Why did no one speak out about Harvey Weinstein?
As the allegations swirl around the disgraced film mogul, we must ask whose fault it is that his behaviour continued unchallenged for so long and how we stop the harassers we encounter in our own lives
This happens once in a while: a tide of disapproval should crash on the head of the man who has been serially sexually harassing women for his entire career. But it never does. Almost as the story breaks, his part in it becomes a trigger event at best the Franz Ferdinand moment in the first world war or a footnote at worst. Instead, the pressing question becomes: whose fault was it that a culture of silence built up around the person whose fault it actually was? It is almost as if the extravagance of the offence expiates the offender: Harvey Weinstein has so many allegations against him of harassment and assault, of rape, forced oral sex, the systematic silencing of his victims. He has unequivocally denied any allegations of non-consensual sex. However, of the harassment, he has admitted enough that we know he is a bad man. We know about bad men the way we know about hurricanes. They simply exist, and when they land, they leave a lot of clearing up to do.
Is the fault institutional? The Weinstein Company fired Weinstein when everyone found out he was a sexual predator; it would have been better if they had fired him when it found out. According to the testimonies of 16 separate former and current executives, his behaviour was widely known, both at Miramax and the Weinstein Company. Are the real culprits the very powerful allies of the predator? It has been alleged that Matt Damon and Russell Crowe worked actively to suppress one story in 2004, much to the rage of Sharon Waxman, the journalist whose story went under the wheels of that celebrity juggernaut. (It would be saddening and surprising to discover that Damon is a jerk; less so Crowe.)
Is the problem more generally from male bystanders even if we accept that not everybody knew what was going on, there are enough people directly implicated the lawyers, the fixers, the friends to infer that many more had a fair idea. Since men can raise their objections to sexual harassment without the risks that women face of being branded hysterics or fantasists, or driven by envy shouldnt they use that freedom to better purpose? The worst that they would be called is humourless. Or should female bystanders, particularly the powerful ones, take the lead, in defence of the sisterhood? Is it good enough to say, as Meryl Streep has: I did not know about his financial settlements with actresses and colleagues; I did not know about his having meetings in his hotel room, his bathroom, or other inappropriate, coercive acts. Shouldnt everybody make it their business to know? It seems inconceivable that a man with such a range of behaviour should have passed as a regular Joe to anyone.
Or does all the responsibility lie with the women Weinstein harassed, who should have worked to make their experience public for the sake of the other women who would inevitably follow? Or one crowning victim-blaming intervention from the surprisingly unglued Donna Karan were those women at fault because they were asking for it in the first place? (Here, wear this thing for an awards ceremony. Oh, you got sexually harassed? You shouldnt have worn that thing, maybe? is a summary of Karans position, but its worth watching in full, if you want to really get angry.) She has subsequently apologised.
Theres a relatively simple two-grid matrix we could use when it comes to ascertaining the ethics of all this: how much power do you have yourself, and how easily can you be discredited by exactly the same cultural contempt for women that spurred the harassment in the first place? As the writer, feminist and human rights activist Joan Smith reminds us: The men who do this, do it because they have the power and wealth to get away with it. They deliberately pick on women who are less powerful than themselves. If you had a lot of professional or cultural capital yourself, it is less likely that you would be sexually harassed; when you chastise victims for not speaking out sooner, youre asking women to suffer the double punishment of being harassed in the first place, and then having to kill the green shoots of a nascent career for some higher altruistic purpose. Practically if not explicitly, its not much different from saying its their fault.
Laura Bates, whose Everyday Sexism project did a huge amount to change the way sexual harassment is talked about, has some stark detail on this, having done a joint research project with the TUC: When women do report sexual harassment, the outcomes are terrible. Over two-thirds of young women are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace now, today. Eighty per cent of them felt unable to report it, but three-quarters of the ones who did said that nothing changed afterwards, and 16% said that the situation got worse.
Prof Liz Kelly, director of the Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University, says: I feel really uncomfortable hearing some of the statements [saying], If only women had spoken out about this earlier, they might have stopped it. Women did speak about it. He used his position of authority to mute their voices. It is unrealistic and inaccurate to expect this to be stopped by the people its happening to.
