This morning, 36 women felt “compelled to stand up” for Sen. Al Franken and published a letter defending his character in light of recent accusations of sexual misconduct. The women, who’ve all worked with him during his time at Saturday Night Live, described him as “a devoted and dedicated family man, a wonderful comedic performer, and an honorable public servant.”
In the last few days, two women have come forward to allege that Franken acted inappropriately with them: One said he forcibly kissed and groped her more than a decade ago, and another said Franken “put his hand full-fledged on my rear” while taking a photo together at a fair in 2010.
Although the SNL staffers acknowledged “[w]hat Al did was stupid and foolish,” they also added that “not one of us ever experienced any inappropriate behavior” in all the years they worked with him.
Leigh Gilmore is a distinguished visiting professor of women's and gender studies at Wellesley College and author of Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives. She tells Broadly that the #MeToo movement is now facing what she calls “the Al Franken Test.”
“What happens when you know and like the accused harasser/align with him politically/find his good works to be exculpatory?” she says. “The expressions of support for Franken are understandable in a political context in which Democrats are loathe to see him punished for actions similar to those Donald Trump bragged about doing.”
The SNL staff letter comes just days after Girls showrunners Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner released a statement not only standing by their executive producer, Murray Miller, after he was accused of rape, but also calling into question the truthfulness of those allegations. On Friday, actress Aurora Perrineau filed a report with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department about an incident that allegedly happened in 2012; she was 17 at the time.
The statement read, in part: "It's a hugely important time of change and, like every feminist in Hollywood and beyond, we celebrate. But during every time of change there are also incidences of the culture, in its enthusiasm and zeal, taking down the wrong targets. We believe, having worked closely with him for more than half a decade, that this is the case with Murray Miller. While our first instinct is to listen to every woman's story, our insider knowledge of Murray's situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3% of assault cases that are misreported every year.”
Dunham and Konner have since backpedaled. But these kinds of responses to allegations of sexual harassment and assault have serious repercussions. Other victims, for instance, may rethink coming forward with their own horror stories, and reporting rates are already horrifyingly low. “No one enjoys being sexually harassed. It’s demeaning and terrible. And it comes with a risk when the harasser is a powerful man who has the power over a woman’s ability to make a living,” Jessica Stender, senior staff attorney at Equal Rights Advocates, tells Broadly. “That fear of risk – risking one’s reputation, current job, future jobs, or even personal safety – is a big deterrent.”
“There’s also the fear of not being believed – a core tactic to discredit women’s experiences of sexual harassment,” Stender continues. “We’ve seen it in assault cases as well as in harassment cases.”
"Until we do away with these convenient excuses, we will not be able to seriously tackle the harassment that pervades virtually every industry and occupation in this country.”
Stender says it’s long past time to start believing women. “It is not enough to just speak up when we see news headlines. We must believe survivors when sexual harassment and violence take place in our own backyard. Excusing or downplaying harassment by saying ‘but he’s a good guy’ or ‘but it didn’t happen to me’ is what has protected perpetrators for decades. Until we do away with these convenient excuses, we will not be able to seriously tackle the harassment that pervades virtually every industry and occupation in this country.”
Gilmore, the women’s studies professor, adds that defenses such as these raise a counter point that may surprise some: “That is the fact … that the guy you like can also be a sexual harasser."