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What President Cop-a-Feel Has Taught Us About Harassment

We live in a confusing world. Why, you used to hold a door for a woman and get a “thank you.” You could tell her to smile or give her a compliment and get an “aw, shucks” in return. And back in the really good ol’ days, you could give a gal an old-fashioned pat on the ass and then tell her and her ass a good old-fashioned dirty joke, with no questions asked.

Bad news, grossies: Times have changed. But apparently not everyone has gotten the memo.

Proof of that is in the news that former president and current bag of bones George H. W. Bush has been outed for subjecting at least five women to the old grope-and-joke during photo opps. These women feel, thanks to the onslaught of harrowing tales of harassment and assault going public, that there’s now a sympathetic climate in which to tell their stories — even when they are about “respectable” men. They’re sort of right.

It seems like the court of public opinion on Bush would be a slam-dunk in an age where unwanted touching has been clearly outlined as not okay, but this one’s tricky for people. Bush is old! He’s in a wheelchair! He has been for five years, which is why his arms are at ass level! (Note: He was not in a wheelchair in 2007, when he patted Teri Hatcher on the ass.) He might have dementia! He does it to put women at ease! Maybe it’s a Texas thing!

Yet many of us do have some questions: Why did he do it? Why did he think it was okay? Also, why are his jokes so bad? “Want to know my favorite magician?” Bush would ask while planted ass adjacent to an unsuspecting woman who thought she was only taking a photo with a former president. “David Cop-a-Feel!” he’d say, before going in for a pat or squeeze. Sometimes Bush changed it up, though. “Want to know what my favorite book is? David Cop-a-Feel.”

Yuk yuk.

The answer to why Bush did it, and did it so often, is simple: Because he could. Everyone knew, and everyone let him, even Mrs. Barbara Cop-a-Feel. As The Washington Post notes:

Barbara Bush, according to all accounts, stood by when her husband fondled these women. She rolled her eyes. She joked that he might end up in jail. People standing nearby laughed. Aides knew; the Secret Service knew. (One security guard told the woman who initially complained about George H.W. Bush that she shouldn’t have stood next to him.) The same thing had happened enough times that women were warning each other to stay away. Bush’s own spokesman said he did it “routinely.”

As for why Bush’s dirty joke is so hokey, if it’s true that we all form our tastes and identities pretty much before age 30, then Bush, at 93, is clearly drawing on moves as Paleolithic as he is. The book David Copperfield, Charles Dickens’ eighth novel, was published in 1850. The phrase “cop-a-feel” was first recorded in 1935. David Copperfield the magician is an illusionist who was at the height of his fame in the 1980s and 1990s.

But his inability to update his act is no excuse for being a total lech. I believed most of us understood without needing to ever be told that the only feels Bush should be copping are Barbara’s. Yet, my Facebook page tells me otherwise. A few threads have emerged in recent days where not just men are shrugging about this, but women, too.

“This is hardly the kind of victimization that warrants true outrage,” one woman wrote on my page.

Added another: “If every inconsequential encounter is weighed the same as the outrageous, predatory conduct of some, the whole issue loses the power of persistent, confident women who do learn what to let go and rise above and what to dig in about.”

“Factor in his age, possible dementia, and generational divides,” another woman chimed in in agreement. “Let’s not lose focus on the bigger issue. He’s a very old man who misbehaved by today’s standards.”

Men weighed in, too. “I’m not so sure G.B. would even remember or realize he did it,” said a man. “People get old. Stupid happens.”

Others on Facebook tried to frame this as a problem not of unwanted sexual contact, but of women not following the Official Outrage Metric. It’s okay to be upset about big stuff like rape, but not the little stuff, which women should figure out how to get over and move on, and not even waste our time with, lest good pervs get painted with the same broad strokes as rapists.

“The revelations about Harvey Weinstein are certainly horrifying, and the ‘Me Too’ phenomenon has been important for raising awareness,” an older man declared authoritatively on Facebook. “But I wonder if many of the reports, like the allegations against George Bush, are being blown out of proportion. Bush didn’t rape anybody or cause any harm to the complainant, even if his behavior should be deemed offensive or inappropriate. I am sure he didn’t mean it that way.”

Such comments miss a few key points: Not a single account of Bush’s grope has mistaken it for rape. Second, it’s convenient to think Bush’s gropes were just a function of him aging into some kind of utopia where sexual harassment gets a pass, but what’s the age cutoff for that?

David Mueller, the Denver DJ who similarly went in for a rogue squeeze on Taylor Swift’s ass during a meet-and-greet photo opp, is 55. He lost his job after Swift called him out for it; he denied it and sued her for damages. To prove his behavior was nothing short of unacceptable, she countersued him for $1 and won.

Mueller is nearly four decades younger than 93-year-old Bush, which proves the bygone era so many people are defending is not as bygone as we’d like to think. Interestingly, part of Mueller’s defense was that his girlfriend was standing right beside him, which implies that a woman nearby rolling her eyes acts as some kind of immunity for harassers.

Tell that to the women who’ve been fucked with by the men on the Shitty Media Men List, women who also stand accused of ignoring the Official Outrage Metric by including “creepy DMs” alongside allegations of nonconsensual sex. Don’t they know what counts as legitimately outrageous unwanted contact? What is wrong with women? It’s almost as if they think any unwanted contact, physical or verbal, is not cool.

What’s really gross is the suggestion that women, who live with all the unwanted comments and experiences and don’t usually say a word, don’t know the difference between groping and rape. What’s grosser is telling women to dial down the little stuff they’ve already been dialing down forever. We’re just saying we don’t want to be raped, and also, we don’t want our asses grabbed — this should not be a radical statement.

The #metoo hashtag was in no way intended to merely be a rape ticker, but a real-time, stream-of-consciousness account of the full spectrum of unwanted contact women endure, from the uncomfortable to the outrageously violent.

The suggestion that women talking about minor gross shit gets in the way of pursuing justice for the big gross shit is absurd. Justice is not a zero-sum game. And as of press time, Woody Allen still makes films. Roman Polanski lives free. Bill Cosby’s court case ended in a mistrial. The fact is, the dirty old man grabbing asses lives as free as the rapist who has over 50 women detailing his aggressions in the press. The only person to blame for Bush now being seen as a harasser is Bush himself.

Someone is getting the scale wrong, and it’s not the women who got their asses grabbed. It’s a public all too willing to look the other way because we don’t know what to make of the dirty old man’s place on the continuum of awful and what to make of the endless barrage of stories women are telling about what it’s like for them to live in this world.

So we push the problem back on women, and force them to make sense of it for us, or to, ultimately, take it on the ass, all so we don’t have to feel so bad.

Yuck yuck, indeed.