The recent scandals regarding first, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and then Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore have broken the usual impunity surrounding men’s sexual assault on women by bringing it into the public sphere. That’s a good thing. But the scandals also reveal what women have always known–the pervasiveness of sexual assault in our daily lives.
Usually if you bring up sexual assault in a group of women friends the response will be, oh yeah, me too. At least for an older generation, if the incidents fall on the less-violent end of the scale, they’re considered almost a rite of passage, something you endure as part of growing up. We weren’t even given much information on how to avoid it, but we knew we had to be careful all the time. Patriarchy creates a minefield for girls growing up, and even for women on into adulthood. Like avoiding falling into a pothole, you keep a lookout all the time, and if you fall, you tend to think it was your own lack of attention to the terrain that caused it. I remember it never even occurred to me to tell my mother, and this pattern still repeats itself. On the more-violent end of the spectrum, the social taboos that tag shame onto injury, pressuring victims to hush up attacks, function powerfully, especially as victims see how society treats those with the courage to break the taboos and come out publicly. Girls and women internalize injury until it becomes an indistinguishable part of our identities.
It’s certainly an indistinguishable part of our society’s identity. Just look at the record: We have a president who was elected after admitting to predatory, non-consensual practices with women: “I just kiss beautiful women and grab ’em by the pussy”. We have a Supreme Court Justice (entrusted with defining and applying the highest law of the land) who was given a seat on the court after the attorney Anita Hill testified to suffering repeated acts of sexual harassment as his employee—and the congressional committee hearing the testimony decided it wasn’t even relevant to call the four other women witnesses prepared to testify to the same. Male celebrities who tout their aggressive behavior with women are held up as role models.
Placing in power men who openly believe that violence against women is acceptable erodes society on every level. Gains in women’s rights are stripped back and even if left on the books, increased discrimination against women in the legal system decreases their effective reach. The few protections that exist are weakened and the social climate becomes more openly misogynist. Women who speak out are re-victimized.
It comes as no surprise that male dominance exists, and intentionally protects and recreates itself. But our society also seems to be genuinely confused about sexual assault on women–it has no idea where the lines are even supposed to be drawn. Attacking women permeates the culture and is considered entertainment. Remember the 2014 Emmy Awards when Bryan Cranston grabbed Julia Louis-Dreyfus in an interminable clench as she tried to push him off? Although the two later claimed it was a stunt, it did not look consensual and aside from a disconcerted Jimmy Fallon, no one reacted. The press unanimously considered it a good joke. Countless movies and television shows portray men who force women and women who then fall in love with them.
It’s shocking to see the ease with which men’s sexual assault on women is dismissed. The (female) governor of Alabama Kay Ivey, when asked about Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged behavior, said she had no reason not to believe the women but, “I believe in the Republican Party, what we stand for, and, most important, we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate.” So what does the Republican Party stand for? Child molestation? Others defending Moore have said Alabama girls ‘sometimes look much older’, that it was a long time ago, that he was not yet married, etc. No other crime generates such blatantly absurd defenses. In sexual harassment and assault cases, our courts of law automatically put the plaintiff on trial. She is obliged not only to prove her specific case, but to prove her personal validity to even be making a case like this against a man.
U.S. society as a whole seems to have no moral compass on the issue. It is confused, or indifferent, or downright immoral in its failure to consistently censure violence, and especially sexual violence, against women. This makes it easier for the press to expose acts selectively, politically or not at all, making it in turn easier to dismiss the validity and scope of the problem. We seem to have a separate category for male attacks on women, located in a gray zone that men would never agree to inhabit. Time after time, we hear that women deserve to be attacked, provoke violent attacks, even like being attacked.
In the Weinstein scandal, we’ve also seen how women themselves often feel a mixture of shame and confusion. The “star-making machinery” implicitly obliges women to ignore or whitewash sexual harassment and worse. Ironically, many do this precisely to overcome barriers of sex discrimination in their careers, and they end up further mining the field for women who come after. All of us who have suffered in silence have done this. We should never lose sight that the criminal behavior is on the part of the aggressor and the society that condones his attacks, so I mention that vicious cycle not as a criticism, but rather as a call to action. That’s why the women actors who have spoken up in the Weinstein case and the former teenagers who have come out and accused Moore of what reportedly was an open secret have carried out a major public service for us all.
Another way the system turns a blind eye to women’s rights is to state that violence against women is simply not a priority. In Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, feminists have had to reconstruct women’s shelters even as women become more vulnerable to violence, because the authorities insist it isn’t a priority.
The sad part is that we know that violence against women is a bedrock form of violence. When male violence gets a green light, families become more vulnerable, and abuse of women and children rises. Hundreds of studies have shown that children who grow up around violence tend to reproduce it as adults, as much as it frightened and repulsed them as kids. Many articles have noted the direct link between Devin Kelley the wife-beater, and Devin Kelley the mass murderer who walked into a south Texas church last month and massacred 26 people. The question came up repeatedly: If we had taken the woman seriously, could we have saved all these lives? And the implied response is clearly: yes.
A Sea-Change or a Passing Current?
Last year Ronan Farrow, whose article in the New Yorker unleashed the Harvey Weinstein scandal, penned a piece for Hollywood Reporter about sexual assault in the industry. He wrote at length about his sister Dylan Farrow’s well-founded accusations against their estranged father, Woody Allen. He details the many ways in which Hollywood covers the trails or dismisses allegations that go against its own self-interest, such as Cate Blanchett’s explicit nod to Allen as she accepted an Academy Award just days after the account of abuse. In both the Weinstein and Allen cases, Farrow describes how the two entertainment powerhouses deployed elaborate and expensive public relations campaigns to deflect and discredit the accusations. In Allen’s case, it worked (so far); in Weinstein’s case it might be a tipping point.
The attempts to sweep under the rug demands for justice for men’s crimes against women arguably does as much damage to society as the crimes themselves. Farrow writes, “[Silence] sends a message to victims that it’s not worth the anguish of coming forward. It sends a message about who we are as a society, what we’ll overlook, who we’ll ignore, who matters and who doesn’t. We are witnessing a sea change in how we talk about sexual assault and abuse. But there is more work to do to build a culture where women like my sister are no longer treated as if they are invisible.”
Unfortunately, it might be too soon to talk about a sea change. The recent scandals and the media attention they’ve garnered are a step in the right direction, but we have to keep pushing forward. In the process, we also have to make some distinctions. Forcing a kiss on an adult woman is not the same as driving a 14-year old into the woods and assaulting her. The legal repercussions are different and the ethical scale varies, even though both acts are reprehensible. We have to use clear terms to clear up society’s confusion and to avoid a backlash that ends up trivializing the most heinous crimes, like rape.
As we make progress, we invariably get backlash. Today in many parts of the world, rightwing, often neo-fascist, movements threaten to wipe out gains in women’s rights, even as a new generation of young feminists refuses to accept violence against women as normal. It’s our responsibility to de-mine our culture so this new generation can safely defend women’s gains and forge new paths. Calling out the Weinsteins and the Moores is a big part of that.