Cuomo’s alleged harassment of women is ‘all about power and control,’ says Northeastern scholar

Governor Andrew Cuomo holds press briefing and makes announcement to combat COVID-19 Delta variant at 633 3rd Avenue in New York on August 2, 2021. (Photo by Lev Radin/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

A report released this week by a pair of independent investigators found that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo engaged in conduct that constituted sexual harassment under federal and New York state law. Cuomo’s opinion of his behavior appears to be “problematic,” says Margo Lindauer, who holds a joint appointment with the School of Law and Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

The governor sexually harassed 11 current and former New York state employees by engaging in unwelcome and non-consensual touching, and made offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women, the report found.

Employer-employee relationships are different from romantic partner relationships, but both are based on power and control, says law professor Margo Lindauer. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

President Biden and other Democrats have called on the governor to resign. 

Cuomo has denied the allegations and maintains that he never made inappropriate sexual advances to anyone nor inappropriately touched anyone in a sexual manner. His attorney issued a statement saying the investigation ignored facts and evidence. 

News@Northeastern interviewed Lindauer for her take on the developing political scandal. She is director of Northeastern’s Domestic Violence Institute and is the author of Getting Real on Sexual Assault.

Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What was your initial reaction to the report?

That I’m not surprised. What the data shows, and what my experience has been, is that people who perpetrate violence or harassment usually don’t do it in a silo. It’s usually within the context of a pattern or practice, and it’s very clear that he [Cuomo] had a pattern and practice. When you think about intimate violence or harassment, it’s all about power and control. Thinking about the context of the relationships, he has all the power. He’s hiring very young women who presumably are starting their careers who have no power.

Why do you think Cuomo is resisting calls to step down?

In his mind, it’s very clear he did nothing wrong. If he thought he was doing something wrong, he’s a politician, he wouldn’t have been so brazen about it. Within a work context, this is an important office where Cuomo knows that people would do anything to work for him. I mean, he’s the governor of New York. He’s out in front of the pandemic. He feels he’s untouchable, and that message becomes internalized.

I don’t think that Cuomo thought he was doing anything wrong, which is problematic. That doesn’t mitigate the harm or the fact that he was doing something wrong and that no one intervened.

Why didn’t anyone speak up?

Fear and retaliation. It sounds like it was such a toxic and scary office. These niche work environments [like the governor’s office] are so popular and where so many people desire to work. So they remain quiet for fear of losing these [prestigious] jobs.

They’re probably wondering, ‘If I leave and I’ve only worked here for three months, how is that going to reflect on my resume? Am I ever going to get another job? He [Cuomo] would never be a reference for me.’

In hindsight many of these women are doubting their decisions to stay, but you can clearly understand why there’s so much fear.

In what ways is Cuomo’s alleged behavior similar to that of abusers who aren’t as famous and powerful?

It’s classic abuser. He and the people around him are minimizing, denying, and blaming―more popularly known as gaslighting. The deflecting is very typical. I read something where one of his staffers was a previous survivor of sexual assault, and how [Cuomo] focused on that and brought it up inappropriately. He wanted to know about her sexual relationships with her boyfriend. He’s compounding the trauma.

The other thing that is very typical is that we as a society expect victims of these sorts of incidents to be perfect. When we place these expectations on survivors―everyone is perfect, therefore, they shouldn’t be assaulted―that is not the message. The message is no one deserves to be vulnerable or in danger or targeted in the workplace.

If we’re going to really create a culture change where people are safe and can come to work as they are and do their jobs, we also have to have community responsibility. There were lots of people, particularly women, who made this all go away for Andrew.

Why didn’t the New York attorney general seek criminal charges against Cuomo?

Criminal cases of harassment are very hard to win. The criminal standard is beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil standards are lower. It would be an enormous financial burden on the AG’s office to prosecute harassment charges against the governor without what looks to be any substantiating physical evidence.

Also, the punishment for criminal harassment is basically a slap on the wrist. Cuomo would probably never go to jail or even be put on probation.

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