In many ways, the recent resignation of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo following numerous sexual harassment allegations was a major win for victims.
“It shows the #MeToo movement still has weight to it,” said Maggie Javitt, an advocate at the Network of Victim Assistance of Bucks County, which provides a myriad of services for victims of sexual violence. “The fact that he stepped down and removed himself from office shows that even powerful men can be held accountable for their actions. There are opportunities for these women to speak out and hold these men accountable regardless of the national recognition or their name or the power that they have in politics.”
However, Javitt stressed that his resignation doesn’t necessarily fix the problem.
“These women were dragged through the mud. They were blamed, publicly besmirched. Now, these women are forever linked to a situation that they didn’t want to be a part of in the first place. Google their name and that’s going to be what comes up. That’s so unfortunate that somebody’s existence is being boiled down to this victimization that they didn’t ask for and they didn’t want. Yes, they got vindication, but it was at a very high cost.”
Beginning in December 2020, a slew of young females, including several of Cuomo’s employees, brought to light inappropriate actions and conversations they were forced to endure. Former aide Charlotte Bennett, 25, said Cuomo regularly asked about her interest in being intimate with older men, while other women said he kissed and/or groped them without their consent. Cuomo, who is 63 years old, attempted to downplay their accusations, saying he was only trying to be playful and didn’t mean to make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Jamie Pfister, a training coordinator at NOVA, said that sexual harassment/violence is all too common in work environments, where there’s an unbalanced power dynamic between employer and employee. A prime example is Cuomo and Bennett. He knew Bennett wanted to advance her career and figured she wouldn’t out him if he pushed the boundaries.
“Five out of every 10 women and four out of every 10 men have reported sexual harassment within the workplace,” said Pfister. “Behaviors escalate. When we see behavior start to escalate, then we see things start to happen like sexual assault and rape and those really intrusive, pervasive, violent acts. We want to make sure that we can enhance the community by eliminating sexual harassment.”
According to Pfister, all forms of sexual violence, from inappropriate conversations to rape, are preventable.
“We need to build these communities starting with our young folks in our schools to understand what healthy relationships are, what professionalism is in the workplace,” she said. “When we can build communities and gathering places that are safe, respectable, have inclusion, build on equality, that’s preventing that sexual harassment from even starting.”
NOVA educators regularly visit local schools to teach students about bullying and boundaries. They also offer the training seminar “Respect at Work” to area organizations.
“What that training does is, it helps change the norms within our workplace. With changing the norms within the workplace, it really then changes our behaviors and builds a safe community with inclusion, equality and safety within all of the places we inhabit, which is our workplace, our homes and our communities.”
For individuals who have been victimized, especially by a person of major political power, Javitt and Pfister acknowledged how much courage it takes to come forward.
“Women often wait a very long time, either because they’re scared or because they don’t feel like they’ll be supported. When you come out against such a public figure like Cuomo or Bill Cosby or Brett Kavanaugh, whoever it is, that takes an incredible amount of strength because you’re going to be dealing with this in a very public setting,” said Javitt. “They have to be brave over and over again as this goes through the news cycle, gets investigated, goes through the criminal justice system. Taking that first step is hard, but the rest of the process isn’t any easier. It’s amazing to me that women are able to hold themselves up and get through these types of situations.”
While Javitt believes there’s currently a greater support system for victims than in years past thanks to the #MeToo movement and the ability to share their stories on social media, more support continues to be needed.
“Victims are still being gaslit. They’re still being blamed. They’re still being dragged through the mud. Cuomo did everything in his power to discredit and disgrace the names of his accusers before he finally stepped down,” said Javitt. “You’re going to have to fight to be believed, unfortunately, and Gov. Cuomo is no exception to that.”
“We believe you and it’s not your fault,” added Pfister. “I think if we can reassure and empower women to use their voice to come forward, that’s the conversations we should be having.”
Local victims of sexual violence are encouraged to call NOVA’s 24/7 hotline at 800-675-6900 or utilize a chat feature via text or online at novabucks.org. NOVA, which has locations in Fairless Hills, Jamison and Perkasie, offers support for victims as they go through the criminal justice process; free trauma counseling; and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program, which dispatches nurses to hospitals to conduct patient-focused, trauma-informed forensic exams on victims.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com