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Richard Nelson: On sexual harassment, we need a cultural assessment, and each of us must stand up

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Sexual harassment and allegations of abuse by high profile politicians is dominating the news and as distasteful the details and disappointed we may be in our political candidates and leaders, we’re forced to process this cultural moment and how to appropriately respond.

Where to begin?

How about with empathy toward the women who’ve come out of the shadows to share their stories? It takes a level of courage, previously hindered by fear of reprisal, to openly share intimate and humiliating details. Such charges should be taken seriously.

At the same time, in fairness to the accused, the evidence and testimonies of accusers should be weighed. Credibility and consistency should be paramount. Timing should also be considered. It only muddies the already stained water when last-minute accusations arise before major elections.

How about a cultural assessment? Sexual harassment flourishes in a medium that normalizes twisted sexuality and pushes moral boundaries over the cliff. Shouldn’t we insist that movies like 50 Shades of Grey, which introduces bondage and sadomasochism into the mainstream, have no place in a society that values the dignity of women? Other arts and entertainment reducing women to sexual commodities and normalizing deviant behavior breech barriers of healthy relationships and respect between the sexes.

Now for a political assessment. The party that has championed women’s rights must come to terms with defending a president who abused his power with an intern. The party that champions family values must ask whether political power justifies sacrificing character and integrity of a candidate. The former led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, only to be exonerated by his party which controlled the Senate. The latter is a real question before Alabama voters who must decide between the veracity of the claims of five women against U.S. Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore, a darling of social conservatives.

The claims against Moore, if true, are devastating, and should lead to his withdrawal from the race. The most damaging charge was that of Leigh Corfman who was 14 when Moore, age 32, allegedly molested her.

What is fascinating in all this is that the same year Corfman alleged wrongdoing by Moore, Woody Allen’s movie, Manhattan was released. It was based on the sexual relationship between a 17-year-old character played by Mariel Hemingway and a 42-year-old character played by Allen. It received rave reviews called “terrific,” “aesthetically gorgeous,” and a “masterpiece.”

Hollywood’s glamorization of older men in sexual relationships with minors is just as indefensible as when the idea is embraced in real life. Turning a blind eye to celebrity iniquities. Allen’s fame shielded him from a sordid relationship with his step-daughter and accusations of molesting another step-daughter when she was seven, and blurring of moral boundaries is coming home to roost. Indeed, what is done in the dark will be brought to the light.

Hollywood’s “biggest open secret” of heavyweight producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse led to the #MeToo movement. Comedian Louis CK’s monologues were laughed at, but not so funny when he acted out his sexual fantasies upon unsuspecting women. And Kevin Spacey’s alleged sexual assaults led the popular Netflix show, House of Cards, to going up in smoke. Kentucky is not immune from sordid tales of sexual misconduct.

To his credit, Gov. Matt Bevin called for Speaker of the House Jeff Hoover’s resignation after the revelation of inappropriate sexual banter via text message with a woman in his office. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has yet to call for the resignation of a member of his own party over sexual misconduct as embattled metro-council Dan Johnson (D-Louisville) somehow survived removal by his own party after he admitted to groping women.

So how do we change this mess? Quite simply: it’s up to each one of us. It’s mustering the courage and standing up for those in the workplace who are being harassed. It’s about the kind of media we consume, teaching our children to respect others, and leading by example. It’s deciding to do what is right even if you have to do it alone.

Politically, it’s about insisting that our leaders live lives consistent with rhetoric about upholding the dignity of women. Alabama voters will be tested in a few weeks. Kentucky voters next year.

Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a Kentucky-based nonpartisan, public policy organization. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.

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