US: From Thomas to Perry. plus ça change .... Accused of sexual misconduct? Smear the victim! Print E-mail

 October 24, 2010

Victim-blaming still the go-to strategy

 Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia, earlier this year. (Associated Press)

By Joan Vennochi / Globe Columnist

IT’S THE same old story. Blame the victim and then question her motives, character, and sanity.

Spouses stick up for each other. So, it’s not surprising Virginia Thomas believes her husband, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and disbelieves Anita Hill, who long ago accused him of sexual harassment.

But the voice mail message that Virginia Thomas left for Hill taps into a deeper psychology. When a woman accuses a man of sexual wrongdoing, the world is still full of doubting Thomases. Mrs. Thomas knows that well and remains eager to provoke her fellow doubters.

Whatever the motivation for the missive she left after the beep ­ private angst, or self-promotion ­ it’s a reminder of a basic rule of gender politics: when it’s he said, she said, it’s OK to attack the alleged victim, and continue raising doubts about her.

The voicemail from Mrs. Thomas is an updated version of the old strategy.

“Good morning Anita Hill, it’s Ginni Thomas. I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband,’’ said the message left for Hill from the aggrieved wife. She also urged Hill to “pray about this.’’

It was a pleasantly creepy way to stir the old pot that Hill was lying for political reasons when she testified in 1991 that Clarence Thomas made inappropriate sexual comments to her when they worked together at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In rebuttal, Thomas denied Hill’s allegations and framed them as a “high-tech lynching.’’ He won confirmation after a dramatic showdown that rocked the country over the issue of sexual harassment. The truth of what happened is known only by the two principals. But there’s evidence to support Hill’s version of events. She complained to friends about the behavior at the time and other women have since reported similar-sounding interactions with Thomas.

As Dahlia Lithwick points out on www.slate.com, Hill took a polygraph test, Clarence Thomas did not. And, as Lithwick also points out, “Anyone who ever read ‘Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas,’ by Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer, is recalling the exhaustive research they put into establishing that Anita Hill had been smeared.’’

That’s what happens when women speak out against powerful men. They get smeared. It’s a bipartisan game plan, followed whether the accused is Bill Clinton or Clarence Thomas.

A variation of that familiar script is playing out in the Massachusetts race to win the 10th congressional district.

Jeff Perry, the state representative from Wareham who is the Republican nominee, is accused of standing by as a fellow police officer strip-searched a 14-year-old girl 19 years ago, and then attempting to cover it up. The police officer, who eventually pleaded guilty to that incident, went to jail.

Over the years, Perry gave conflicting accounts of what he saw or didn’t see, what he knew or didn’t know. In the midst of a heated campaign, Lisa Allen, the now-adult victim came forward to say Perry’s actions back in 1991 make him unfit to be a congressman. Despite the other police officer’s conviction for the crime, Perry and his supporters are still cocky enough to question the victim’s truthfulness, rather than address his own untruthfulness. It’s nothing more than “he said, she said,’’ according to the Perry camp. Women are not the only ones to see the pattern. “What we should expect is a counterattack on Allen’s credibility and reputation. That’s the pattern when a politician is exposed by a victim ­ the politician’s supporters try to poke holes in the victim’s credibility,’’ Democratic consultant and WBUR blogger Dan Payne predicted after the Perry story broke.

From Thomas to Perry, that was standard operating procedure 19 years ago and it is standard operating procedure today.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at  
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