Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is currently facing controversy regarding sexual harassment allegations from two former state employees, and a third woman describing unwelcomed behavior from the governor while at a wedding. In his public remarks concerning the allegations, Cuomo himself said he was embarrassed by his actions and provided a few apologies, but ultimately refused to resign even after receiving bipartisan backlash. For the first time in a while, Cuomo has been in the news without being praised (as he was for his strict responses to COVID-19 pandemic). But, what I genuinely find surprising about the whole situation is the surprise that these allegations have been met with.
Simply put, power consists of control, authority or influence over others. In Cuomo’s case, his influence is governmental, and New York elected him fairly because they theoretically trusted him to use his authority for good. His various elections weren’t permission to exploit others, but this has somehow still occurred. Unfortunately, men in positions of power abusing their power is not a new phenomenon. Hierarchies that naturally exist in society make it incredibly easy for inequalities of status to go to one’s head. Even if powerful people aren’t consciously thinking, “I will use my status to get what I want, even against the wishes of those below me,” it’s very easy for someone to exploit vulnerable people beneath them.
Recent theories posit that power specifically makes men overestimate the sexual interest of others, falsely believing the women around them are more attracted to them than they are in reality. (It can seem unfair to emphasize male abusers, but the same studies also found women are less vulnerable to corruption and less likely to engage in sexual aggression.) Being the “strongest” in the room can lead men to assume their sexual advances are always welcome, creating environments filled with sexual harassment. Additionally, a feeling of power makes people impulsive and less aware of the needs of others. This allows pre-existing tendencies of exploitation to rise to the surface almost effortlessly.
Essentially, when others typically bend at your will, it creates a sense of entitlement and an assumption that they will always accept anything you say or do. However, this is just not the case. Consequently, sexual harassment claims are a staple of our nightly news cycle, often involving extremely well-known people.
Not all men in power will become abusers. But, being in power opens up doors bearing inequalities that allow for exploitation. And this is semi-reminiscent of how these individuals sometimes handle office or other powerful positions. From this standpoint, their power is a false sense of security.
When people always look to you for answers, you begin to assume you’re never wrong. If you’re never questioned or your behavior isn’t kept in check, you never face any consequences. While not actually invulnerable, power can make one feel indestructible, even if implicitly. And honestly, I’d be willing to bet this is part of the reason why most apologizes in these types of situations contain something along the lines of, “While I did not recognize it at the time, I now understand that my actions were inappropriate and how they could have made others feel uncomfortable.”
None of these studies or hypotheses are excuses for abuses of power. If anything, those at the top should be more aware of the corruption power could provide them and, thus, exactly how their actions are impacting others on a daily basis. However, it’s also important to look at the explanations behind such trends. Harvey Weinstein wasn’t the exception; his despicable actions are unfortunately part of a larger pattern that we only recently started discussing as a society. This is why I’m simply not surprised that Governor Cuomo is now facing harassment allegations of his own.
It’s incredibly hard to come forward as a victim, and even harder to get justice for victims. But we can’t keep falling into our typical cycle of inaction, continuing to allow powerful people to get away with exploiting others. We need to launch impartial, yet thorough investigations. We need legal action against abusers that doesn’t end up settled out of court for undisclosed sums. We need real consequences for those harming others to get what they want. We need adjustments to our system that remove abusers from power, while also checking more closely on the behavior of powerful people. And, we need an overall societal narrative that emphasizes the fact that abuse isn’t okay even if you’re powerful. It’s unfortunate, but until we do these things, we’re just going to have to keep faking shock each time another powerful man harasses, exploits or abuses another woman.