Content warning: descriptions of sexual harassment
“A text book abuser”
This is Charlotte Bennett’s description of her former boss, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Six women have come forward accusing Cuomo of inappropriate touching and invasive sexual advances and questions. The multiple harassment allegations have come out at a unique time for Governor Cuomo, since his handling of the coronavirus pandemic has garnered international attention.
Charlotte Bennett, one of Cuomo’s former aides and an outspoken victim of harassment shared her experience as a victim of Cuomo’s abuse in an interview with CBS on March 5th.
The interview Bennett gave is an eerily familiar story – a powerful employer abusing his position and resources to harass and coerce female employees. Cuomo’s behavior follows a pattern of manipulation and harassment that is prevalent in many workplaces.
Cuomo started as Charlotte Bennett’s mentor. They had a close relationship, she had even shared that she was a survivor, and that his work on Title 9 had changed her life.
The dynamic shifted when Cuomo became fixated on her sexual trauma. Cuomo brought up her history of abuse repeatedly, telling Bennett that she had been raped and abused over and over. Bennet realized this was not coming from a place of ally-ship, “it was not supportive, no person supporting a survivor would speak like that,” said Bennett. Their relationship became hostile as Cuomo began pushing her boundaries.
The Governor frequently tried to be alone with Bennett, often calling her into his office or asking her to come into work early. Bennett said she dreaded these instances, knowing that her safety was on the line.
When they were alone, Cuomo asked Bennet if she had ever considered being with older men, or if she knew of any women he could date. At the time of the incident, Spring 2020, Cuomo was in his early 60s and Bennett was 25.
Bennett described this behavior as grooming– the process of targeted manipulation which coerces the victim into a sexual relationship. Often this looks like isolating the victim, developing a trusting relationship, desensitizing sexual conversations and inappropriate touching.
“I think it’s really strategic, I think abusers look for vulnerabilities, previous traumas, the idea that maybe I’m more willing to accept behavior because I have a history of sexual violence,” Bennett said, discussing Cuomo’s grooming.
Bennett’s experience is unfortunately one of many. Lindsey Boylan was the first woman to speak out on her experience with the Governor. In an essay she wrote for The Medium, Boylan recounts her experience with Cuomo, writing that he nonconsensually kissed her on the lips and engaged in a pattern of harassment almost identical to Bennett’s.
Both Boylan and Bennett described the overall workplace culture of the Governor’s office as toxic. Cuomo was known for bullying employees, so the attention and kindness he showed to his female staff was a reprieve from the vitriolic environment. This was a manipulation tactic the Governor used to create a forced closeness between himself and the multiple victims of his abuse.
Cuomo readily abused his authority in order to harass these women. In one of the most harrowing moments in Bennett’s CBS interview she spoke on the power dynamic that left her unable to speak out. “It didn’t feel like I had a choice, he’s my boss, he’s everyone’s boss,” she said. “He’s the most powerful person I’ve really ever had a relationship with. He’s not just powerful to me, he was all-powerful,” she continued.
As this story gains national attention, it is important to realize that this type of harassment is not exclusive to politics (Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, Clarence Thomas) or Hollywood (Weinstein, #metoo), workplace sexual harassment is common. Many people endure unwanted advances and tolerate remarks because they feel trapped, wanting to advocate for themselves but afraid of the consequences. It’s empowering to see these women step forward, however it is crucial to remember that the onus is always on the perpetrator. Until perpetrators like Cuomo stop harassing, the work is not done.
Rebuilding Hope! Sexual Assault Center for Pierce County works to change not only toxic workplace culture, but societal culture, by facilitating conversation that questions behaviors and thoughts that could lead to sexual violence. If you or someone you know has experienced any form of sexual violence or sexual harassment, we are here for you 24/7 through our Crisis, Information and Referral Hotline at (253) 474-7273