Eighth-grade boys might think that groping a woman's breasts while she is asleep is "funny." No grown man with a lick of common sense, no mature male with a modicum of decency, propriety or respect for women, would consider such a mauling humorous.
But that's exactly what Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) initially said in defense of his groping of radio newscaster Leeann Tweeden, touring with the USO in 2006, when Franken was a well-known comedian. Tweeden, who had worked as a model, recounted the episode earlier this week; she released a photo showing Franken smiling broadly with his hands on her breasts while she is apparently asleep. In response, Franken said, "As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn't. I shouldn't have done it."
No, he shouldn't have done it. Neither should the dozens of men who have been credibly accused of egregious behavior, from sexual molestation to rape. As long-sequestered tales of sexual misconduct have begun to spill out, women and men have told hair-raising tales of their victimization at the hands of people who held positions that conferred status or power or fame or all three.
The veritable flood of recent allegations has left most of us shaking our heads at the predations of powerful men and many of us wondering why so many would stoop to such atrocious, if not criminal, behavior. Writer Susan Brownmiller answered that question decades ago: Because they can. In her landmark 1975 book, "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape," Brownmiller made it clear that sexual predators are more taken with power than sex.
In 2006, Franken was headlining a USO Tour of the Middle East; he was not yet in the U.S. Senate but was one of the nation's best-known comedians. As Tweeden recalled in a first-person account published by Los Angeles talk station KABC on Thursday (Nov. 16), Franken insisted that they "rehearse" a kiss in a skit. She initially resisted but finally gave in, expecting a quick peck on the lips. Instead, she says, Franken "aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth." She pushed him away and quickly left the room, she recalled, disgusted.
After a long and tiring flight home, she remembers, she looked through a CD of photos from the trip and found one of Franken groping her on the plane while she was asleep. "I felt violated all over again. Embarrassed. Belittled. Humiliated," she wrote.
As public outrage mounted on Thursday, Franken issued a new statement, calling for a Senate Ethics investigation into his behavior. "I respect women. I don't respect men who don't. And the fact that my own actions have given people a good reason to doubt that makes me feel ashamed," he said.
I certainly have doubts. Franken's first reaction was to discount Tweeden's story, saying, "I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann." In fact, her tale is depressingly similar to those told by others: A famous man thinks that a woman, especially one younger and less accomplished, ought to be impressed and flattered by his attentions, and he assumes that she will be too scared or too embarrassed to ever tell her story.
Tweeden, indeed, said so in a later interview with Los Angeles TV reporters. "I thought it would hurt my career. ... Back then, even though you're the victim, it was all going to come down on you. I was going to look like the bad girl. I was the swimsuit model. ... Nothing was going to happen to him," she said.
That certainly sounds like what Harvey Weinstein, accused of multiple acts of egregious sexual misconduct, believed. That sounds like what Bill Cosby, also accused of multiple bad acts, believed. For decades, both men kept their reputations intact, even as they continued their predations.
Franken's behavior may not be nearly as bad as that, but he is one more in a long list of high-status men who believe that they were granted certain inalienable rights to women's (and, sometimes, as in the case of Kevin Spacey, men's) bodies. Let's hope their victims keep coming forward.