sexual harassment

How Do We Handle Allegations Against the Men We Admire?

Al Franken. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Five days after radio host Leeanne Tweeden accused Senator Al Franken of harassing and groping her during a USO trip to the Middle East in 2006, 36 current and former female staffers of Saturday Night Live signed a letter in support of the former cast member. The women wrote that what Franken had done was “stupid and foolish” but asserted that in their time working with him “not one of us ever experienced any inappropriate behavior.”

The signatories of the SNL letter are not the first women to come forward in support of men accused of sexual misconduct. Following the New York Times’ first explosive report on the mountain of allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Streep issued a statement in which she called the news “disgraceful,” and praised the women coming forward as “heroes” — but she also wrote “Harvey supported the work fiercely, was exasperating but respectful with me in our working relationship, and with many others with whom he worked professionally.” This weekend, Girls creator and showrunner Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner issued a widely criticized statement of support for the show’s writer and executive Murray Miller, claiming that actress Aurora Perrineau’s allegations of assault against him were false. (Dunham later issued a second statement apologizing for her initial comments.)

These statements raise an important but uncomfortable question for women in the post-Weinstein era: how do we handle allegations of misconduct against men we respect, care about, and admire?

It is a big, messy, complicated question that likely has big, messy, complicated answers, but one thing’s for sure: there’s a huge difference between the comments made by the women of SNL and Meryl Streep, who acknowledged the accusations against Franken and Weinstein, and those of Dunham and Konner, who not only initially denied the accusations against Miller, but specifically cited the “3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year,” a reference which undermines other victims of harassment who might decide against coming forward with their own stories for fear they won’t be believed.

But even those statements that acknowledge a man’s wrongdoing can prove problematic. Because underneath the condemnation and hand-wringing, both Streep’s and the SNL statement can be boiled down to this: Well, he was always good to me.

This message is ignorant at best, and dangerous at worst. Sexual harassers don’t assault every single person in their lives — that’s not how it works. And victims should not be made to answer for the fact that a predator violated them instead of someone else — that’s the same kind of victim-blaming that has kept women from sharing their experiences of assault for much of history.

So why exactly do these women feel moved to issue statements of support? Is it a way to absolve themselves? To soothe the pain and humiliation of realizing a man they knew and respected had hurt other women? Is it a way of asserting that Franken groping a woman’s breast is not the same as Weinstein’s decades of violent abuse?

If it is an attempt to incorporate gradations into the current debate on sexual assault, we need to ask ourselves how we do so without minimizing victims’ experiences, and we also need to admit to ourselves that right now we may not know how to do that. There’s a lot we don’t know. We are, all of us, stumbling blindly through a foreign, unfamiliar landscape — one where we actually acknowledge women’s stories of sexual harassment. We’ve never been here before, and we don’t have a road map.

“It’s a real mindfuck, you know,” comedian Sarah Silverman said during a recent monologue for her new show I Love You, America, in which she addressed the sexual-harassment allegations against her friend and collaborator Louis C.K. “Because I love Louis. But Louis did these things. … I just keep asking myself, ‘Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them?’ I can mull that over later, certainly, because the only people that matter right now are the victims.”

How Do We Handle Allegations Against the Men We Admire?