Three women came forward this week with accusations that they were groped by President George H.W. Bush. According to CNN, actress Heather Lind posted on Instagram (now deleted) about an incident that took place a few years ago during a photo shoot. In her post, Lind said Bush “touched me from behind from his wheelchair with his wife Barbara Bush by his side. He told me a dirty joke. And then, all the while being photographed, touched me again.”
Soon after the story broke about Lind’s accusation, actress Jordana Grolnick came forward, accusing Bush of a similar incident in 2016. Grolnick said: “He reached his right hand around to my behind, and as we smiled for the photo he asked the group, ‘Do you want to know who my favorite magician is?’ As I felt his hand dig into my flesh, he said, ‘David Cop-a-Feel!’”
A third woman, writer Christina Baker Kline, has come forward, saying Bush “squeezed my butt, hard,” while telling her the David Cop-a-Feel joke during a photo shoot.
Bush has issued two statements of apology, through a spokesperson, admitting that the president had “patted women’s rears.” His spokesperson said: “To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke — and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner.”
The backlash aimed at Heather Lind on social media was swift and virulent. In particular, many women argued that Lind’s accusation was an attention-grab and diluted other victims’ claims of more violent sexual assaults.
Lind’s detractors argued that her account of Bush’s behavior didn’t qualify as sexual violence. But is semantics the real problem?
Kristen Houser, Chief Public Affairs Officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said, “When we say ‘sexual violence,’ we are talking about a continuum of violations that may range from things like catcalls or voyeurism up the spectrum to rape and homicide, the most egregious. I think it’s a distraction to say ‘Oh, that’s not sexual assault.’ What I would say is I think she clearly experienced it as a violation.”
Lind is accused of capitalizing on the recent “#MeToo” phenomena of women reporting sexual assault, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, to promote her own interests — to garner attention or fame. How likely is that?
Marcie Bianco, Ph.D., managing editor of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University said, “Anytime a woman comes forward she is harangued and harassed. I’ve never seen a woman celebrated for coming forward. Relying on that [attention seeking] argument seems weak and rather fallacious. Historically we know that women’s voices are discredited. We have a cultural gut reaction. But no woman is doing this for fame; no woman is doing this to be celebrated. Precedent shows why. We can create a constellation or genealogy of precedent, so of course, people will discredit what women are saying.”
Does Lind’s report of Bush’s admitted sexual violation — i.e., inappropriate touching and dirty jokes — neutralize or dilute other victims’ more violent sexual assaults?
Houser said, “It’s lovely for people on the outside to think that they have the right to rank the seriousness or the egregiousness of any given incident, but it’s not up to the public — it’s up to the individual person who was violated because we don’t know what their past experiences have been.
“So nobody has the right to judge whether or not somebody is responding to the correct degree of outrage. If we keep our outrage only for the things that we’ve said are so egregious that they are criminal, that is how you perpetuate a culture that builds the scaffolding on which offenders justify their actions. This is exactly what we have been talking about for decades when it comes to how do you prevent sexual violence.”
Why are so many women quick to turn against Lind, and defend the behavior of President Bush?
Bianco said, “In this society, men hold the power, so in order to acquire power and all that comes with it — security, safety, protection — women have historically aligned themselves with men instead of other women. This means that women will readily and eagerly throw other women under the bus to further solidify themselves with men, and within patriarchy in general.”
NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell tweeted: “Someone should be ashamed, and it isn’t ‘41.” It’s unclear whether Mitchell thinks Lind or Mrs. Bush should be ashamed, but either way, Mitchell is apparently blaming a woman for Bush’s transgressions.
Several of my women Facebook friends, including a noted author and New York Times columnist, have likewise attacked Lind, saying the criticism levied against her is justified, based on “common sense.”
But why would anyone pay more attention to so-called “common sense” — opinions that reflect and have shaped the misogynistic culture in which we live — than to experts who are working to eradicate sexual violence against women, and whose opinions are based on decades of scholarly, data-driven research?
Houser said, “I think the first lesson we have to learn from the ‘Me Too’ phenomena is that we had better start by believing. I don’t know how much more data we need, anecdotal, research by government, by universities, listening to the people in your life. There is ample evidence out there to support the notion that the continuum of sexual violations is the norm for women.”
In his statements of apology, a spokesperson characterized Bush’s behavior as good-natured, innocent, and attempts at humor. Houser said, “If his spokesperson is going to insist that he thought it was a joke, let’s take that at face value and say that’s the problem: these things aren’t funny. Touching another person’s body in a sexual way without permission is not funny.”
Bush is 93, in a wheelchair, with Parkinson’s, and likely brain-impaired. But why did his spokesperson’s statements of apology rationalize his behavior, rather than identify it as regrettable and wrong?
Houser said, “Zeroing in on his health condition as a reason to excuse him or dismiss these women or paint them as ‘overreacting’ is missing the point, as it’s ignoring this larger picture that others knew he does and says sexually inappropriate things. It seems they are giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt about his intentions and perhaps the causes, but that doesn’t give any warning, context or opportunity to others to decide what they want to do to preserve their sense of integrity. A medical condition may or may not impact a person’s ability to control impulses, but it does not impact the ability of others around him to give warning and context to the women he’s about to interact with. To do nothing is to leave open the possibility that he will behave badly and it will be interpreted as harassment, and it may deeply upset the people who are the target of his actions.”
Bianco said, “Saying [Bush’s behavior] is okay actually epitomizes how normalized sexual abuse and assault of women is in our country.
As a U.S. president, Bush enjoyed an enormous power imbalance over his accusers, a dynamic which often paves the way for sexual harassment and assault.
Houser said, “It takes dedication to hold somebody accountable for inappropriate actions, particularly somebody who holds a position of power, as in this story.”
The Start By Believing campaign, organized by End Violence Against Women International says, “Victims who do find the courage to come forward are often not believed, or they are blamed for ‘bringing it on themselves.’”
None of Bush’s accusers brought his admitted sexual violations upon themselves, nor should they be vilified for coming forward.
Houser said, “You need to change what is normal and accepted in your community and the culture at large. So we should be acting with outrage at jokes, at catcalling, at touching without permission, like this incident described. Those are all things that normalize sexual entitlement, that normalize sanitizing sexual violence, that normalizes not taking it seriously, that normalize brushing off victim outcry. Perpetrators can use that atmosphere to excuse their own behavior, minimize their behavior, to tell themselves that it is acceptable.”
If women are ever to be empowered, to be free from sexual violence, from abuse and oppression, we must start by coming together — start by believing and supporting each other.