What the Gov. Cuomo Situation Teaches Us: Harassment Still Treated Differently Than Other Crimes

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Society must start treating sexual harassment victims with the same respect given to victims of non-sexual crimes.

Regardless of whether New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is guilty or innocent of sexual harassment in the workplace, the reaction to the accusations against him are the latest proof that society assigns a different value to sexual harassment than it does to other crimes. Already people are asking, Was it really that bad? What’s the big deal?

The truth is, when a line is crossed, damage occurs. Any transgression has an impact. As one of the characters in Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, says, “There is no such thing as mild trauma.”

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But this will never be reflected in societal attitudes and criminal prosecutions as long as sexual crimes continue to be “ranked” by different criteria than non-sexual crimes. Correlating the two types of crime highlights a stark inequity.

Take theft. Like sexual crimes, theft encompasses a sweeping scope of severity, from pickpocketing to grand larceny. While a million-dollar theft may get more attention from the authorities, even a lesser theft is treated seriously, and the victim isn’t asked why he is reporting the crime or if it really mattered.

A street punk stealing $10 from an individual in an alley is as accountable for the crime as a professional thief who steals thousands of dollars’ worth of valuables from a home. More to the point, in both cases, we acknowledge that the victims suffer, and we don’t judge them if they feel violated, frightened or powerless.

We understand that being a victim of theft or burglary impacts different individuals in different ways. In fact, one crime with multiple victims can impact each victim differently. The level of trauma is influenced by factors including the victim’s mindset, the victim’s previous experiences, the nature of the transgression, and the relationship and power balance between the perpetrator and victim.

Society doesn’t weigh a thief’s intentions or motivations when determining what impact a victim of theft is entitled to feel.

Perhaps most telling, with non-sexual crimes, we do not weigh the perpetrator’s intentions or motivations when determining what impact the victim is entitled to feel.

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We must apply the same compassion to victims of sexual crimes that we extend to victims of other crimes. A ranking system for harassment is necessary to define appropriate punishment, but we can’t assign a value to the damage in wholesale terms based solely on where it falls on a spectrum of severity.

Victim impact statements are used in courtrooms for a reason. They help judge and jury measure the extent of the trauma to the victim, which informs the punishment.

We must acknowledge that what many view as “mild harassment” can have a significant and/or lasting impact on the victim. And the degree of trauma must be a factor in ranking the severity of sexual harassment because only then will perpetrators think twice about the potential impact of their actions—on their victims and on themselves—before committing their crimes.

Almost counts.