The personal is political, and often hypocritical. But the political matters more. (More)
“Ignoring bad behavior remains the signature move of men
Harvey Weinstein is a hypocrite. Politically, he gave millions of dollars to Democratic candidates and his non-apology said he would devote his attention to fighting the National Rifle Association. Personally, he was long known for his abusive rage and he treated many women as sex-and-power toys.
No, that last link isn’t to this week’s New York Times blockbuster. It’s to a 2015 article at Gawker, the now-defunct site buried by a lawsuit over another men-and-sex story. The kind of lawsuit that Weinstein has threatened to file against the Times, including one of the same lawyers. In response, the Times called on Weinstein to waive the Non-Disclosure Agreements signed by employees and former accusers.
I mention the legal wrangling because it’s relevant in light of Lena Dunham’s searing challenge in today’s New York Times:
I went to Hollywood when I was 23. I had made a low-budget film, won an award at a prestigious festival, scored an agent and made a TV deal all within six months. It was a fairy tale most people will never experience, and I knew, as well as a 23-year-old can know anything, that I was getting a pretty great deal. I bounced from meeting to meeting with the joy of Cinderella at the ball.
These meetings, almost always with men, were rife with acts of everyday sexism – the presumption that I must want to make small “intimate” movies, a suggestion that I write a comedy focused on “the way women’s periods sync up and they go crazy for a week,” the insistence that I’d be “really funny paired with a hot girl.” There were dinners that went on too long, work lunches that turned into confessions about the broken state of the film executive’s marriage and the consistent insistence that I must, as my work suggests, be “up for anything in bed.”
This past week, reports that Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed women for years came to light, making it crystal clear that not every woman in Hollywood has had the chance to walk our path. Abuse, threats and coercion have been the norm for so many women trying to do business or make art. Mr. Weinstein may be the most powerful man in Hollywood to be revealed as a predator, but he’s certainly not the only one who has been allowed to run wild. His behavior, silently co-signed for decades by employees and collaborators, is a microcosm of what has been happening in Hollywood since always and of what workplace harassment looks like for women everywhere.
Beyond these bold-name cases, ignoring bad behavior remains the signature move of men in Hollywood. I hear stories from victims themselves at a rate that feels positively dystopian. Last year, I was sexually harassed by a director of a show, not my own, and not on a set, and the response by the powers that be was to defend him, question the women ferociously and take ages before letting him go from the network. It was a move based less on his skill than on some ancient loyalty. It’s that kind of behavior that normalizes this abuse of power.
I don’t doubt Dunham’s account, but I’ll take issue on one point. “Ignoring bad behavior” in the form of sexual harassment is not simply “the signature move of men in Hollywood.” It’s a signature move of men … pretty much everywhere.
“My eyes are up here”
I’ll be vague about this next part, because I don’t want to expose a friend. We were attending a statewide Democratic party event, a cocktail party before the typical schedule of strategy seminars and working groups. I knew only a handful of people there, but my friend knew pretty much everyone and she introduced me to everyone … except for one guy.
He seemed to be schmoozing everyone and they were schmoozing back, so I asked why she hadn’t introduced us. “Because he’s a pig,” she said. “Every time I talk to him, I want to say: ‘My eyes are up here.'”
He wasn’t an isolated case. More than once, I had quiet words with men who tossed out casually sexist jokes in a county party event. A few were defensive. Most were apologetic. Politically, they advocated for women’s rights such as pay equality, health care equality, reproductive choice, and the like. Personally, many had what might generously be called “blind spots.”
I should emphasize that at no time did I witness or hear about the kind of abuse Weinstein spewed, not even regarding the man my friend described as “a pig.”
Even so, Democrats are not devoid of sexism … as Weinstein himself proves.
“If your culture’s code is libertine, don’t be surprised that worse things than libertinism flourish”
That said, it’s ridiculous to fly to the opposite extreme and declare that sexual harassment is caused by liberalism, as Ross Douthat did at the New York Times:
Last Sunday I wrote a harsh obituary for Hugh Hefner, which noted that he represented a certain style of liberalism = progressive and yet chauvinist, liberationist and exploitative = that perdures in our society to this day. Some readers were skeptical: Didn’t Hef’s feminist critics win the fight for liberalism, while his Playboy philosophy became something of a joke?
The answer is yes, at the level of ideological commitment – but not so much in practice. In the real life of liberalism, Hefnerism endures as the effective philosophy of many liberal men, for whom sexual individualism justifies using women because hey, we’re all cool consenting adults here, and caddishness blurs into predation when power differentials permit. Meanwhile, feminism struggles to find norms that check this kind of behavior, swinging between a facile sex-positivity and illiberal attempts to police the hookup scene.
Douthat opines that “If liberals want to restrain the ogres in their midst, a few conservative ideas might be helpful,” and among those ideas he lists:
Consent alone is not a sufficient guide to ethics. Caddishness and predation can be a continuum. If you cheat on your wife you may be more likely to harass subordinates. Promiscuity can encourage predatory entitlement. Older rules of moral restraint were broader for a reason. If your culture’s code is libertine, don’t be surprised that worse things than libertinism flourish.
