When our grandparents were young, racism and sexism were more obvious hallmarks of American society than they are now. Not that they don’t still exist - they do. But, when it comes to race, it’s no longer as acceptable to discriminate against minority groups as it once was.
Instead, like-minded people can use "dog whistles" to signal their compatriots and express ideas.
In a similar way, the statements attributed to Governor Andrew Cuomo by Charlotte Bennett are a more modern, less in-your-face chauvinistic power move.
Bennett was a staffer and sexual assault survivor who thought the governor was mentoring her. She told the New York Times that her opinion changed when Cuomo starting to engage her in conversations about her sex life, asking her questions including whether she had ever considered having sex with an older man.
According to Professor Mary Lynch, the Kate Stoneman Chair in Law and Democracy at Albany Law School, the questions Cuomo allegedly asked Bennett are part of a "prototype conversation," one that allows a powerful person to gauge the sexual interest of someone less powerful and yet still retain plausible deniability.
"There’s a clever specificity of phrasing," Lynch told Capital Tonight. "The careful exercise of power and control allows the abusive person to proceed in a way that can easily explain away behavior the abuser or harasser or bully knows is bad behavior."
While the governor deserves a full hearing and investigation, he admitted to some of the allegations made by Bennett in a public apology, in which he wrote, "I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation."
Professor Lynch says that to "self-preserve," clever harassers make a reasonable subordinate uncomfortable for an extended amount of time before a direct advance, thus retaining power and control. The reason for this, Lynch explains, is that it allows a harasser to accuse the subordinate of 'being too sensitive,' or 'not understanding a joke,' or how to banter with the boys, or misunderstanding and arrogantly interpreting a joke as a flirtation."
As for how to combat this kind of dog-whistle sexual harassment, Lynch recommends starting to view these situations through the lens of the harassed, rather than the harasser.
"We should think of coming forward as a sign of credibility not a call to think of every reason why he didn’t mean it," she said. "We should focus on the devastation it causes to young women when our workplaces tolerate this and fail to hold the bad behaving bosses accountable."