There’s a photo of me at a party during my college days. In it, I’m sitting on my bed with a young woman, both of us clothed, both alert. I’m holding a canister of hair mousse symbolically between her legs, near her knees. It was a moment for the camera that came and went in a flash, and I’m not sure anyone remembers it but me, but to anyone who saw the photo now, I’d look indelibly like a creep. The irony is that the defining characteristic of my intergender behavior has always been timidity.
Here’s the context. At age 21, I had yet to have sex, and my friends thought I was way past due. They had maneuvered to get this young woman and me together in my bedroom, to where the party had raucously branched. I realized this after they later coyly slipped away, closing the door behind them. It seemed to me that the woman might indeed have been open to at least some intimacy — but I wasn’t, not just for the sake of saying I’d done it. The satyristic posturing captured in the photo had been false bravado.
But I regret it, much as I imagine U.S. Sen. Al Franken regrets a photo that recently came to light, in which he appears to be groping, or at least pretending to grope, a sleeping woman’s breasts.
Here’s that context, for review. Franken, not yet in the Senate, was on a USO tour to entertain troops overseas in 2006. Leeann Tweeden, a Los Angeles radio personality, was part of the ensemble. In an account published on the KABC Radio website, she wrote that Franken did two things to her: He wrote a script in which she and he were to kiss, which he insisted on practicing with gusto. (He has responded that he doesn’t remember things the same way.) He also committed the ostensible groping after Tweeden had fallen asleep on a transport plane, exhausted. For documentation, Tweeden posted a snapshot she’d discovered after the fact. Franken was 55 at the time.
It has become clear these last several weeks that revelations about sexual misconduct are going to sweep up favorable and unfavorable people alike, favorability being determined by one’s overall opinion of an individual. (I’ve spent most of a life much less visible than Franken’s trying to behave with respect toward all people, yet I still have that moment on my conscience.)
Public reaction to the Franken news was hearteningly complex. In my role monitoring letters to the editor for the Star Tribune, I noticed that men were the quickest to call for his resignation, with women — and some ideological conservatives — more likely to allow for nuance, both in terms of the reported events and the impact on equitable leadership.
Whatever happens or has happened with the senator — I use qualifying language because of the risk of being overtaken by developments at any time on a story like this — I suspect that a lot of men these days are scouring their memories for mistakes they’ve made, wondering what an action might have cost others and what it might cost themselves now. I suspect that skeletons are abundant in our nation’s closets.
Although some of this conduct will have been clearly more egregious than other conduct, how thoroughly are we willing and able to adjudicate all of the examples that pile up?
The photo of Franken reaching for Tweeden is terrible even if he didn’t actually touch her, because of her inability to object and more so because it occurred in connection with the USO tour, which should be considered a work environment. The allegation of his aggressively kissing her is a matter of less clarity but is circumstantially supported by the other, documented incident. Subsequent allegations from others of unwelcomed touching by Franken show the perils of having had untold, and heretofore unscrutinized, interactions with the public once a window opens for the telling.
What should be our standard for judging whether a purported example of bad behavior was characteristic? The court of public opinion is not a court of law, so we need not reject evidence that doesn’t meet legal standards, but we shouldn’t zealously embrace it, either.
Getting back to my own example, I could propose mitigating factors. I could say that my suggestive placement of the object wasn’t as bad as it might seem from the description, that even in the invasion an inviolable distance was observed. I could say that all of the young men and young women at the party were friends, with a running discourse that was anything but puritanical. I could say that the woman might not have given a second thought to whether I had pushed beyond her comfort zone.
But then again, she might have, and she would have been warranted in doing so. I realized it even then — if not immediately, then as soon as the photo came back from the shop. (We had to allow time for processing back then.) (Both our photos and our thoughts.)
Meanwhile, the ironies of our current state of affairs continue to present themselves.
Let me give you a for-instance. On the Saturday after the Franken news broke, it was reported that rock guitarist Malcolm Young had died. Young was the founder and guiding force for the band AC/DC, an extremely successful enterprise. Most people who’ve listened to a radio at any point since the late 1970s will have at least a passing familiarity with this music. That means that a prominent obituary was warranted in mainstream news sources. But it also necessitated paragraphs like this, from the Washington Post’s version:
“The band continued with a studio or live album every few years, blending their huge guitar riffs with rebellious and often sophomoric lyrics — song titles include ‘Big Balls,’ ‘Beating Around the Bush,’ ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You’ and ‘Stiff Upper Lip.’ ”
This is the environment we’ve lived in these past several decades. I’d remind you that it’s also the environment in which we’ve advanced women’s rights both legalistically and sociologically — miles traveled, with (I probably need not remind you) many miles to go as we puzzle through issues of taste, boundaries and equal outcomes.
We can schedule sensitivity training early and often, but there’s an artificiality to it that limits its efficacy. We can teach our children well, but they’ll still face pressure from their peers. There’s just one signal that can reliably travel the last mile: a visible and credible threat of consequence.
My inclination is that those who’ve been entrusted with public office should be prepared to send that signal — especially if they belong to a party that admirably declares of others’ inegalitarian values that it’s “not who we are,” and in an environment in which zero tolerance of misbehavior is desired for the future even if difficult to apply uniformly to the past.
As to myself, I’ll stick with regret. Is it because I’m a hypocrite, or a self-preservationist, or generally less relevant to the world, or just a guy who pantomimed some stupid imagery for a few seconds as a young man in the misbegotten hope of showing his friends that he was somehow normal?
Yes. Judge as you will.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.