Herman Cain's Sexual Harassment Charges Aren't Just a 'Distraction'

Why, in the 21st century, does this country still struggle with matters of gender and sex?

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Why, in the 21st century, does this country still struggle with matters of gender and sex?

Defying repeated legal clarifications, office seminars, and basic common sense, many people still appear to believe that sexual harassment is in the eye of the beholder. And many also seem to think that all events involving a public official and sex are basically the same. In fact, the idea that this is all just another Mars vs. Venus divide, with men and women just constitutionally unable to see sexual matters in the same way, is not only lazy but insulting. And it removes accountability from people behaving badly.

[See 8 Politicos Who Survived Scandals.]

Sexual harassment in the workplace means pressuring someone for sex in exchange for better treatment at work. It also applies to a work environment so categorically hostile and deliberately sexually provocative that it makes it difficult at best for employees to work or succeed. It's really not that difficult to figure out. I have heard some men complain that they are afraid they will be sued or fired for telling a woman she has a nice dress on. First, show me the man who has been disciplined in the slightest for saying "nice dress." Most of us have been subject to far more graphic comments, and nothing happened to the person who said them. I find it difficult to believe that a male manager doesn't understand the different between "nice dress" and "nice ass" (or something even more crude). And if they can't grasp the difference, they shouldn't be in decision-making positions at any company.

Nor is anything involving sex the same. Texting your female employees pictures of your genitalia? Harassment. Texting the same to women who voluntarily entered into a cyber relationship with you? Really creepy, offensive, and narcissistic. Having an affair when you're an elected official? Very distasteful, but arguably no one's business. Lying about it, then asking your campaign manager to lie for you, and using campaign funds to achieve the cover-up? Also really bad, and possibly criminal, depending on whether there was misuse of campaign cash.

[Read: Penn State as Guilty as Catholic Church on Covering up Sex Abuse]

And grabbing someone's breasts, penis, or other private part is not "fondling" (as former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's alleged behavior toward women was described). It's molestation. Sticking your hand up someone's skirt and pulling her head toward your crotch against her will is not an "unwanted sexual advance," as the allegations against GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain have been described. It's an attempted sexual assault.

If a boss makes you "uncomfortable," as the unnamed women in the initial Politico story about Cain claimed, that is not sexual harassment. That's just having a job. If the "uncomfortable" feelings are the result of sexual pressure or repeated, inappropriate sexual comments, that is harassment.

[Vote: Can Herman Cain Put the Sexual Harassment Story Behind Him?]

We don't know what happened between Cain and the women who have accused him, especially since only one has come forward publicly. But the issue itself is a serious one. It's not a "distraction" from so-called "real" issues. Yes, the economy is struggling and the country is still trying to extricate itself from two wars. That doesn't mean it's open season for sexual harassment or assault.

  • Read Mary Kate on defending Herman Cain.
  • Read Ken Walsh's questions Herman Cain needs to answer.
  • See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.