At his post-victory press conference, Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked whether he would keep his promise to investigate the charges of sexual harassment made against him. “Old news,” the governator replied. It was a dismissal Bill Clinton could envy.
Of course, Clinton was the nemesis of angry white men, while Arnold is hardly that. Sexual solidarity is the main reason why he prevailed. Unlike most California elections, where women are the majority of voters, this one was a white-boy jamboree. Exit polls revealed that female voters were evenly divided on the recall. If they had come out in their usual numbers, it might well have failed. But many women sat this one out, perhaps because they were appalled by every option. On the other hand, white men were fired up, and they voted overwhelmingly for the candidate who made them feel empowered: the Human Hummer.
For this constituency, it’s quite possible that the groping allegations made Arnold seem even more like The Man. No exit poll can measure that kind of perception. Nor will we know how many women were turned on by fantasies of Arnold’s prowess. But the polls did show that women under 30 were the least likely to buy his apology. Their mothers were more amenable. They had been taught to accept this explanation, or even to collude in the joke.
Take the woman on the Total Recall set who was fondled by Arnold and was told that her breasts needed realignment. “Though she was visibly embarrassed,” wrote one reporter who saw the incident, “she ended up laughing along with a dozen or so crew members.” That’s the typical grin-and-bear-it reaction to unwanted tactile attention from a powerful man. To complain is to risk ridicule or worse. The woman who accused Arnold of pulling up her T-shirt and sucking on her breast (a photo of this magic moment was displayed on the set) was called a prostitute by the Schwarzenegger campaign.
So deep is the reflex to avoid further humiliation that even U.S. Senator Patty Murray kept silent when Strom Thurmond groped her in an elevator. Another senator, Bob Packwood, was forced to resign in 1995 after he was accused of harassing 17 women. But as Steven Sack, author of The Working Woman’s Legal Survival Guide, notes, in order for groping to be legally actionable, “it has to be hard enough to leave a mark.” If it’s done in private and nothing shows, or if the perp isn’t in a supervisory role, there may be no recourse. Still, serial groping can be prosecuted, and if all the women who were hit on by Arnold had filed charges, they might have had a case. Instead, they kept their silence for years. That’s why it’s unlikely that Arnold will be indicted. “You have to come forward when it happens,” says Sack. “There’s a statute of limitations—in some states it’s six months—and the only way to stop the clock is to complain.”
It wasn’t even possible to do that until 1986, when the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. We’re still working out the definition of that crime—and groping is right on the boundary between boorish and illegal behavior. As the California election shows, when it comes to guys who grab girls, we’re living in the days of A Streetcar Named Desire. Remember the moment when Stanley smacks Stella on the butt because she’s annoyed him? “I hate when he does that,” Stella tells her sister, with a twinkle. That’s how the voters treated Arnold.
Tolerance of male sexual aggression that stops short of rape is the main reason why Schwarzenegger got away with groping for three decades. In liberal Hollywood, he earned the affectionate nickname “The Octopus.” In the wake of his victory, we’re told that Americans have come to think of a politician’s sex life as irrelevant. Clinton gets blamed for that, as well. But this libertarian attitude applies only to men. What if an actress running for office had a history of grabbing men’s crotches? Would the voters overlook it? The answer speaks to the politics of groping.
In Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger gave us his credo: “A certain amount of people are meant to be in control.” Aside from its authoritarian vibe, this is the perfect groper’s code. The right to manhandle women is part of the time-honored system that allows one sex to express its impulses while the other must be constrained. Babes may get to wield the sword in vanguard entertainments, but in life a woman with a weapon is not just dangerous; she’s a pervert.
Who knows what effect modulating her sexual impulses—and putting up with men who don’t—has on a woman’s sense of personal power? Women who rebel against this code must struggle against a lifetime of training in restraint and assertion along strictly defined lines. I’m not just talking about sex but about the larger consequences of keeping your energy in check. If men are given greater expressive leeway, they will always have an advantage over women, if only because they don’t have to cope with the anxiety of violating a gender role every time they act out.
This is why women’s sports are so important (and why cutting funds for those programs has become a cause for conservatives). Physical agency is the best preparation for having an impact on the world. To the extent that women play ball, wear less binding clothing, drive big machines, and enjoy freedom from sexual subordination, they are more likely to wield power—and to feel good about it. Groping is a remnant of the old order, in which men get to be “playful” and women are expected to enjoy being played.
Maybe some women do dig it, but that doesn’t change the fact that groping is a one-way transgression. What if it were otherwise? What if both sexes felt free to reach out and touch someone? At the least, groping would be taken much more seriously if it worked both ways. Women who are tempted in this direction may think grabbing a guy would only add to his pleasure. But that’s because when a man imagines being “victimized” this way, the perp is Uma Thurman. They don’t think of the female equivalent of Strom Thurmond fondling their nuts in an elevator. Or a middle-aged spinster reaching under men’s shorts to pinch their butts. Or a serial groper who is the boss! That’s the plot of a male-paranoia movie starring Michael Douglas.
If you want to stop gropinators in their tracks, grab them back. Not as a romantic response, but as a preemptive action when a guy is known for this m.o. Some people may shrink from the thought of mutually assured harassment, but there’s another possibility. Women might feel less humiliated by erotic touching if they could respond in kind, and men might not get off on groping if it were no longer a sign of macho. When you change the power relations, an aggressive act takes on new meaning. A predatory male practice can evolve into a tacitly consensual rite. And when it comes to human sexuality, that may be the most you can expect.
Research assistance: Matthew Phillp