Herman Cain sexual allegations: a reminder for women to speak up

The allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain follow a too-familiar story line. There is still tacit acceptance that some men in power are sexually exploitative. But women are starting to shine a floodlight on behavior that used to lurk in the shadows.

Coming off of what felt like a summer of theatrical blunders by men in power, starring a colorful cast of characters – Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, and French political star Dominique Strauss-Kahn – the latest sexual harassment hoopla surrounding Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain strikes me as little more than an encore.

But that’s what makes it so noteworthy.

His case has unfolded with a predictable and familiar plot. Mr. Cain has been accused by multiple former subordinates of inappropriate behaviors and sexual harassment. He denies all charges: “I have never acted inappropriately with anyone. Period.”

He tries to destroy the credibility of his accusers. Alternately, he insists that this is all one big distraction from the real issues at hand, like the economy.

The voting public will make up their own minds about Cain and sexual harassment. But landing on that truth is actually less important for the future of this nation than acknowledging this one: In the shadowy spaces of our society – online comment sections, late nights at the office, dorm rooms right before dawn – too many men still feel entitled to violate the inalienable rights and dignity of women.

Beneath the polite veneer of our post-feminist society, where girls sweep the Google science fair, Hillary Rodham Clinton puts 8 million cracks in the glass ceiling, and men do housework, there is still tacit acceptance that some men in power are sexually exploitative and some men online are unaccountably vile. It’s just kind of the way it is.

But as Twitter filled up with news of Cain’s denials, a parallel trend began. Women started tweeting direct quotes from some of their most disturbing hate mail with the hashtag #mencallmethings. The meme was started by Sady Doyle, a feminist journalist, in an attempt to make visible the often invisiblized online harassment that women with opinions face every day. [Editor's note: An earlier version included an incorrect hashtag.]

It was painful to watch the vitriol stream through my Twitter feed – though I’ve developed a tough skin about my own hate mail, mostly managing to wear it as a badge of honor.

But it would be inaccurate to claim that it doesn’t frighten me that there are some men out there – real men with girlfriends and wives and children, who have jobs and influence and the right to vote – who can apparently live with their choice to send emails like this: “You’re good rape meat” and “[You] deserve to die at the rusty scissors of a backstreet abortionist.”

Hard to read those? Imagine how hard it was to receive them. And then imagine that it was okay for someone to hit send on an email that contained those words, that dehumanizing sentiment. Imagine that a man – whether Cain or not – could live with himself after allegedly pulling a woman’s head toward his lap and saying, “You want a job, don’t you?”

This is not some hyperbolic dystopia concocted by angry, man-hating feminists. It is filling even the insatiable hunger of the mainstream media as of late – story after story. For instance, William Adams, a Texas judge who everyone thought was “a good person,” according to his daughter, Hillary, who just last week released a tape of him repeatedly lashing her for downloading pirated content from the Internet.

What leaves me hopeful, despite all this dehumanization, is this: Women are starting to unapologetically shine a blinding floodlight on the behavior that used to lurk in the shadows. Building on the legacies of brave women before us – like Anita Hill, who 20 years ago, planted the seed of this new audacious documentation.

We are blogging, filming, tweeting, and testifying to our experiences. We are gathering, whether metaphorically or literally, and giving one another strength through solidarity. We are living feminist visionary Audre Lorde’s profound reminder: “Your silence will not protect you.”

Courtney E. Martin is the author of the new book, “Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors,” as well as “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body,” and coeditor of the anthology “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.” She is also editor emeritus at feministing.com. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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