that time, a single complaint against the governor has multiplied with the speed of a newly discovered Covid variation into six assertions of his past inappropriate behavior. If the first person to come forward is to be believed as representative of all six, then it must be concluded that the complaints of harassment are all entirely credible. After the New York Times broke her story, Charlotte Bennett, the first complainant, sat for a televised interview with Norah O’Donnell outlining the details of her allegations.
For his part, Cuomo met the charges head on with a firm denial of any wrongdoing.
It is however, most interesting to note that the Governor did not deny the validity of the details of the specific events outlined by Ms. Bennett. What appears to be cut and dry is in fact probably too nuanced to make a criminal determination. Without a doubt Ms. Bennett is telling the truth. Might it also be possible that Governor Cuomo is also telling the truth and if so, how can that be? I don’t think his intent was misinterpreted by Ms. Bennett, and I think he was fully conscious of his approach towards her. Nevertheless, wrong as he was, it is quite possible that he did not comprehend the ethical problem he had created but felt safe within his understanding of the current social context. Allow me to explain.
Was Ms. Bennett wrong in thinking, “The governor’s trying to sleep with me?” I think not. Consider the following, “Without explicitly saying it, he implied to me that I was old enough for him and he was lonely.” Further, Cuomo inquired about her romantic life and asked if a past trauma had affected her romantic relationships. “He asked if I had trouble enjoying being with someone because of my trauma,” adding that he also asked if I was “sensitive to intimacy, and if it was hard to really be with someone physically.” He pushed for the close, going so far as to ask her if she had ever been intimate with an older man and offering that personally he was comfortable dating younger women saying, “He was fine with anyone over 22. I’m 25.” Can his intentions be any clearer? He was searching for a way in.
Without doubt this is inappropriate and very creepy behavior, but the road to a determination of illegality is fraught with problems. Such a conversation may not be criminal but it does require a course adjustment. In a corporate environment Cuomo would be let go. In politics, resignation is the remedy. But in spite of the unilateral support for Ms. Bennett by every New York State Democratic leader, and calls for his resignation, Cuomo refuses to resign. Why?
In the age of “Me Too” it is instructive to understand what has become of our cultural norms. The journey to “Me Too” as a cultural norm begins with “The Pill,” a method of oral contraception for women that was introduced in 1960 and rapidly adopted by overburdened mothers, free-wheeling singles and promiscuous teens. By 1965, it was common that many high-school and junior-high young girls bragged of carrying a packet of the Pill in their purse, hidden from Mom, proof of having achieved adulthood.
Meanwhile, pouring gas on this fire, young pubescent boys were scouring the magazine racks of the local grocery store in search of brown-paper wrapped copies of the latest “Playboy” magazine to fulfill their hormonal urges to practice that ancient ritual readying them fit for the hunt. At this point, both sides were all-in and poised for action… but how to initiate?
Making the first move can undoubtedly be awkward for a novitiate. Culturally, that has long been relegated to the male, but very soon the Pill would change all that. But for the time being, in 1965 young boys had only the movies to guide them regarding how the approach is made. Books, a technology of a previous generation, were dry and useless in this nuanced art and television was so sanitized as to be entirely bereft of any help. No, it fell to movies to complete the circuit connecting the genders and to music in the form of contemporary song to stimulate the passions needed to break the logjam (no pun intended.) As flowed music, so followed the culture and by 1967 a new term had re-entered the lexicon, “Free Love.”
In 1967, during the “Summer of Love,” a social phenomenon erupted in San Francisco when over 100,000 young people under the spell of “flower power” converged on Haight-Ashbury in free-flowing, colorful “hippie” attire, melding music, hallucinogenic drugs, anti-war sentiment and the concept of free-love. These “flower children,” most often referred to as “hippies” were by nature united in their suspicion of the government and opposed to the Viet Nam war. They rejected consumerism and were more often concerned with art and a generalized spiritual self-awareness often realized through the practice of meditation, all of which equated with “Peace.” Simultaneously, as this movement spread throughout California, hippie communes developed. These communes were the perfect breeding ground as a foothold for free love to become a cultural norm.
At its core, free love demands freedom from state regulation and church-defined personal relationships, a perfect fit with the ideologies found in communes of the day. Whether emotional or sexual, legitimate relations between consenting adults are off limits to regulatory oversight and commune residents often interacted freely with many short-term partners.
In free love both men and women have the right to enjoy sexual pleasure without social or legal consequences. For women, this could not have been made possible without the pill. In essence, the pill severed the connection between love, romance and sex and opened the door to a more transactional practice of engagement that dispensed with the niceties of dinner and flowers, long walks holding hands and that first moment when a young boy tenuously slips his arm around a young girl on the family couch. Now it was OK for that young girl on her first kiss to reach down and rub his crotch. No big deal. They called it petting back then. Young girls instinctively knew that Free Love was inextricably linked to the same anti-authoritarian ideals pervading the communes out west and popularized in song, and so, grasping their equality (forgive me) by the balls, they exercised their rights in a most overt way. While this may have been confusing to some young men, it was most certainly welcome.
But the long term consequence of Free Love was the displacement of the nuanced approach to a romantic relationship with a more direct, transactional approach of a sexual one. Romance. Requires time and energy and is uncertain, fraught with insecurities, sleepless nights and possible rejection. It’s never quite fully resolved, and requires constant maintenance, always open to future competition. Sex on the other hand is short and decisive, over in minutes and quite conclusive. The approach to sex can be as simple as a question. The answer determines the possibility. It can be as crude as, “Hey, you wan’na fuck?” or implied, “have you ever been intimate with an older man? I’m personally comfortable dating younger women.”
If you understand that the fundamental principle in a proper “Me-Too” relationship is consent, then simply asking the question or indirectly implying it might be considered as a hands-off approach by a lonely, clumsy and rather oafish old man whose only social contacts are made through his work. Without doubt, it’s a move of desperation. All the good ones were taken long ago, and many of the ones who got out are embittered and angry and far too wise to be managed or controlled. After years in office the transactional approach might seem innocent to Andrew Cuomo, after all he was only asking questions, seeking consent. Lacking a proper channel for his physical and emotional urges, he went for the “easy marks” the ones at hand, the pretty ones who he engaged his fantasy of a replenished youth. His mistake was an abuse of power. He was their boss. He should have known that he was making them uncomfortable to engage in such a conversation as he had with each of them. But this oafish old man failed to understand that asking for a kiss from someone who works for you is as much a violation of “Me-Too” codes as taking the kiss without asking.