The cliche about sexual harassment holds that it’s not about sex, it’s about power. I say it depends on the harasser, the harassment, and maybe the victim.
There’s plenty of truth in the cliche, though. A good deal of sexual harassment consists of subjecting women to crude, demeaning sex-related comments. There’s no sex, per se, in that. Sexual remarks are a means to an end, with the end often being power in some limited form.
When the harassment directly involves sex, the motive may also be power, i.e., bending the victim to the will of the harasser. But the motive may just be sex in itself. Often, I assume, it’s a mixture of the two.
What about Al Franken? In the case of Leeann Tweeden, it seems that Franken wanted to exert power. The overlooked part of their relationship occurred after Franken tried to force his tongue into Tweeden’s mouth. In response to her resistance, Tweeden says the soon-to-be Senator demeaned her for the rest of the trip. The grab of her breasts put Franken’s distinctive signature on the demeaning.
What about the butt grabs? How much sexual gratification can be derived from a few seconds of feeling someone’s clothed behind? Not much, I would think.
So was this practice about power? Maybe. But there isn’t much power in the grab, either. The stranger moves on. Franken has put one over on her (and, in some cases, the husband who took the picture), but he hasn’t exercised any real power.
For Franken, the gratification may derive in part from “putting one over” on the victim. He may also view it as a perk of power — an exercise of privilege.
Maybe there’s more to it, though. Recall what Franken said in his “Giant of the Senate” book about apologizing about making rape jokes (if you can call them that) about Lesley Stahl. Franken admitted that he faked the apology in order to win election to the Senate. He wrote:
To say I was sorry for writing a joke was to sell out my career, to sell out who I’d been my entire life. And I wasn’t sorry that I had written Porn-o-Rama or pitched that stupid Lesley Stahl joke at 2 in the morning. I was just doing my job.
I learned that campaigns have their own rules, their own laws of physics, and that if I wasn’t willing to accept that, I would never get to be a senator.
How do you suppose Franken really feels about attending the Minnesota State Fair and posing for pictures with the masses, most of whom are not pretty young women? I assume he considers it tacky –“a sell out” of “who he’d been his entire life.”
The butt grab may therefore be Franken’s “f*** you” to the “rules” of campaigns and to ordinary decency. It may be his reassertion of “who he has been his entire life” — not a “giant of the Senate” (as he mockingly described himself), but an unbounded smasher, via pranks, of convention and bourgeois morality.
I don’t mean to drain lechery out of my diagnosis. For many, constraints on sexual predation are the worst part of bourgeois morality. Scratch a slayer of bourgeois convention and you will often find a lecher. And a virulent sexist.
Franken really was “just doing his job” when he joked about raping Lesley Stahl. His job was to shock, to transgress. Rape is probably the ultimate transgression and, for some, the ultimate fantasy.
But the job Franken did back then was the job he chose. It was the job that defined “who he’d been his entire life.”
As transgressions go, butt grabbing doesn’t measure up. But it was, perhaps, the most Franken thought he could get away with, given the “physics” of campaigns.