Sexual Harassment: A Cuomo Debriefing

“Just 25 years ago, sexual harassment was considered a radical-fringe by-product of feminist theory. Today it’s embedded in multiple Supreme Court decisions, thousands of corporate policies and a host of lower-court cases that have spread like kudzu across the legal landscape.” (Waxman, 2018) 

We often talk about what defines sexual harassment, but rarely do we have such a public case to demonstrate the concept. Here is a walk through what we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks with Andrew Cuomo:


Hostile Work Environment

The inappropriate conversations and grooming behavior create a hostile work environment. The unwelcome and non-consensual touching also created a hostile work environment (see Al Jazeera, 2021). Imagine a powerful political figure sexualizing you, making inappropriate comments to you, even touching you sexually, then asking you to complete professional tasks. No one should ever have to work in that environment; most people cannot. The hostile work environment becomes especially harmful because a person of power uses that power to abuse others in the workplace.

The New York Office of the Attorney General’s report into Cuomo’s sexual harassment contained three main findings: 

  1. “Direct contact with an intimate body part constitutes one of the most severe forms of sexual harassment” (p. 147). Cuomo directly touched women inappropriately, including women who worked for the state and some who did not.
  2. The Governor used inappropriate sexual language with numerous women. “The law is clear that these types of sexually suggestive comments—if made as a ‘joke’ or otherwise—particularly when part of a pattern of comments and conduct, as it was with the Governor, constitute unlawful sexual harassment” (p. 147).
  3. The Governor’s less overt language and so-called “traditional” behavior was also offensive and created a hostile work environment. 

“[E]ven the Governor’s less overtly sexual comments that were nonetheless gender-based, also created a hostile work environment. Although the Governor (and certain of his senior staff) sought to downplay what the evidence has revealed as frequent gender-based comments and conduct by the Governor as simply ‘old fashioned’ or ‘cultural,’ neither explains nor justifies his behavior, nor makes it non-harassing. For example, referring to female staff as ‘honey,’ ‘sweetheart,’ and ‘darling,’ kissing staff members on the forehead and some of the senior staff on the lips, holding them tightly around the waist for pictures and other occasions, allowing senior staff members to sit on his lap at official functions, and lying down with his head on the lap of staff members who are women we find, based on our interviews with numerous Executive Chamber employees, did in fact create a hostile work environment for many staff who were women. As a matter of law, claiming that the gender-based behavior is simply a function of being oldfashioned or culturally more affectionate is not a defense to sexual harassment.” (p. 148)

Quid Pro Quo

Quid Pro Quo, however, is a whole different ball game (pun intended). Most of us are more familiar with the political quid pro quo engaged in by the former president, i.e. withholding military aid for a political favor (see Torres, 2021). Sexual harassment quid pro quo, or something for something, involves a person in power (a manager, supervisor, or other authority in the workplace) offering to give an employee something, such as a raise or promotion, in exchange for some sort of sexual favor. Cuomo, as of this publication date, has not been accused of quid pro quo related to sexual harassment. 


Compliance ≠ Consent

One of the biggest lessons to learn from the Cuomo story is that compliance is never consent. Women who worked below him endured his inappropriate comments and touching, which is not the same as consenting. Consent is a positive affirmation that the behavior is welcomed. In Illinois, we require affirmative consent for sexual activity.


Not a Generational Difference

Cuomo both minimized and distanced himself from the wrongdoing (see Leopold, 2021). He described that there was a “generational difference” and that “the rules have changed” (Wagner et al, 2021). Inappropriately touching women and using sexualized language in the workplace have never been good behavior. Women complied over the years to keep their jobs. Women are speaking up more now and more people are listening to them. No one changed the rules; no one ever told Cuomo’s generation they could grab women in the workplace. 

Sexual harassment may have been considered a fringe area of feminist theory 25 years ago, but only because patriarchy was the norm. Cuomo chose to live in his patriarchal world of sexual harassment, but that was a choice. No one changed the rules on him. He just realized that he hasn’t been listening.


Cuomo reportedly attempted to retaliate when women came forward about the sexual harassment (see James, 2021). Retaliation is illegal. Anyone facing workplace sexual harassment has the right to report the misconduct without retaliation. 


Both creating a hostile work environment and quid pro quo are illegal. You are protected by state and federal laws. 

If you or someone you know has a question about sexual harassment, please contact your local women’s center, rape crisis center, or sexual abuse center. If you live in Lake County or Northern Cook County in Illinois, feel free to contact ZCenter with any questions about your rights or reporting. We also offer a Workplace Sexual Harassment Prevention Training, now required for all state employers to offer. Contact us for any questions about scheduling or pricing.

Most of all, take care of yourself and your coworkers. We all deserve a safe and non-hostile work environment.


Written by Kristin D. Jones, PhD, EdM, Outreach Supervisor. 

All ZCenter blog posts are written by state certified staff, interns, and volunteers. For questions on authorship or content, please email


Al Jazeera Staff. (2021). Andrew Cuomo’s sexual harassment scandal: What we know.

James, Leticia. (2021). Report of Investigation into Allegations of Sexual Harassment by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. State of New York Office of the Attorney General.

Leopold, L. (2021). New York Gov. Cuomo is the textbook example of how not to apologize.

Torres, N. (2021). Timeline of President Trump’s Quid Pro Quo. Congresswoman Norma Torres.

Wagner, M., M. Mahtani, M. Macaya, M. Hayes, & V. Rocha. (2021). New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Resigns.

Waxman, O.B. (2018). The Surprising Consequences of the Supreme Court Cases That Changed Sexual Harassment Law 20 Years Ago.


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