As college professors, we’ve witnessed the ubiquity of sexual assault. The accounts we have heard whispered by our female students would take your breath away. Even among those who have been lucky enough to avoid physical assault, almost every woman can think of a time when someone tried to assault her. We can’t forget these stories, years later.
So many of these women suffer in silence because of dangerous narratives that tell women that assault isn’t really assault unless it involves forced penetration. To our astonishment, it isn’t pundits or journalists on the right making this argument — it’s progressive commentators.
The allegations that have been leveled at U.S. Sen. Al Franken have sparked a disturbing double standard among progressives descending into conspiratorial thinking, equivocation on sexual assault and the idea that “this one isn’t really that bad — after all, Franken does so much good for women in the Senate.”
Too many powerful progressive voices — paragons of #IBelieveWomen and #ConsentIsImportant — are all too willing to insult, slut-shame, malign and discredit Franken’s first accuser, Leeann Tweeden. Why? Because Tweeden doesn’t fit their notion of what a sexual assault victim should be or do.
We’ve seen videos of Tweeden dancing sexually go viral in liberal circles, the ugly subtext barely veiled: How could Tweeden claim to be assaulted if video exists of her dancing like this? It’s the plot of “Thelma and Louise,” 25 years later, wrapped in an ostensibly progressive package and justified with conspiracy theories from unverified clickbait websites.
We’ve heard every excuse justifying Franken’s behavior: Well, it wasn’t really assault. Wasn’t the photo staged? (It was not.) People make mistakes. We need his vote. He apologized. Grabbing butts is no big deal — it’s not like he’s a pedophile. We all have indiscretions in our past.
This is hypocrisy at its finest. We, too, have made mistakes in our lives, but we have never groped a sleeping person. We have never forced our tongue into the mouth of an unwilling person. This is not a “mistake.” It is not an “indiscretion.” It is sexual assault.
This is our moment of truth as progressives. We must believe victims; we must call assault and harassment unacceptable, even when perpetrated by our own side. We must believe all victims should be respected, heard and understood, even when they don’t meet unwritten standards of “goodness.” We must stop protecting people who occupy positions of power.
We are tired of having to patiently explain, again and again, that consent is not given in perpetuity, that rehearsing a comedy sketch with a man does not constitute sexual consent.
We are tired of seeing students and friends drop out of school, or leave jobs, because they couldn’t escape their attackers, because the systems that should have protected them failed. We are tired of watching bright young minds diminished by violence.
We are tired of watching people bend over backward to defend Franken when there are so many highly qualified candidates for Senate who are not white men — women and people of color who could do the job better, and be a senator without assaulting anyone.
We understand that if Franken resigns, that will mean losing a junior senator whose legislative agenda we like. But Tweeden didn’t do this to Franken. The other three women he assaulted didn’t do this to him, either. He did it to himself and continues to dig this hole deeper by refusing to acknowledge any accusation without direct photographic proof.
Franken’s behavior may not be illegal; however, our standards for behavior among our progressive leaders must be better than “not illegal.” Franken may still be able to redeem himself and right his wrongs, but he shouldn’t be able to keep his job while he does this work.
Progressives pride themselves on fighting for the rights of people and making sure those who don’t have power are given a chance to be heard. Let’s take this opportunity to listen.
Ruth DeFoster is an adjunct professor of communication studies at St. Catherine University. Marta Dykhuizen Shore is a former teaching specialist and academic adviser in the School of Statistics at the University of Minnesota.