What’s most striking to me about the report is not its depiction of Cuomo, who has denied the allegations. It’s what the report reveals about those around him and their ways of dismissing the women who came forward that is maddeningly familiar. In the hundreds of conversations I’ve had with survivors of sexual assault and harassment over the years, these survivors describe a dynamic that is commonplace and patterned. I call it “credibility discounting,” and it happens as a matter of course to those who lack social power in relation to their abuser.
Even today, in the wake of countless #MeToo stories, a starting point of disbelief remains the commonplace default. The attorney general’s report outlines a deliberate campaign on the part of Cuomo’s team to distribute disparaging information about Boylan to the press. These tactics are effective because they tap into deeply seated tendencies to doubt accusers — especially when the accuser is naming a powerful man.
Undue skepticism is not the only mechanism for discounting credibility. Many accusers experience a different kind of dismissal — dismissal by disregard. For an allegation of abuse to be credited, we must not only believe that it happened, but also that it matters. If instead we decide that the conduct is beneath our concern, we dismiss it much as if it was deemed false. Disregard, like distrust, means the complaint goes nowhere.
Consider Cuomo’s Executive Chamber’s decision not to report the complaints of an aide, Charlotte Bennett, to the proper channels. The problem was not that Bennett’s account was perceived as untrue — the report stated the governor’s chief of staff and special counsel Judy Mogul found Bennett “to be credible.” Rather, Cuomo’s special counsel viewed the harassment as not serious enough to warrant further action.
“Rather than looking at the ‘totality of the circumstances,'” reads the attorney general’s report, “[Mogul] parsed each comment or incident.” In doing so, she utterly minimized the harm. For example, according to the report, Mogul characterized Cuomo calling Bennett “Daisy Duke” as merely a reference to her wearing shorts. But as the report noted, “Daisy Duke” is “a commonly understood sex symbol (as any quick internet search would reveal).”
It turns out our concern, or what matters to us, is distributed unevenly and predictably: the suffering of an abuser who could face accountability for his misdeeds often matters far more than the suffering of his victim. The disparity between inadequate regard for survivors and excessive regard for offenders reflects what I call the “care gap.”
Survivors are well aware of the care gap (even if not by name), which explains why underreporting is more the rule than the exception. Of the women whose allegations are detailed in the attorney general’s report, most waited before coming forward.
Another employee identified only as State Entity Employee #1 didn’t report Cuomo’s harassment at the time because “it felt very scary to report something against someone who has so much power so — and [she] very much felt like the burden and impact was going to be . . . fully on [her].” The women’s reasons for delay show how the credibility discount operates preemptively to keep allegations from surfacing.
Now that these allegations have been made public and thoroughly corroborated by the attorney general’s office, it remains to be seen whether they will have the cumulative effect of ending Cuomo’s political reign. Perhaps 11 women — and 165 pages documenting their abuse — will be enough. But even if Cuomo’s time in office is nearing an end, it seems important to note that it took way too long. However this particular story ends, it’s clear that much more work lies ahead in the #MeToo era.
The attorney general’s report has made it easy to condemn Cuomo — and we should. But if we want to end impunity for abusers, we must also grapple with how accusers are treated when they come forward. The credibility discount is a collective wrong, which makes it ours to right.