Cuomo’s Defense Is the Oldest Trick in the Book

Photo: Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

A months-long investigation into the numerous sexual-misconduct allegations against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo found that not only did he sexually harass at least 11 women but he also cultivated a “hostile work environment” that was “rife with fear and intimidation,” according to a 165-page report released by the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James. But despite the report’s findings and a growing number of calls for Cuomo’s resignation — including, most recently, one from President Joe Biden — Cuomo remains defiant in his attempt to remain in power.

In the wake of the damning report, Cuomo released an 85-page written response via his legal team, calling the independent investigation “utterly biased” and claiming it had “willfully ignored evidence inconsistent with the narrative of his accusers.” In addition, Cuomo tweeted a video response, saying “the facts are much different than what has been portrayed” before sharing that he has a family member who is a sexual-assault survivor and touting how difficult it is, for him, to hear victim’s stories. And after feigning his empathy for one such survivor, Charlotte Bennett, he went on to blame her for her “interpretation” of his well-intentioned actions. Cuomo also added that he’d watched his family member “live and suffer with the trauma,” before evoking victimlike rhetoric, claiming Bennett “brought it all back.” Cuomo claimed that the uncomfortable, detailed questions he asked Bennett about her assault were simply a demonstration of his desire to help her — then, he turned around and claimed that Bennet “heard things that I just didn’t say” before offering a de-facto non-apology, claiming the whole thing was all a misunderstanding borne out of Cuomo’s “bringing his personal life into the workplace.”

Finally, he added that the instances in which he touched women on the cheek were also misinterpreted — he does it with “everyone,” Cuomo promised, before showing a montage of pictures of him, in fact, kissing and touching people.

Now, ask a survivor of sexual assault or harassment what they hear in Cuomo’s words. You misunderstood. What you experienced isn’t true. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m right, and you, by virtue of simply coming forward and sharing your story, are wrong.

It’s nothing we haven’t heard before. Cuomo’s braggadocios defense has left many drawing parallels between him and the Republican Party, whose members have a history of proudly accepting and defending men accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault, pedophilia, and sex trafficking — a sort of Trumpian bulwark that is both obvious and effective. But Cuomo is not taking a page out of the GOP playbook — he’s taking one out of the justice system’s. He knows it will work because it has before.

As recently as the 1970s, the U.S. federal legal system required that a woman’s rape claim be corroborated by another person or by additional physical evidence in order for a jury to convict the defendant. Translation: A victim’s word was not to be trusted unless it could be substantiated by the form of physical wounds, bruises, or, at best, someone else. It was not until 2001 that every state in the country abolished that draconian requirement.

None of this should come as a surprise, though, given that this our justice system was designed to question what Sir Matthew Hale, an infamous English barrister, judge, and juror, called (in 1736) women’s “psychic complexes.” These “complexes,” he argued, were “multifarious, distorted by inherent defects, partly by diseased derangements or abnormal instincts, partly by bad social environment, partly by temporary physiological or emotional conditions.” Nearly 300 years later, we’re still hearing men in positions of power argue that what our hearing is distorted, our stories are deranged, and our experiences are nothing more than psychotic breaks.

Ask any survivor of sexual assault or harassment, anyone who has made the difficult decision to come forward knowing they’re likely to be ignored or retaliated against, and they’ll tell you that if someone doesn’t initially assume you came forward for nefarious reasons, they’ll assume you came forward because you were too dumb to realize what actually happened.

When I reported my rape, the detective assigned to my case asked me if I had given my attacker any signals that I wanted to have sex; if I was able to recall the evening accurately, given the amount of alcohol I had in my system; if it wasn’t really just me feeling ashamed and embarrassed about a sexual encounter. I’m not alone. Take, for instance, a 2016 report conducted by the U.S Justice Department, which found that Baltimore police officers treated victims with “undue skepticism” and went so far as to mock, insult, harass, and dismiss victims and their allegations. The Baltimore Police Department is far from alone, too.

“When I was raped, despite having internal injuries that required stitches and drugs I didn’t knowingly take being in my system, prosecutors told me, ‘While it may be morally reprehensible for a man to take advantage of a drunk woman, it isn’t rape,’” Leah Griffin, a rape victim and advocate, told the Cut. After being assaulted in 2014, Griffin went to an emergency room that did not have the resources to provide a rape kit, which was the start of a never-ending battle for Griffin to receive adequate support and justice. She has since worked with Washington state legislators to introduce legislation that mandate rape-kit testing and to establish the first rape-kit tracking system in the country.

“That response to my experience devastated me at the time, and what I’ve learned through the years of activism is that the prosecutor’s response was typical, and that the whole system is designed to protect perpetrators,” Griffin says. “Cuomo’s denial of the report is gaslighting at its finest, because it posits that investigators were out to get him when every survivor in the country knows the opposite to be true.”

“We as survivors and victims are experts in our own lives and experiences,” Alison Turkos, an activist, advocate, and survivor of multiple assaults, told the Cut. On Oct. 14, 2017, Turkos was kidnapped by her Lyft driver, driven across state lines, and gang-raped by three men while being held at gunpoint. Four years later, Turkos is still fighting for a prosecutor to take her case to court. “The truth is not flexible, no matter how often abusers attempt to manipulate the truth for their own benefit. Cuomo attempted to weaponize his own family’s sexual assault to gaslight us all, but specially Charlotte Bennett, in hopes we would believe his lies. Mr. Governor, we are not dumb and cannot be played.”

Cuomo’s language of denial is not Trumpesque — it’s judicial. It’s the same language evoked by the prosecutor who told Griffin she wasn’t raped. The investigator who told me I was mistaken. The district attorneys that have failed Turkos and the many survivors that came before her, and are sure to come after her, too.

The real question lies in not who Cuomo is emulating more, but who else are we going to allow this system to fail? Charlotte Bennett? A state trooper assigned to his detail? Lindsey Boylan? An anonymous state entity employee? Alyssa McGrath? Ana Liss? Anna Ruch? Katilin? Or are we finally going to demand accountability and let someone else lead New York, and the country, forward.

“Survivors and victims are leaders. Not only in our own lives, but our workplaces and our communities,” Turkos says. “When we make the difficult decision to come forward we know we have nothing to gain and everything to lose. We are witnessing first hand survivorship as leadership.”

Cuomo’s Defense Is the Oldest Trick in the Book