Opinion

How to make sure the lessons of America's sexual misconduct reckoning really stick this time

Has America really learned its lesson on sexual misconduct? Don't be so sure ...

In the fall of 1991, the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Clarence Thomas captivated America. Anita Hill, a subordinate to Thomas during his stints at the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, emerged during Thomas' nomination hearings to accuse him of sexual harassment during their time working together.

Thomas won confirmation anyway. He emerged embittered, decrying the "high-tech lynching" he'd been subjected to. Hill, meanwhile, was viciously smeared by the conservative establishment as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty."

But something else (supposedly) emerged from those hearings: a dawning of a new era in which Americans knew that sexual harassment was bad, and something to take seriously. HR departments across the land, newly aware of the legal minefield in their offices, began to include sexual harassment and sensitivity training in their portfolios. The Thomas hearings, at the very least, had helped society wake up to the problem.

"There is a radical change in culture," Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University, told The New York Times. "Things which used to be tolerated by both genders are now increasingly defined as inconceivable. And I find it interesting that this case focuses on the margins: You said, but you didn't touch. It's a good place for the debate to be. It's an interesting indication how the culture has changed."

Sound familiar?

What's fascinating about all the voices that have emerged in 2017 is how little the culture has changed since 1991. The lessons learned from the Clarence Thomas hearings were given lip service by responsible corporate and political leaders across the land — and then, apparently, utterly disregarded.

Which begs a question: What makes this time different? How do we know that we're learning the right lessons this time? How do we know that the cries of "me too" won't give way to apathy? How do we know we won't be replaying this exact same scene again in another quarter-century?

What are we going to do — what are you going to do — to make sure that this time, the lessons of America's awakening on sexual misconduct sticks?

The good news is this: In 2017, there have been consequences. While Clarence Thomas retains his seat on the court, men like Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, and John Conyers — and so many more — have seen their careers in entertainment, politics, and news suddenly and unceremoniously end. Consequences matter: They tell the next guy that he may pay a price for his bad behavior, one that can't be paid for him by the company, or the taxpayer, or covered up by ex-Mossad agents. He may lose his power.

Will demanding consequences be enough? Perhaps not entirely: Remember the example of Anthony Weiner, who lost his congressional seat, then a mayoral race, and so much more because of his inability to stop being bad even when the spotlight was at its harshest.

And there's bad news: The consequences have been distributed unevenly. Franken is resigning, but Donald Trump is president. Conyers is leaving, but Alabamians appear poised to elect Roy Moore. The people who have paid the consequences still have plenty of staunch defenders. And the usual suspects are out complaining: What, I can't even compliment a woman?

Refer again to that 1991 Times story, how every single element feels so fresh and familiar. "It has now reached a point where I don't know how any man, no matter how sensitive he is, could know what the rules of this game are," a conservative woman told the paper back then. "And it's a dangerous thing." Again: Sound familiar?

So how to make the lesson stick this time? The best sign for hope may lie in this: When Franken announced his resignation last week, he did so after dozens of his fellow Democratic senators, many of them women, called for him to step down. His replacement will very likely be a woman, bringing the total in the Senate to 22, an all-time high. When women are in power, it's more likely that the culture will push back against men's bad behavior.

Then again, we thought and hoped the same thing in 1991.

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