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Sexual Harassment and Accountability: Al Franken vs. Roy Moore

Al Franken, left, and Roy Moore. (Lorie Shaull / Wikimedia, Brynn Anderson / AP)

Two politicians, on polar opposites of the spectrum, were disgraced with charges of sexual harassment this month.

First, we had Roy Moore, the brash, Bible-thumping, Supreme Court-ignoring former Alabama chief justice. Before five women came forward with stories of being molested by Moore in their teens, he was poised to beat Democrat Doug Jones in the race to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Second, enter Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who was accused of molesting Los Angeles-based KABC radio anchor Leeann Tweeden during a 2006 USO tour, two years before he was elected to the Senate. In her statement, Tweeden recalled the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian had written some sketches as part of the show, including a scene where the two kiss.

On the day of the show Franken and I were alone backstage going over our lines one last time. He said to me, “We need to rehearse the kiss.” I laughed and ignored him. Then he said it again. I said something like, ‘Relax Al, this isn’t SNL … we don’t need to rehearse the kiss.’

He continued to insist, and I was beginning to get uncomfortable.

He repeated that actors really need to rehearse everything and that we must practice the kiss. I said ‘OK’ so he would stop badgering me. We did the line leading up to the kiss and then he came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth.

I immediately pushed him away with both of my hands against his chest and told him if he ever did that to me again I wouldn’t be so nice about it the next time.

I walked away. All I could think about was getting to a bathroom as fast as possible to rinse the taste of him out of my mouth.

I felt disgusted and violated.

In addition to Franken’s behavior backstage, he took a photo during the flight home, smiling at the camera with his hands over Tweeden’s chest while she slept. His response to her accusations was immediate, issuing an apology and assuming responsibility for his actions:

The first thing I want to do is apologize: to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women. There’s more I want to say, but the first and most important thing—and if it’s the only thing you care to hear, that’s fine—is: I’m sorry.

I respect women. I don’t respect men who don’t. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed.

But I want to say something else, too. Over the last few months, all of us—including and especially men who respect women—have been forced to take a good, hard look at our own actions and think (perhaps, shamefully, for the first time) about how those actions have affected women.

For instance, that picture. I don’t know what was in my head when I took that picture, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse. I look at it now and I feel disgusted with myself. It isn’t funny. It’s completely inappropriate. It’s obvious how Leeann would feel violated by that picture. And, what’s more, I can see how millions of other women would feel violated by it—women who have had similar experiences in their own lives, women who fear having those experiences, women who look up to me, women who have counted on me.

Coming from the world of comedy, I’ve told and written a lot of jokes that I once thought were funny but later came to realize were just plain offensive. But the intentions behind my actions aren’t the point at all. It’s the impact these jokes had on others that matters. And I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come to terms with that.

While I don’t remember the rehearsal for the skit as Leeann does, I understand why we need to listen to and believe women’s experiences.

I am asking that an ethics investigation be undertaken, and I will gladly cooperate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did just that, calling for an ethics investigation.

As with all credible allegations of sexual harassment or assault, I believe the Ethics Committee should review the matter. I hope the Democratic leaders will join me on this. Regardless of party, harassment and assault are completely unacceptable—in the workplace or anywhere else.

Al Franken was among the Democrats who joined him. The first to condemn him was embattled Republican candidate Roy Moore, who responded via Twitter.

 

President Trump, who has remained silent on the accusations leveled against Moore, was quick to comment on Franken’s case through Sarah Huckabee Sanders, with the spokesperson telling reporters the Senate ethics probe is the “appropriate action.”

These events come on the heels of a bipartisan effort this week to reform the way sexual harassment is treated on Capitol Hill. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., unveiled separate bills addressing the complaint process and boosting transparency. The actions came a day after Speier (who revealed her own #MeToo story in October) testified in congressional hearings Tuesday on the subject following last week’s passage of a Senate measure calling for more sexual harassment training.

Speier said:

I have had numerous meetings with phone calls with staffers, both present and former, women and men who have been subjected to this inexcusable and often illegal behavior. In fact, there are two members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, right now, who … have engaged in sexual harassment.

These harasser propositions such as, ‘are you going to be a good girl,’ to perpetrators exposing their genitals, to victims having their private parts grabbed on the House floor. All they ask as staff members is to be able to work in a hostile-free work environment. They want the system fixed, and the perpetrators held accountable.

Speier went on to note that Congress paid out $15 million of taxpayer money in harassment settlements over more than a decade with guilty parties remaining anonymous. A member of the first House Administration Committee’s hearing to review sexual misconduct policy in the House, Barbara Comstock, R-Va., brought the point home:

There is new recognition of this problem and the need for change of a culture that looks the other way because of who the offenders are. Whether it’s Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Halperin, Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey or one of our own, it’s time to say no more.

Now that the sexual harassment issue is public, what kind of impact will new measures and prevention training make? The hope is that the #MeToo moment is not squandered.

Jordan Riefe
Contributor
After studying Mandarin in post-Mao China, Jordan got into the film business as a camera assistant working with directors like...
Jordan Riefe

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