After an independent investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James concluded that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had sexually harassed at least 11 women, Cuomo announced Tuesday that he was resigning. “The best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing, and therefore, that’s what I’ll do,” Cuomo said during a news conference. “I work for you, and doing the right thing is doing the right thing for you.”
In so many instances, big and small, progressive organizations, institutions and people want to avoid the messiness of holding their own accountable in the name of the “greater good.”
While Cuomo resigning is the right thing to do, it is far from enough. Continued focus and pressure on those who enabled Cuomo is just as vital if we are to truly hold abusers, those who validate them and the institutions built specifically to protect them accountable.
Which is why the resignation that preceded Cuomo’s by one day carried its own special significance: that of Roberta Kaplan, who had legal ties to Cuomo and, according to James’ report, assisted in trying to discredit at least one of his accusers. Kaplan stepped down as chairwoman of Time’s Up amid public criticism, including an open letter signed by myself and 29 others affiliated with the organization, which was founded in response to the #MeToo movement. Time’s Up raises money to support victims of sexual assault and, per its website, “fights for a future where no one is harassed, assaulted, or discriminated against at work,” making her involvement in Cuomo’s legal troubles a clear violation of all the organization claims to care about.
The revelations about her behavior underscore how enablers work to prop up those at the top, how widespread they are among the circles of those in power — and how they are just as likely to come dressed in sheep’s clothing as in a wolf’s. (Cuomo has denied that he sexually harassed anyone, and Kaplan has cited her work as a practicing lawyer in staying mum.)
Kaplan’s resignation, like Cuomo’s, was a right and necessary step, but it’s merely a balm on the open wound of pervasive gender-based violence and harassment that has long penetrated progressive institutions and organizations. Yes, those who actively caused harm must resign or be removed from office — but that is the bare minimum. Until we remove those who value adjacent power over people, the status quo over systemic change and their own voices over the voices of those they claim to support, cycles of abuse will continue.
I joined with other sexual assault victims and survivors, current and former Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund clients and former Time’s Up staffers in signing the open letter accusing the organization of being “complicit in enabling abuse” by prioritizing a “proximity to power” over victims, for many reasons. I am a victim of sexual assault and will always stand behind and beside victims and survivors as we all work together to create a safer, more equitable society free from gender-based violence. And I believe in accountability, not just when it’s easy to wield but especially when it’s painful to execute.
But the main reason I signed the letter is because a singular focus on powerful, predatory men is, simply put, not enough. I watched people try to deflect attention from Cuomo by comparing him to GOP transgressors who haven't been held accountable, the “What about the Republicans?” tweets that turn acts of harm into partisan talking points. I listened to people lament the fact that Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to Cuomo, resigned before her boss — as if women cannot perpetuate wrongdoing by cozying up to influential predatory men so they can wield some modicum of influence, too. I could see the mental math done by some who truly believe keeping harmful people in positions of power is worth it as long as it’s their people.
This has happened before — a hesitancy to hold supposed allies accountable for fear the optics are less than ideal and a belief that a person’s professed ideology is more important than their actual behavior. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was chastised for calling on then-Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign after photos surfaced of him apparently groping a sleeping woman. Abortion rights and other reproductive justice organizations were fractured by infighting over how to react to sexual assault allegations against prominent abortion provider Dr. Willie Parker. In so many instances, big and small, progressive organizations, institutions and people want to avoid the messiness of holding their own accountable in the name of the “greater good.”
Which is why it’s hardly a coincidence that in the Time's Up response to the open letter, the organization urged its “sisters and allies” not to “lose sight of the broader work or let a man’s treachery overshadow it in any way.” It went on to say that while it does not “ask for a pass,” it does “ask for perspective.” The message was clear: We know what’s best, and we need you to prioritize our so-called mission over the harm we have caused.
It’s an ask we survivors have heard time and time again. Be patient. Think of the bigger picture. There is honor in martyrdom, after all.
But as sexual assault victims and survivors, we are the authority, which is why these messages discrediting both survivors’ stories and our abilities are perhaps the most detrimental: They uphold the notion that survivors and victims are powerless. We’re told we cannot advocate for ourselves but must instead trust someone else to be the expert in our own lived experiences; that we are not powerful enough, connected enough, credible enough — or, simply, enough.
“I sometimes see advocates say, ‘We’re a voice for the voiceless,’ and it enrages me,” Alison Turkos, a multiple-assault survivor who organized the open letter, said about those who shroud themselves in allyship as they pursue their own self-interests.
“Survivors have a voice, and when you operate from the belief that survivors are voiceless, then you participate in actively silencing us,” she told me. “Survivors can speak for ourselves. That was proven yesterday with this letter and is proven time and time again when survivors share their stories and break the world open.”
The bar for holding powerful men accountable is low — that Cuomo managed to lift his pinky toe in order to clear it is worth acknowledging. But it is just one of the many steps we as a society must take to truly hold everyone accountable.