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Herman Cain and sexual harassment

November 2, 2011 |  8:13 pm

Herman Cain

This post has been corrected, as indicated below.

Some of Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s conservative supporters are flocking to his defense over sexual harassment claims against him by two women and the legal settlement that was reached.

"Ladies, lighten up!" is the line they're taking. "Don't take it so seriously! C'mon, it's a compliment, and all in good fun!"

It's not only not flattering, it can actually be frightening. Sexual harassment doesn't even have to be hands-on physical.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said: "There are people now who hesitate to tell a joke to a woman in the workplace, any kind of joke, because it could be interpreted incorrectly."

Glad to hear that, congressman. You should think twice, and then think again, before you tell that vulgar joke. The unwanted sexually suggestive comment, the oppressive workplace climate of permissive sleaze -- none of it is entertaining or amusing to people, men or women, who are afraid of losing raises or promotions or even jobs if they complain or fight back.

That's why they call it sexual harassment, not sexual flattery. It isn't right, whether it's Bill Clinton or Herman Cain.

It would be great if saying ''no'' put an end to this, but saying "no" can put the women themselves at risk. Management may secretly label them as bad sports. If they don't put up with harassment, their prospects for raises and promotions may be damaged. They're not "team players."  Think of the women who say they were harassed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, on a movie set or serving tables at a restaurant. They had no power to complain about the humiliation, and when they did reveal what had happened, they were insulted and further humiliated by people who said it was their fault, or that they were lying or fantasizing. Some women who fear for their jobs or their prospects if they complain are forced to try to avoid their harassers or even rearrange desks or work schedules to keep away from them -- but it's not always possible.

Cain inadvertently made women's best point about unwanted sexual harassment on Wednesday, when he walked away from an event where reporters had been told he would answer questions and found he wouldn't, and they kept asking questions as he left.

He said: "What part of 'no' don’t people understand?"

Exactly.

Some Republicans still are livid at the sexual harassment allegations made in 1991 by Anita Hill and other women against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Those televised hearings 20 years ago changed politics, ushered in the political "Year of the Woman" in the 1992 elections, and gave women the courage to speak openly about something they had just shut up and put up with before. I know they did that for me, and for so many of the women who showed up at the L.A. Central Library last month when I interviewed Hill on the anniversary of the hearings and about her new book.

Conservatives now scrambling to Cain's defense are blowing off sexual harassment claims as just a bunch of women not getting the joke, regarding sexual harassment as nothing more than the routine pleasantries between the sexes. It all just reminds me of something ... let me think ...

... a place where people brush off sexual harassment as flattery ... where male colleagues and bosses act like they're God's gift to women and women are loath to tell them otherwise ... a place where women are given to understand that they should just shut up and enjoy it.

Oh my goodness! The conservatives are acting ... French!

[For the record, 2:22 p.m. Nov 5: The original version of this post attributed the quote about workplace jokes to Texas Rep. Ron Paul. It was said by his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, in an interview with National Review Online.]

ALSO:

Cain plays the race card, unfortunately

Battle of the sexes: Where men still win

Are women really victims of the 'motherhood penalty'?

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain arrives to speak at the Congressional Health Caucus Thought Leaders Series on Wednesday on Capitol Hill. Credit: Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press

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