NEW YORK – He said his actions had been misconstrued, his words misunderstood. He said it was cultural: He hugs, he kisses, he says “Ciao, bella.” He said it was generational: Sometimes he lapses into “honey” or “sweetheart” or tells bad jokes.
But of all New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s responses to investigative findings that he sexually harassed 11 women, one that most disturbed many women — particularly sexual assault survivors and their advocates — was his use of a family member’s sexual assault to explain his own behavior with an accuser.
“We will not be moved by Governor Cuomo’s attempts to use the stories of survivors, including those he harassed, as a shield for his own misconduct and abuse of power all while claiming the harassment was a ‘misunderstanding,’” said an open letter to be released Thursday by the National Women’s Law Center and several gender and survivor groups, demanding the Democratic governor’s resignation or removal.
Tarana Burke, the survivor and advocate who gave the #MeToo movement its name, wrote in an email to The Associated Press that “abusers, no matter their own personal histories, do not get to center themselves in cases of abuse.”
“In these moments, survivor’s stories are the ones that should be elevated,” Burke said. “There are 11 women, whose stories were corroborated, who experienced harassment at the hands of the governor. His family’s story does not exonerate him, and he does not get to use someone else’s trauma as his own shield.”
The allegations that investigators said they corroborated ranged from inappropriate comments to forced kisses and groping.
In a taped statement Tuesday, Cuomo denied ever touching anyone inappropriately but apologized to two accusers, including former staffer Charlotte Bennett. He said he asked Bennett about her love life in a misunderstood bid to help her cope with trauma from a past sexual assault. He spoke of a family member, about the same age, who'd been sexually assaulted in high school.
“I thought I could help her work through a difficult time,” the governor said of Bennett.
Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the NWLC, said Cuomo was “suggesting that he is a hero for survivors of sexual assault, which is an especially disturbing move given all that this report found.”
“In some ways it reminds me of the ‘father of daughters’ comments that we hear from so many men in power,” Martin said, “that we should take them at their word that they care about these issues based on their personal family relationships.”
Bennett herself called Cuomo's apology “meaningless.”
“If he were sorry, he would step down. That’s how accountability works,” she told the AP immediately following the remarks.
Elaborating Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Bennett said: “He insinuated that survivors of trauma and sexual assault can’t tell the difference between mentorship and leadership and sexual harassment itself, which is not only insulting to me but to every survivor who listened to him yesterday.”
Marissa Hoechstetter was one of those survivors. She said she was saddened by Cuomo’s reference to his relative’s assault “because I do not want to diminish those experiences.” But, added the advocate for reform in New York state, “two things can be true. You can have someone in his family who experienced sexual harm, and he could also have caused this harm.”
“You feel so gutted when you see people’s trauma trotted out to try to explain away another person’s rightful voice,” Hoechstetter said.
Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Northwestern University law professor who specializes in sexual misconduct, saw Cuomo’s remarks as part of a larger strategy to discredit his accusers and save his political career.
“We often draw on a set of longstanding misconceptions about abusers as ‘monsters’ with no redeeming qualities whatsoever," Tuerkheimer said. “Whenever an accused man looks different from this imagined monster, we’re more inclined to doubt the allegations against him. And accused men often strategically tap into this cultural bias by highlighting, as evidence of innocence, their best qualities — including, perhaps, empathy for victims of sexual assault.”
For Indira Henard, director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, the case against Cuomo’s statement was simple: You can’t support survivors in one sentence and discredit them in another.
“If you stand and believe survivors, then you believe survivors," Henard said. “You don’t get to take apart their story.”
Many also questioned the effectiveness of other parts of Cuomo’s taped statement, which was accompanied by a slideshow of him hugging and kissing people in benign settings.
“I do kiss people on the forehead,” he said. “I do kiss people on the cheek. I do kiss people on the hand. I do embrace people. I do on occasion say, ‘Ciao, bella.’"
Evan Nierman, CEO and president of Red Banyan, a crisis public relations firm based in Florida and Washington, D.C., called it “a bold move” by Cuomo “to assert that he’s some sort of a serial hugger and therefore none of the allegations could be true because he hugs and kisses everybody.”
“There’s a big difference between appropriate physical contact and types of allegations that were levied against the governor," said Nierman, "and so I don’t think most people are going to conflate the two.”
Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguistics professor who studies cross-cultural communication, noted Cuomo's reference to his heritage. She acknowledged that Italian Americans tend toward casual touches in conversation, “but that’s not touching sexual places.”
“That is friendly kissing,” she said. “So I think that, too, is not really relevant to the most serious allegations.”
From crisis communication experts to survivors, many agreed that Cuomo’s political future seems unsalvageable. For New York and his accusers to move forward, they said, the governor needs to be held accountable.
“Simply put, he needs to resign,” Henard said, adding that if he doesn't, he should be removed. "There’s no coming back from this.”