I Was Tickled by a Cabinet Secretary (and Survived)

Former Rep. Eric Massa's description of tickle fights in his office reminded me of my own brush with powerful men and their wandering hands.

When I was a cub reporter for the Harvard Crimson, I attended a 1999 Democratic primary debate between Al Gore and Bill Bradley. The then-Vice President had asked several cabinet secretaries to attend the event as his surrogates. After the debate ended, I approached the Secretary of Education, a genial man named Richard Riley, and asked for his impressions.

After I had identified myself, Riley reached out his right arm and proceeded to tickle me in the Pillsbury dough boy-style. Then, he answered my question.  A few moments later, I walked up to the Secretary of Energy, Bill Richardson.  Same scenario. I identified myself as a reporter with the Crimson. Richardson proceeded to put me in a headlock. Then he answered my question.  

I wasn't sure if there was an epidemic of personal space violation virus in the Cabinet -- I had to make the connection at the time to the president's imbroglio with an intern -- or whether my slightly pudgy body type and earnest college newspaper mannerisms invited these powerful, heterosexual men to grope and grab at me. I was, to say the least, amused. Richardson, I later learned, was touchy-feely by nature.

Those incidents, however, were incidental. And explicable. And not really sexual. A surprisingly large number of Washington folks have similar stories: David Brooks recalled how a Republican senator once rested a hand on his inner thigh. Creepy. But not actionable.

What separates incidental tickling from harassment? It's not a Potter Stewart "know it when you see it" distinction -- it's a pattern and context.  Massa's behavior, as admitted by him, was not incidental and could easily (again by his own admission) be perceived as sexual. His self-defense, as articulated on Glenn Beck's program, is an indictment.

We do not know whether Eric Massa's personal space violations were innocent by intention, but we do know that three young men, several of them openly gay, are named in the complaint that the House ethics committee is investigating. The Atlantic knows the identities of the individuals, but we've decided to withhold them until we can confirm their allegations directly.

Massa's version of how his mental furniture came to include casual tickling with young men begins with his service in the Navy. The casual bonhomie homosexuality was incidental and playful, in his mind (or so we are led to believe) -- and not connected with actual sexual desire -- only some sort of homosocial bonding ritual that is common to hormonal, nominally heterosexual young men who are cooped up for long periods of time in confined spaces.

One does not need to endorse the Kinsey sexual spectrum to recognize incidental homoeroticism. But Massa's descriptions of his own conduct suggest that he is impulsive and aggressive, and that he engages in behavior, like getting drunk, that turn incidental, human, quirky encounters into something more dangerous.

It ain't the homosexual behavior that's the problem, it's the power imbalance that's created. Even if Massa's congressional office culture was straight from the script of a Bel Ami scene (look it up, because I won't dare link), any rational, reasonable person would know that the power he possesses over these young men throws the idea of informed and participatory consent out of the window.

I don't know if Massa is gay, or bisexual, or somewhere in between  -- he wouldn't tell Larry King, and it probably doesn't matter. I don't need to mention the dozens of examples we have of straight men in power violating the personal space of young women.

I do know that most gay people don't behave that way, and, in fact, when they are in positions of power over young men, gay men in Washington that I know go out of their way to act appropriately precisely because they want to avoid triggering the unfair stereotype of the predatory gay man who can't control his impulses. Perception creates reality, all too often.