The Person of the Year this year, at least according to Time magazine, was not a person, but a group—a large group, in fact, all of them female. Under the title “The Silence Breakers”, the cover featured five of the women who have exposed powerful men for their tendency to harass or belittle or threaten or rape people who were dependent on their decisions. The many other women who have also come forward are represented anonymously on the cover by the elbow of another woman who remains mostly off the right side. In 2017, their actions have become an odd sort of social event, a movement composed largely of individual decisions motivated by the individual decisions of others. One woman comes forward and inspires another to speak, then another and another. In most cases, their efforts have become effective only through the cumulative force of multiple reinforcing stories.
The wave of accusations caused an explosion in a pre-existing online campaign. The sharing of stories of sexual harassment using the phrase “Me Too” began in 2006, created by community organizer Tarana Burke on the MySpace network as an effort to create “empowerment through empathy”. It inspired the creation of of the Twitter meme #MeToo, and in 2017 that collection of personal complaints and inspiration quickly grew to millions of messages worldwide. Actress Alyssa Milano, providing her own vignette about producer Harvey Weinstein, wrote “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” That magnitude should have been obvious to anyone open to the ubiquity of sexual harassment, but fewer people can now remain in denial.
There are several recent well-publicized events that presaged, and in some ways promoted or influenced the current movement. An early one may have been the publication of Cheryl Sandberg’s self-help book Lean In. Among some commentators, at least, that book has been credited with inspiring a certain amount of self-assertiveness, a willingness of individual women to stand up for themselves and not to remain silent in the face of mistreatment. That is probably a stretch, one that certainly overstates the influence of Sandberg’s book.
A more likely initial inspiration was the 2016 election, the one that saw an admitted sexual predator and government amateur win the presidential contest against an accomplished, experienced, knowledgeable woman. The election brought us the massive demonstration on the day after President Trump’s inauguration, a protest that included proponents of many progressive issues, but which was primarily a “Women’s March” against sexual harassment. The march developed into a movement organization, Together We Rise. The election and march inspired a record number of women to run for office around the country, which in turn led to a surprising number of women winning their races, especially in the November Virginia elections.
Throughout 2017, in short, women were prompted to speak out in extraordinary ways, and, in another extraordinary development, the media began noticing and providing broad coverage. It didn’t hurt that even before the election, Fox News fired Gretchen Carlson, which led to her lawsuit and complaints from other employees, and the down fall of Roger Ailes and a number of other Fox employees. Post-election and protests, it is not surprising that a few complaints against Harvey Weinstein became a flood that spawned a series of New York Times articles and harassment charges involving more than 90 women, and that led to a tsunami that swamped other luminaries, including directors Brett Ratner and James Toback; Bill O’Reilly; actors Dustin Hoffman, Ben Affleck, and Kevin Spacey; media icons Matt Lauer and Mark Halprin; comedian Louis C.K.; politicians Roy Moore, John Conyers, and Al Franken. Oh, and also, oddly enough, Garrison Keillor. Of the above listed men, only Donald Trump has retained his job (the GOP tried to keep Roy Moore, too, but failed).
The perpetrators and their supporters generally deny the accusations. When they can’t entirely imply that their accusers are liars or that the relationships were consensual, they often come up with excuses . The most interesting of these is the one forwarded in defense of Weinstein, who claimed that he “came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.” This is a theme used by many older predators, including Bill Cosby. Apparently these men and their friends believe that it is impossible to learn and adjust as we age—the old dog and new tricks defense. Unfortunately, their memory of the cultural norms of the past are also flawed. Yes, men have had exaggerated expectations of sexual favors if they had economic or political power, and they may have taken advantage of their relative privilege more often in the past. They undoubtedly faced fewer adverse consequences.
But the sixties was no golden age of male dominance. Yes, there were many jokes and cartoons about bosses chasing their secretaries around the desk, and stories about the casting couch, but those were not signs of approval. And in case you don’t believe that, I have a movie for you to watch. It is The Apartment, an excellent 1960 winner of 5 academy awards which explores the misuse of office power relationships to take advantage of women. The dominant male predators are definitely not positive roles. So the decade did not begin well for tolerance of sexual harassment. And yes, one of the counter-culture efforts of the 1960’s involved sexual liberation, but that was predicated on consensual relationships.
What a concept. Consensual relationships. Why don’t these men understand that? The fact is, there are no excuses for sexual harassment. Like rape, it is generally more about power and dominance than about sexual attraction. It is simply another way for men who have control over the working lives of women to manifest their position and humiliate subordinates. And it is attempted by men at all management levels. As Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center noted, “We don’t read lots of news stories about fast food workers experiencing harassment and retail workers experiencing harassment and hotel maids experiencing harassment, but that’s not because it’s not happening.” The media concentrates on the wealthy and well-known, but that, to mangle a phrase, is just the visible tip of the dysfunction.
Tarana Burke, in an interview in the Nation (December 4/11, 2017), notes that she is concerned that the MeToo movement, and the public view of the scandals, will be distorted through a focus on popular individuals. This seems to be happening in the media coverage, and that may mean that the attention will decline after all of the high-profile scandals are resolved or forgotten. It has happened before. This time the perp count is larger and more influential, but the same pattern may still occur. That’s why Burke wants the focus now to be on power and privilege, not individuals. We must focus on the ubiquitous nature of the problem and the importance of believing and encouraging victims, and punishing the guilty. The focus must be on all of the MeToo messages and messengers, now and in the future. And the response must be clear; the predators must lose.