The floodgates are open. Almost daily now Americans learn of another prominent man in politics, entertainment or the media who suddenly stands accused by a woman, if not a chorus of women, alleging everything from sexually inappropriate comments to groping to outright sexual assault.
Many of us are outraged, though our outrage often seems tempered by our political sentiments, which speaks of a society in fast decline. Many of us are also dumbfounded. As quick as we are to condemn loutish or predatory behavior, we wonder if every single allegation is true, as we should with any allegation, whatever the crime. Then again, we must acknowledge these allegations can’t all be exaggerations or lies.
This tipping point has been long in coming. Some claim it began with Anita Hill’s explosive claims of sexually inappropriate behavior by Clarence Thomas in 1991. Many women have not forgotten how Hill was spurned and disparaged while Thomas went on to be revered as a member of our nation’s highest court.
Such outrage gained momentum when former Baylor University students went on ESPN in 2016 to complain anonymously of Baylor’s indifference to their claims that football player Tevin Elliott had raped them. BU graduate Stefanie Mundhenk’s brave interview with Trib staff writer Phillip Ericksen about similar problems, also at Baylor, followed. Not only did we see outrage but also a determination by many not to let matters remain as they were. That’s good.
One critical blessing of so many women now coming forward to make similar claims against the powerful and influential is the catalyst they offer for parents, employers, co-workers, friends, spouses, teachers and organizations to condemn such behavior aggressively and make clear it simply won’t be tolerated. That, too, is good.
Yet all this also begs deeper reflection on what is acceptable and what’s not. As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus noted in a piece last week, when judging alleged sexual misbehavior, “Context matters, both to assess the behavior and to determine the appropriate response.” All offenses may be offensive, but not all offenses are equally offensive.
Marcus’ thoughts are worth examining. Each of the accused certainly deserves at least some scrutiny before we in society render judgment and condemnation. Each accusation deserves discrimination in the sense circumstances can differ dramatically. Is Al Franken’s immature mugging for a sexually suggestive photo with a fellow USO entertainer whose own stage routine on the same USO tour accented sexual lewdness on par with, say, Roy Moore’s apparent, repeated sexual focus on underage girls? It’s at least worth debating.
That said, the tidal wave of indignation building over years of women being marginalized while sexual offenders paid no price has resulted in a societal tsunami. The danger will come when an accuser is proven a liar, undermining not only a cause whose message should endure and translate into action but also those women who courageously risk vilification to save others from their fates. We ought not allow this to happen.