Why the Herman Cain Sex Scandal Is Good For America

Vulnerable women are sticking up for themselves--and being taken seriously.

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There are four elements of the sexual allegations against Herman Cain that seem to represent progress:

  1. A successful male baby boomer, accustomed to getting his way, didn't.
  2. Young women who felt aggrieved stood up for themselves.
  3. The system, though imperfect, worked.
  4. Race could be an issue, but so far it hasn't been.
  5. There's a lot we don't know about what happened between the Republican presidential candidate and his female accusers, years ago, when nobody thought he'd be running for president. As in many such situations, there will never be a precise set of "facts" everybody agrees upon. At least four women claim that Cain, while running the National Restaurant Association, made inappropriate sexual advances. Cain denies that he did anything wrong. Onlookers will form opinions based on their own biases and personal experiences. Husbands and wives will disagree. Voices will rise at cocktail parties and dinner tables.

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    It's hardly surprising to hear claims that a powerful person such as Cain pressured a subordinate for sexual favors. Such incidents usually follow a familiar script. Usually, of course, it's a male boss exploiting a female underling, with implied rewards for capitulation and the threat of punishment for rejection. Allegations of misbehavior are usually followed by indignant denials, and sometimes, counterclaims about the woman's ulterior motives. Then, somebody has to do something about the whole ugly mess, even though it's hard or impossible to prove what happened.

    Rules and policies prohibiting sexual harassment obviously haven't put an end to lascivious behavior. Sex scandals ensnared Hewlett-Packard's former CEO Mark Hurd and Boeing's former CEO Harry Stonecipher. The military routinely tries commanders who express sexual interest in subordinates. Bill Clinton and Clarence Thomas made the whole nation cringe while defending themselves against charges of indecency. Many sports stars and Hollywood celebrities seem to think that sexual favors come with the job.

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    Just as important as the well-known cases are thousands of routine instances of workplace harassment that never make headlines. Many women have had to deal with unwanted advances from somebody senior to them, and figure out if it's harmless boorishness or something more serious. Even when it's obvious a pursuer has crossed the line, taking some kind of action is risky and unpleasant. Instead of focusing on their job or career, women have to brace for a battle that offers little or no upside and could be ruinous.

    To some extent, Herman Cain's alleged indiscretions fit the familiar pattern. But there's something encouraging about how they played out. For starters, in the instances we've heard about so far, Cain didn't get what he was after. There have been many shocking cases over the years of powerful men basically getting whatever they wanted, as if they were unanswerable to any authority other than their own. Cain apparently wasn't one of them. It's possible there were other instances where Cain propositioned a woman, and succeeded. Maybe that's why he felt emboldened enough to run his hand up the skirt of a woman asking for a job, as accuser Sharon Bialek has charged. But Cain clearly struck out enough to realize he couldn't just snap his fingers and get his way. That's a welcome sign that times have changed for the better.

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    The reason Cain struck out so often is that vulnerable women said no to him. That's heartening, too. Three of Cain's unnamed accusers were relatively low-ranking employees at the restaurant association, who must have felt intimidated when forced to turn down the top man. Bialek, in her account, portrayed herself as desperate for a job when Cain allegedly groped her in a car and suggested that he'd help her out if she complied. She said no anyway. So far, in fact, there's no known case of a subordinate who submitted to Cain's advances. That reflects a culture in which women increasingly know their rights and stick up for themselves.

    When women working at the restaurant association complained about Cain's behavior, the association seems to have taken them seriously, which is another refreshing step forward. There have been countless cases of women complaining about harassment--and being patted on the head and told to pipe down. Part of the reason most employers now take sexual harassment seriously is the risk of ugly lawsuits, which is not exactly the ideal basis for treating women fairly. But if the threat of litigation helps create a more comfortable workplace, that's better for everybody.

    The restaurant association apparently resolved some of the complaints against Cain by making modest payouts to the accusers, allowing them to leave and seek other work. On one hand, those payouts seem like hush money that allowed Cain to stay in his job without having to account for the incidents. Yet it's also important to remember that sexual harassment is difficult to prove, and there are in fact cases in which allegations are exaggerated or untrue. Based on what we know, those payouts seem like a form of justice that allowed the accusers to move on without having to take a public stand and risk besmirchment. As for Bialek, it's impossible to know if she deserved a job on the merits, or would have gotten one absent any sexual overtures. But we do know she wasn't fired by Cain or punished at work for saying no to him.

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    The Cain scandal also, mercifully, lacks the accusations of racism that made the Clarence Thomas ordeal so explosive. That's partly because Cain himself, who is black, hasn't claimed that race is an issue, even though some of his accusers have been white. The whole scandal could still turn in that direction, but so far it has hinged on the allegations themselves. That's another sign of cultural attunement to the seriousness of sexual harassment. It may also represent a growing comfort level with blacks holding the same positions of power as whites—and being treated the same if they abuse that power. Race, in fact, has been a positive aspect of Cain's entire candidacy, largely because it hasn't been an issue.

    Cain, of course, seems stunned by the allegations and the growing likelihood that they'll derail his underdog campaign. His blanket denials might have helped put the matter to rest in a corporate environment, but they've put him far behind his own story in the media hothouse he's in now. Cain's learning that he can't control the message as a public candidate the way he could as a corporate executive. He may also be learning that crude behavior, even if it's not illegal, comes with a price. It's a lesson that might be catching on. 

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