Our recent and overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and sexual assault have prompted some concerns. Will a wave of testimony lead to a prudish overcorrection? Will simple misunderstandings and single acts that are foolish but not violent lead men to be lumped in with predators when they don’t deserve it? Thankfully, the past few months of ugly headlines have given us one clear potential answer to these questions: If there’s a pattern of behavior, and of people feeling victimized, you can be pretty sure you’re not dealing with a misunderstanding or with innocent actions that one person is simply too prudish to handle.
An instructive example of this debate came on Nov. 16, when Leeann Tweeden came forward to say that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., had sexually harassed her while they were on a USO tour together in 2006. As it tends to, the news cycle jumped into overdrive, with arguments about why Franken should stay in the Senate or about the distinction between Franken’s conduct and more violent offenses flying thick and fast.
The assumption behind those arguments seemed to be that Tweeden’s allegation was the whole basis of the case against Franken. But if we’ve learned anything since Harvey Weinstein’s conduct was exposed by the New York Times and the New Yorker in October, it ought to be this: The first accusation of sexual misconduct by a powerful man is rarely the last one. And I was sadly unsurprised on Monday when a woman came forward to say that Franken grabbed her behind while taking a picture with her at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010.
One of the most frightening things about our current confrontation with the reality that sexual harassment, abuse and assault are widespread is the numbers, not just of men who carry out these acts but also of the number of women each man targets.
The New York Times just suspended star journalist Glenn Thrush after four women, including the writer Laura McGann, recounted stories in which Thrush allegedly made advances on them after events involving alcohol; in some cases, they felt that he retaliated against them after they refused his advances.
Five women told The New York Times that comedian Louis C.K. had harassed them, including incidents where he masturbated in front of them or while on the phone with them.
Eight women told The Post that television host Charlie Rose harassed them, putting his hand on their thighs, appearing naked in front of them and making disturbing phone calls.
Nine women have said that Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore either pursued them as teenagers or initiated sexual conduct with them when they were under age.
A review by the Old Vic theater found 20 people who said that Kevin Spacey, while serving as artistic director, had behaved inappropriately towards them, and that’s not counting the allegations against him in the United States.
As of October 27, 80 women had come forward to accuse Weinstein of harassment and assault.
Literally hundreds of women have alleged that director James Toback sexually harassed them.
Sometimes, these multiple allegations are a reflection on us as much as the alleged perpetrator. Rape is an evil act, and if it takes multiple allegations of rape to convince us that a man is a rapist, that’s a reflection on us, not an argument that you have to rape more than one woman to be considered an evil person.
But for lesser, but still reprehensible acts, part of confronting our culture of sexual harassment and sexual violence is recognizing that not only do a shockingly large number of men do this but also they each do it to a lot of women. Sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct on this scale are serial acts, and the people who carry it out have identifiable modus operandi. They put themselves in situations where they can drink with much younger female colleagues. They ask women up to hotel rooms for what are ostensibly professional meetings. They cruise the mall. Like former President George H.W. Bush – and now, allegedly, Franken – they touch women’s behinds when they pose for pictures with them.
These are not the same men who ask a co-worker out once and take no for an answer, or who hug a co-worker with whom they would normally shake hands in a moment of professional elation. I hope we can all agree that there is a clear difference between a single awkward conversation or a single misinterpretation and a man who repeatedly puts himself into those circumstances. A mistake or a one-off error of judgment isn’t so hard to distinguish from a clear pattern of behavior.
This is why the second woman (or man) who comes forward with an allegation of sexual harassment about a man is just as brave and just as important as the first person who steps up. Every person’s testimony helps us see more clearly who the man in question really is.
Alyssa Rosenberg is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter, @alyssarosenberg. © 2017 The Washington Post Writers Group