Bernie Sanders, What Are You Even Doing?

[Content Note: Minimization of sexual harassment and assault.]

Once upon a time, before I was even born, Bernie Sanders wrote an essay in which he conjured a man in a couple fantasizing about abusing women while having sex with a female partner who is fantasizing about being raped; invoked a hypothetical newspaper article about a preteen girl being gang-raped; and referenced the woman having a "sex friend when [she was] 13 years old."

When I wrote about that essay, and Sanders' disappointing response to being asked about it, I noted that I was "more angry about the response than I was about the damn essay. The response tells me something about his current priorities and sensitivities, and I don't like what I'm being told one bit."

Because what we were all told, by one of Sanders' spokespeople, was that: "When Bernie got into this race, he understood that there would be efforts to distracts voters and the press from the real issues confronting the nation today."

And, as I said then, in May 2015, a month before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy, "male politicians seeking higher office who have loathsome ideas about women, gender roles, and sexual violence is one of 'the real issues confronting the nation today.'"

One might imagine that, with everything that has happened in the interim — including, of course, the election of a confessed serial sex abuser to the United States presidency — Sanders had reconsidered the wisdom of being dismissive of concerns about sexual violence.

One would, unfortunately, be mistaken.

On Meet the Press this weekend, where Sanders was a guest, host Chuck Todd played Sanders a clip of Republican Newt Gingrich (who led impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky while he was himself having an extramarital affair) saying that a "lynch mob" had ousted Al Franken, who was denied due process.

Todd asked Sanders if Franken shouldn't have been allowed to go before the Senate Ethics Committee, and mendaciously compared Franken to Senator Bob Menendez, who was recently tried on corruption charges, to suggest — wrongly — that Franken had been denied similar due process.

The exchange then continued:
SANDERS: I think in terms of Al Franken, what you have — and Al Franken is a friend of mine and, I think, has been a very good senator for Minnesota — but what you have is a situation where Senator Franken acknowledged wrongdoing, on several occasions inappropriate behavior, and he felt that the appropriate thing to do was to offer his resignation. I think what the absurdity is—

TODD: He didn't think — I'll be honest with you, senator — he didn't sound like somebody who thought it was appropriate. He sounded like somebody who was being forced to resign. He wasn't being forced?

SANDERS: Well, I don't know that you know what was in Al Franken's mind. But the point is, the point is, that we have the absurdity now of a president of the United States who basically says on a tape that everybody in this country has seen his pride, in a sense, in assaulting women. And he has not apologized for that and he has not offered his resignation. So I think that's the absurdity.

But I think in terms of what Gingrich was saying, there needs to be a due process. There needs to be a differentiation between somebody who pats somebody on the backside and somebody who commits terrible acts against women. And furthermore, what we need in this country and this whole debate, discussion is bringing this up, we need a cultural revolution.

Because it's not just famous people who are harassing women. There are people all over this country: Women who are working in restaurants who are being harassed every single day. We need to change the culture of how we treat women on the job.
Emphasis mine. Obviously, there is a lot there, but I want to focus on the highlighted portion.

First, I will stress again that Franken was not denied "due process" for a couple of reasons, most importantly because, in cases of older and/or non-criminal allegations, the investigation looks exactly like what news organizations reporting the allegations against Franken did: Talk to the complainant(s); interview friends and associates for contemporaneous personal reports; review social media.

To suggest there was no investigation of Franken ignores what investigations of incidents like these actually look like. It is to further ignore the journalistic rigor accompanying these reports in order to suggest reporters were merely stenographers publishing accusations they didn't even attempt to vet. That is simply not the case.

Secondly, everything about abuse ranking is gross, but the thing I hate most about Sanders' "pat on the backside vs. terrible act against women" comment is how casually it completely erases the ubiquity of sexual assault and thus the ubiquity of sexual trauma.

Someone who actually understands — and cares — how widespread sexual harassment and assault are should understand that there are countless survivors whose lived experiences already include a history of sexual abuse when they are harassed and/or assaulted (again).

An unwanted and unexpected "pat on the backside" can send someone with PTSD reeling. It can set them back years in the recovery process, where every step forward is hard fucking won.

This irresponsible and cruel narrative about how some sexual assault is so minor that it virtually shouldn't matter imagines that each act of sexual assault exists in a vacuum.

Not only does that suggest there is only one correct way to respond to unwanted touching, but it suggests that every person who is touched without their consent has exactly the same history, and exactly the same emotional resources, and exactly the same support network, and exactly the same relationship to the person touching them, and exactly the same potential recourse, and parity in all the other things that affect one's emotional response to sex abuse.

It suggests that survivors should "get over it," and that all of us can.

That is not the case.

And eliding all of those crucial differences is precisely why people who say things like Sanders said here describe sexual abuse by the act itself. A "pat on the backside" doesn't sound so bad to lots of people, in a contextless void.

But if you describe a scenario in which a boss who has been a trusted mentor pats his underling on the backside without consent or warning, just as she's about to give an important presentation, which triggers trauma from the childhood sex abuse she survived, and now she's frozen in her workplace, trying not to cry and fighting urges of self-harm and wondering if that was a one-off or if her boss is going to try something more on the client trip they're scheduled to take next week and trying to figure out how the fuck she is going to get through this presentation which could make or break the next step in her career...

Well, maybe that pat on the backside starts to look a lot more like a terrible act against a woman.

That's not some unlikely hypothetical I've conjured to shame Bernie Sanders. It is an extremely common scenario that is a part of many people's — especially women's — lived experiences.

Sure, unwanted touching isn't rape. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be taken extremely seriously.

And this endemic narrative that it somehow demeans "real" sexual abuse to treat unwanted touching seriously is garbage. To the absolute contrary, centering that unwanted touching can be a profound and serious trigger to survivors of other sexual abuse is an important acknowledgment of how horrendously common sexual violence is.

And how many of us are navigating our way through life as survivors of it.

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