If Nate Boulton’s initial response to reports he inappropriately touched women are taken at face value, it’s apparent he did not perceive his actions to be part of a larger cultural problem. And that’s the biggest problem of all.
Three women came forward a week ago to accuse Boulton, elected to the Iowa Senate in 2016 and until recently a Democratic candidate for governor, of sexual misconduct. The most recent incident took place in 2015, about two months after Boulton announced he would enter a Democratic primary for the Senate District 16 seat being vacated by retiring Dick Dearden. Other reported incidents of misconduct were 14 years ago or more, when Boulton was a law student at Drake University.
In the most recent incident, a woman says Boulton placed his hand on her back side during a holiday celebration in Des Moines’ East Village while his wife was present. Another woman said she witnessed what happened.
Two other women say law student Boulton pressed his erect penis against their thighs while socializing at area bars. For one woman the incident happened one time. The other woman says it happened multiple times over the course of several separate events.
Although Boulton ultimately ended his campaign for governor, and continues to face calls for his Senate resignation, he first attempted to draw a distinction between his actions and those of others accused of sexual misconduct.
“In a social setting, as it has been identified to me, I think there is a definite difference,” Boulton said. “I think there is room for a conversation to be had here. I think we all very clearly understand the bright line that exists in, again, those positions of power and influence; those employment settings. I think in the social setting, there is room for a conversation to be had, and I hope this is a teachable moment for young men as this comes forward.”
It would be better if this became a teachable moment for us all. Let’s start with consent. It is never OK to touch another person in a sexual way without first knowing the person is agreeable to the interaction. It does not matter if the interaction takes place at a bar, in an office or anywhere else. Consent is mandatory.
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This is not, however, the standard portrayed in the media. Movies surmise those who say no are simply playing hard to get. Books and music build narratives that equate overt objections to hidden passions. Some would say that collegiate groping or being groped in a bar is a twisted rite of passage.
And none of this is new. In the 1959 movie “Some Like It Hot,” Marilyn Monroe, “Sugar,” agrees to a private drink with man, Jack Lemmon, she believes is a female friend, “Daphne.” He tells her to drink up because “this may even turn out to be a surprise party.”
In 1978, one of the T-birds in the movie “Grease” lays on the bleachers so that he can look up female classmates’ skirts, and another female classmate has her dress raised to her waist while dancing on a nationally televised show.
A decade later, in the movie “Revenge of the Nerds II,” a male college student steals another student’s mask so that he can trick the other man’s girlfriend into having sex with him. In that storyline, the girl is thrilled because the sex was so good.
The list goes on — enough for several more columns detailing movie after movie, many considered iconic. “Saturday Night Fever,” “Purple Rain,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Tootsie,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” ... and that list doesn’t include movies with rape scenes so realistic that they scarred cast and crew members.
And, yes, I understand these are movies, and that sexual situations make us nervous, which is why they are often included for morbid laughs or shock value. But it all feeds into why someone like Boulton, a defense attorney and self-professed warrior for human rights, could believe his actions weren’t systemic of a larger problem. It also helps explain why a consensual and illicit rendezvous and not months of denying sexual harassment cost Bill Dix his job as majority leader.
It’s all wrapped up in a mentality that boys will be boys — even when they grow into men.
When people talk about a culture of harassment or a rape culture, this nearly universal belief that some are entitled to comment or interact in inappropriate ways with others who do not welcome it is part of what’s being referenced.
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Because when people cannot see their actions as problematic, no workplace policies or sensitivity training will change their behavior. More often than not, from the view of the harasser and his or her apologists, the problem is that the victim was offended. Inappropriate interactions get brushed aside as misinterpretations or, worse yet, jokes. Those who come forward are scrutinized for placing themselves in “bad” situations or for wearing “tempting” clothing. We’ve been conditioned to look for ulterior motives, especially when the person accused of wrongdoing is someone of influence.
These scenarios have become so ingrained in our culture that prominent men and women are now lamenting a need to curb certain behaviors lest they too be swept up in the national #MeToo or #TimesUp movements. But as we learned from Boulton’s accusers, most victims are capable of separating friendly overtures and awkward social interaction from sexual misconduct.
“I guess I thought that he couldn’t have known that it happened,” one of the accusers said, describing why she initially dismissed the touches as an accident.
Offering the benefit of the doubt is a quality we readily assign to ourselves, but not to others, even as we have heard victim after victim say that they initially blamed themselves for misinterpreting a comment or action.
As a society, we say we want victims of sexual misconduct, harassment and abuse to speak out sooner and louder, but we aren’t creating a welcoming climate to achieve that goal.
“What was I going to do, go to the dean of the law school and be like, ‘This guy is rubbing his erection on me?’ ... If I could go back in time I still don’t know that I would have had any idea what to do then, either,” one of Boulton’s accusers explained.
We can acknowledge the different degrees of sexual misconduct, as Boulton suggested in his response, but we won’t change our culture until we also acknowledge that all misconduct is part of the problem.
• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, firstname.lastname@example.org