Phrases like “may be more likely” and “can encourage” do a hell of a lot of heavy lifting there. It’s a classic slippery slope fallacy, all the more absurd because it presumes that sexual harassment didn’t happen, or didn’t happen as often, before the ‘sexual liberation’ of the Hefnerian 1960s. And that’s just bullshit:
Human beings have always been prone to a spot of bad behaviour. But when women arrived in the office, the opportunities for misbehaving reached a whole new level.
And the object of desire? The secretary of course.
By the early 20th Century the secretary had become a cultural type. Girls wanted to grow up to be one. Boys thought they’d marry one.
The ideal candidate was someone who could be an “office wife” – matching the duties in the office that the wife did at home.
Early manuals of secretarial skills read like guides to a successful marriage.
“Learn his preferences and obey them even if you do not always agree with his ideas or methods. Naturally a man likes to have his wants attended to, who doesn’t? Assume that he is always right.”
Including if he wants to stare at your breasts or pat your ass. Just part of the job.
“The Clinton machine had nationalized the methods of destroying the credibility of women”
In the climate of 1998-2000, “sexual harrassment” meant “Bill Clinton,” the sexual harassment and affair-with-starstruck-young-subordinate story that had transfixed the nation for two years and dug the entire world of liberalism into a defensive crouch against female accusers of powerful liberals, complete with a theory of “compartmentalization” under which a man who did good for the movement could be forgiven his private sins, regardless of the trail of women he’d treated as disposable. The Clinton machine had nationalized the methods of destroying the credibility of women, even liberal women in good standing, who dared to speak out against The Big He. It’s no accident that, in this climate, many of Weinstein’s potential accusers got the message Clinton sent, and that Traister describes – that giving in to such men was a romantic devotion to The Cause (claim your free copy of Leaves of Grass here!) and that the liberal world of Hollywood would consider you a prude if you spoke out.
How convenient. McLaughlin flies right past the Supreme Sexual Harassment story – Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings – and the well-funded, coordinated smearing of accuser Anita Hill. To claim the “Clinton machine had nationalized the methods of destroying the credibility of women” completely ignores the ugly machinations of Justice Thomas’ conservative backers.
And again, those tactics long pre-date the 1980s:
For most of American history, women silently endured mistreatment in the workplace, with little protection or recourse. During the 18th and 19th centuries, sexual coercion was a fact of life for female slaves in the South, as well as a common experience among free domestic workers in the North. In the early 20th century, women employed in new manufacturing and clerical positions confronted physical and verbal assaults from male supervisors. Union leadership was successful in enacting protective legislation that shielded women from performing physically demanding labor, but not from the propositions of lecherous bosses. By the 1920s, working women were advised to simply quit their jobs if they could not handle the inevitable sexual advances.
The turning point finally came in the mid-1970s, as the women’s liberation movement began to challenge a justice system – as well as a culture at large – that failed to recognize women’s consent. The campaign against sexual harassment was the natural extension of the grassroots anti-rape and anti-battering movements, which grew out of consciousness-raising sessions in which women shared personal stories and realized they were not alone in their experiences.
The phrase “sexual harassment” was coined in 1975, by a group of women at Cornell University. A former employee of the university, Carmita Wood, filed a claim for unemployment benefits after she resigned from her job due to unwanted touching from her supervisor. Cornell had refused Wood’s request for a transfer, and denied her the benefits on the grounds that she quit for “personal reasons.” Wood together with activists at the university’s Human Affairs Office, formed a group called Working Women United. At a Speak Out event hosted by the group, secretaries, mailroom clerks, filmmakers, factory workers and waitresses shared their stories, revealing that the problem extended beyond the university setting. The women spoke of masturbatory displays, threats and pressure to trade sexual favors for promotions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, with greater awareness came greater pushback. As TIME covered major incidents of harassment at Yale and Harvard in the late 1970s and early 1980s, noting that “as many as 18 million American females were harassed sexually while at work in 1979 and 1980,” the magazine also reported that “antifeminist crusader” Phyllis Schlafly believed these women were “asking for it.” At a Senate committee called to review federal guidelines on harassment, Schlafly testified that “virtuous women are seldom accosted.”
Indeed Susan Faludi wrote a searing chronical of coordinated anti-feminism: Backlash. That was first published in 1991 … when Bill Clinton was still a barely-known governor.
Yes, some liberal men joined in that backlash, personally. But conservatives funded and drove that backlash, politically …
… up to and including Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), who campaigned against women’s reproductive choice while having an affair with a woman half his age, and urging her to have an abortion. “Conservative values,” my ass.
Meanwhile, the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief just signed a rule that allows bosses to punish women who use birth control. And make no mistake, it’s punishment when you tell employees that they must both pay company health insurance premiums and also pay out of their own pocket if they use a contraceptive that the boss doesn’t approve.
But that’s not sexual harassment. Oh no. That’s “religious freedom!”
The personal is political, and there are plenty of hypocrites whose personal lives don’t correspond with their political ideals. But when your political ideals demand that women use only birth control methods that their bosses approve, endure medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds before terminating a pregnancy, your harassment goes beyond the personal. You’re advocating for sexual harassment that is mandated and enforced by government.
And yes … that really does matter more.
Image Credits — Harvey Weinstein Photo: Richard Shotwell (Inivision/AP); Pen & Ink Effect: Crissie Brown (BPICampus.com)