The boyfriend defense

Are single women less credible when charging sexual harassment?

Topics: Herman Cain, Sexual Harassment, ,

The boyfriend defenseSharon Bialek (Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Sharon Bialek, the woman who went public to accuse Herman Cain of sexual harassment and assault, peppered her prepared statement with a dozen strategic references to her former boyfriend to drive home the point that the Republican presidential candidate’s advances had been unwanted.  In a seven-minute statement, Bialek mentioned her boyfriend every 40 seconds.

The boyfriend was the reason she called up Cain to use him as a possible contact for a job. It was he who suggested she meet Cain, in person, thereby explaining why she would be alone having drinks and dinner with a strange man. This boyfriend (a doctor!) was the plausible explanation for her room upgrade at the Capitol Hilton. He was the reason she rebuffed Cain’s alleged sexual overtures.

Bialek and her legal team wanted no confusion about that fact that she was in a serious relationship and not looking for a date with Cain, a married man who has denied the allegations against him.  But does a woman need a husband or boyfriend to be taken seriously when bringing allegations of sexual misconduct?  Would Bialak’s account of meeting Cain draw more doubt or scrutiny had she not had a knight in shining armor waiting for her at home?

The marital status of a woman bringing allegations of sexual misconduct has been raised before, even if it’s not legally condoned.  When seeking to complain, whether to a manager, human resources, authorities or even friends, victims have been told that their actions must have been “misinterpreted.” The implication is that single girls should just face the fact that they are fair game.

Alexis Moore, a California-based consultant and privacy expert, said she was sexually harassed at the age of 17 during her first job as a bagger at a grocery store. Her manager followed her through aisles, trying to rub against her, smell her hair or dole out lecherous comments.  When she had finally had enough, Moore said, “I did report it but the store manager took me into the office and said, ‘Oh you’re a pretty girl. And single. These things happen.’”

Moore’s response: “You know, I am an attractive lady but there’s no excuse for unwanted advances from a pervert.”



Christopher Olmsted, a discrimination attorney in San Diego, said no lawyer would ever invoke a woman’s marital status in defending a client against sexual harassment. But he concedes that when you “talk about what people’s subconscious predispositions and stereotypes might be, you might say that the general public might have a perception that a young, attractive single woman might be more inclined to be open to romantic overtures than an older woman, married or in a committed relationship.  But there’s all sorts out there and there’s married people who are philandering and there’s single people who are not interested in any sort of relationship with colleagues.”

So in the court of public opinion, celebrity attorney Gloria Allred was determined to have her client’s motives clear for doing something as outlandish as have dinner with a man she hardly knew.

“I think that’s what angered me as a sexual harassment victim,” said Moore, who now also works as an advocate for women who have been harassed.  “It’s so offensive. It doesn’t matter if I have 12 boyfriends or if I’m single on Match.com. Or if I’m a lesbian, for that matter. It really angered me that she had to keep repeating that [she had a boyfriend] in order to defend herself to ‘establish credibility’ or perhaps to be perceived as a real victim.”

Joshua Parkhurst, an employment attorney in New York City, points out that Bialek is not bringing a lawsuit against Cain but is seeking to fight any effort to delegitimize her character or motive.  “She’s not an active litigant in a case. She’s making an appeal to public opinion,” he said.

Parkhurst said that women seeking to expose their alleged harasser will often find themselves in a system that is unwilling to investigate or inclined to believe a “misunderstanding” had occurred. “I’ve found that in some cases where the harassment has been reported to HR, rather than attempting to perform a bona fide investigation, HR will look for alternative explanations. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but often it will come  back [to an accuser] that ‘maybe you were just flirting.’ Or ‘he was just joking.’”

Abigail Saguy, a UCLA professor and author of “What Is Sexual Harassment?,” described Bialek’s statement as an attempt to combat skeptics who are “only too eager to disbelieve a woman’s real motive.”

“She is responding to a reality. Establishing that she had other relationships is one strategy for showing that the advancements were unwelcome, which is not a legal criteria in sexual harassment law but it is something that would be important to convince either a jury or people more publicly,” Saguy said.

Women who come forward with allegations of sexual harassment often see their character and personal life scrutinized in an effort to establish their motive or believability.  But in 2011, a woman’s marital status doesn’t seem like a precise instrument for assessing her overall credibility.

Victoria Cavaliere is a journalist in New York City. Her work has appeared on NBC, The Cape Argus, Voice of America and Tavis Smiley’s radio show.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>