“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said as he announced his resignation Thursday.
Franken, who has been accused by eight women of sexual misconduct, said that he was leaving not because the allegations against him were true, but because “it’s become clear that I can’t both pursue the ethics committee process and at the same time remain an effective senator.”
Franken’s statement was defensive and often angry. And though he said he “was excited for that conversation and hopeful that it would result in real change,” he didn’t seem to grasp what that change might look like or why he has been swept up in it. Franken and many other men have lost their jobs over the past few months because society has finally decided to treat them like other people who allegedly behave in wildly entitled and reckless ways.
If this change has been disconcerting to men like Franken, he’s not alone. The reckoning of the past few months has made it clear — if it wasn’t before — that sexual harassment and sexual assault are widespread. It’s also horrifyingly obvious just how many men feel no compunction about using their power to demand sexual contact, and how many of them don’t even bother to demand. They “just kiss.” They just grab, they just open their robes, they just start masturbating, they just force themselves inside women. They “don’t even wait.”
But knowing that still doesn’t make it any more comprehensible to me. What must it be like to truly believe, deep down, that “when you’re a star, they let you do it”? Or to be absolutely convinced that you can kiss whomever you want, whenever you want, because to do so is your “right as an entertainer” (as one accuser said Franken told her)? I have absolutely no understanding of how it feels to think you’re entitled to have your every passing whim fulfilled, even if that whim involves another person. I have never for a moment expected that much satisfaction out of life.
I also can’t understand the specific calculus involved in spectacularly destructive acts of self-gratification. Is a kiss from an unwilling woman or a handful of flesh really worth endangering a career in radio, or a seat in the Senate? Is forcing yourself on a clearly unwilling woman or enlisting her as an obviously miserable viewer in a session of masturbation actually worth the potential loss of your movie studio, or your development deal at a major network?
Maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe I just don’t know what it’s like to live without fear of consequence. The truth is, there’s plenty of evidence to bolster men’s belief that they can get away with these alleged acts — that at most, the price they’ll pay is some irksome public humiliation. Clarence Thomas holds a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Bill Clinton retained his presidency and will retain the cushion of his wealth even if he’s stripped of some esteem. Donald Trump is president. Roy Moore may still become a senator from Alabama.
So if Franken sounded petulant and defensive when he announced his resignation, maybe it’s because he is genuinely flabbergasted by the past month of his life. If I struggle to imagine feeling as free and as entitled as the many men accused of sexual harassment this fall, I’m sure it’s hard for those men to imagine navigating the constraints many women (not to mention people of color and LGBT people) have to contend with.
This failure of imagination isn’t an excuse. But it is an explanation for the disbelief that some of the men who have been exposed over the past few months seem to feel. The idea that Harvey Weinstein could redeem himself with a week-long stay in rehab, or that director James Toback could bluster his way through hundreds of allegations, seems ludicrous to any of us who have had to choose between our passing desires and the realities of our lives. I’m sure the idea that these strategies wouldn’t work is equally confounding if your life has been defined by a near-total freedom to seek gratification without worrying about the consequences.
Franken might not yet understand what happened to him. But like the women who say he groped them, he couldn’t escape his fate.
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.