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The Cuomo Report and the #MeToo “Reckoning” That Never Really Came

In 2017, would-be Cassandras warned about witch hunts and ruined careers. In 168 pages, New York Attorney General Letitia James captured a sexist American work culture that is as poisonous as ever.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stands against a backdrop of red light
Brendan McDermid/Pool/Getty Images

In describing their interactions with Andrew Cuomo, many of the women quoted in the report released this week by New York Attorney General Letitia James noted that they put up with his harassment due to fears that they would experience professional repercussions. The range of women made to feel this way—their differences in relative power and place—was striking: An unnamed executive assistant explained that she didn’t tell senior staff that the governor had, in one instance out of many, grabbed and caressed her butt, because, “I was just terrified that if I shared what was going on that it would somehow get around. And if Stephanie Benton or Melissa [DeRosa] heard that, I was going to lose my job. Because I knew that I certainly was going to be the one to go.” 

Another unnamed woman, a state trooper whom Cuomo recruited to be part of his security detail after meeting her briefly at an official state function, expressed a similar concern. Cuomo had, as she recounted to investigators, escalated his harassment over time. He began by making suggestive comments about her attire, discussing sexual relationships with her, and remarking that he was looking for a girlfriend who “can handle pain.” The harassment then progressed to unwanted physical touching, stroking her neck and back, and, on two occasions, “asking” if he could kiss her. While she discussed these incidents with other troopers at the time, she didn’t officially report any of them when they occurred. “I’m nervous that the Governor’s going to know I spoke out, and I’m going to be retaliated against, you know,” she explained in the report. She knew how things worked. “Everybody, for the most part, gets promoted because they’re in the good graces of the Governor,” she said. “So if they stay quiet or give him information, they’ll get promoted, or something good will happen to them.” 

One leaves the report—a damning 168 pages, featuring the accounts of 11 different women—experiencing a wave of different feelings. Disgust, obviously. But then there’s something almost worse: recognition. Women across industries, in workplaces considered powerful or not considered at all, have felt that same sense of entrapment. Maybe you don’t know Andrew Cuomo, but you know Andrew Cuomo—someone like him, someone who had power where you didn’t. 

But the Cuomo report should also be read as a reflection of the post-#MeToo workplace. For all of the dire warnings that began at the end of 2017—the complaints that the nascent movement against workplace harassment was going too far and the predictions by would-be Cassandras that innocent men would be stripped of their jobs by vengeful, lying women—we are today faced with workplaces and entrenched power structures that every bit resemble the ones we were told would be dismantled in the wake of that moment. It’s tempting to view the spectacle of coverage playing out around Cuomo right now and see something like justice. But the truth is less satisfying: Andrew Cuomo might fall, but that doesn’t mean the systems built to protect men just like him will, too. 

Women working in fast food restaurants can attest to this truth, though they have been the recipients of far less media attention and outrage on their behalf. (One survey released in 2016 found that two out of every five women in the industry have experienced workplace sexual harassment.) In recent years, workers at McDonald’s restaurants have come forward to share their experiences of sexual harassment while on the job, going on one-day strikes and filing federal complaints and lawsuits to compel the company finally to take sexual harassment seriously and to renew their call for a union. The accounts of these workers are remarkably similar to those of the women whom Cuomo harassed—comments about their appearance and their sexual lives, unwanted physical touching and groping, and an environment controlled and shaped by those with more power and authority, who steadfastly refused to dole out consequences. Much as at New York’s state Capitol, a culture of impunity ruled behind the cash register. As Kim Lawson, a McDonald’s employee I spoke with in 2018 who helped organize a one-day walkout, put it, she stopped reporting instances of sexual harassment because no one in power took action and she needed to keep her job. “I felt like I had to be nice about it,” Lawson said. The precarity of low-wage work exacerbates the harassment: According to the 2016 survey of women fast-food workers, 42 percent of women who were sexually harassed at work put up with it because they couldn’t afford to lose work. 

Years after we shone a national spotlight onto pervasive workplace sexual harassment, stories of widespread labor abuses continue to emerge. In July, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued the video game company Activision Blizzard, alleging in its complaint not only that the firm paid women less than men doing the same job but that the workplace culture was one where women were routinely sexually harassed; in response, employees staged a walkout calling for the company to, among other demands, end the use of forced arbitration agreements. These stories of government employees, fast-food cashiers and line cooks, and white-collar office workers speaking out and organizing can be seen as a sign of progress. But they’re also a reminder that not nearly enough has changed materially for victims of sexual harassment, and for all of the change that #MeToo was supposed to bring, we’re still largely stuck in the same place. 

Far from turning into a hysteria-driven witch hunt, one in which op-ed columnists condemned the misquoted mantra to “believe all women” as a drive to strip men of their due process, the reality continues largely to be the status quo—in Cuomo’s case, it has required a cascade of careful reporting and an official investigation involving hundreds of interviews and meticulously documented and corroborated instances of harassment for a critical mass of the public and elected officials to call for his resignation. It hardly needs to be said that the vast majority of workers who are sexually harassed will never have the benefit of such a thorough, breathlessly covered investigation. There have been structural reforms made in the wake of what we were told was a watershed moment—some that helped bring Cuomo’s alleged harassment to light—but they are the exception, not the rule.   

While even President Joe Biden has called for Cuomo to resign, and impeachment proceedings are seemingly imminent, Cuomo himself is refusing to back down, and he remains defiantly in office. CNN is still standing behind its star anchor Chris Cuomo, despite the attorney general’s report confirming that the younger Cuomo actively helped his brother craft his public relations strategy in response to the sexual harassment allegations. Roberta Kaplan and Tina Tchen, the co-founders of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund (which also supported the organizing efforts of McDonald’s workers), allegedly advised the governor, as well, weighing in on a letter Cuomo drafted that was meant to smear the reputation of one of his accusers. The faces of supposed accountability, meant to signal a new era of the American workplace, were instead conscripted into a cleanup job on an alleged serial harasser. Perhaps, instead of relying on those who cozy up to power and become part of the wall of protection around poisonous men, we should take a cue from women like Lawson who understand the necessity of the difficult, often invisible work of organizing and workplace solidarity. It’s harder to dilute the work when it’s being led by the women in those workplaces, living with the consequences of such impunity. 

Kaplan, for her part, according to the attorney general’s report, thought Cuomo’s letter of rebuttal against the allegations “was okay with some changes.”