In terms of both ethics and effectiveness, it would be better if bystanders spoke out. Jackson Katz, a leading social activist on gender and race, is one of the architects of the bystander approach, and is pretty clear that harassment should be challenged by men. The conversation about bystanders has to be a gendered conversation: its like with racism. Is the responsibility of people of colour to white people to challenge white racism? No, it isnt. Pragmatically, its not always obvious what challenge looks like. Its very easy, once someones fallen from grace, to say how obvious it was, Smith points out. But before that, its often just rumour, and who do you take those rumours to?
Bates says: There are ways of reaching out to and supporting victims, which would be hugely important to women who have to put up with everybody looking the other way. One woman described this situation: she was in a circle of colleagues at a work Christmas party, and her boss reached across the circle and grabbed her breast. The thing that she focused on the most was not that, but the fact that everyone in the circle laughed. And the impact that had on her, of realising: These are my colleagues, that was their response, how could I possibly report it? was greater than [that of] the act itself.
Smith remembers being sexually abused as a young journalist by a senior editor on a newspaper, and people did hear about it because I did talk about it, and people joked about it. A bystander doesnt have to make a report to make an impact: to say what youve seen, to register your shock, to ask the victim what she wants to do about it, all these things are better than not doing them, and much better than laughing. This fact is so strikingly obvious that it takes you aback to have to write it down. Yet Katz is critical of intervention as enough in itself, what he calls the nightclub bouncer model. If we dont talk about gender dynamics, about masculinity, if we only talk about specific moments of intervention, its like if you were to talk about incidents of racism without talking about race.
When one of these scandals breaks, there is always something a bit tinny about the outrage. It doesnt have deep roots into the ground soil, where we all find this behaviour abhorrent. Its more like an explosion of confected shock, a flash riot of dismay at the thing we all knew happened a lot, a short-lived if intense conversation that purports to be about womens rights but is just as much about lurid detail. Obviously, Smith says, there are people who work in womens organisations and are genuinely horrified, and its thanks to their work that we have equalities legislation. But you have a president in the US who was able to boast on [tape] about assaulting women, and it didnt stop him from being elected. That tells you about the society we live in and its tolerance, and whether or not there is an atmosphere of genuine horror.
Kelly refers to the conducive context, which can be localised within an organisation, or general. A conducive context is, clearly, created by complicity; men and women stay silent on this for different reasons, women feeling above all that the ostracism that follows a victim who speaks up can just as easily attach to any woman. The history professor Joanna Bourke, who wrote the brilliant book Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present, has just started a five-year project for the Wellcome Foundation entitled Sexual Violence, Medicine and Psychiatry, the aim of which is to take sexual violence out of the little box called crime and into the huge field of public health.
There is something preventing our acknowledgment of sexual predation as a broad-based phenomenon that affects all of us, all of our workplaces, our productivity, our relationships, men as well as women. There is something that insists upon it as an event between two individuals, and not something that could ever be broached at the level of the institution or the culture. And I dont know the answer yet, Bourke says, but it has something, I think, to do with the nature of the sex body, the fears that we have of the sex body, and the dirtiness of sexual violence, that makes people want to ignore it, pay no attention to it. It is a bit of a tangent, but Im reminded of the fact that, this week, Radio 4 chose to mark 50 years since the passing of the Abortion Act the most important extension of womens rights since we got the vote not with a celebration of the women and men who made that happen, but with an episode of The Moral Maze debating whether abortion was right or wrong.
The female body remains a source of social risk and cultural shame. A young woman doesnt want to talk about harassment because to do so would mark her out as mentally unreliable. An old woman doesnt want to talk about it because she doesnt want to remind everybody that shes female. There are probably about six months, between 44 and 44 and a half, when, in the no mans land between desirable and obsolete, you can say whatever the hell you like.
Male complicity has different sources, as Kelly describes: It may come from a position of envy, wanting to be that powerful person and get away with it; it may be not wanting the focus to be turned on them whats wrong with them that they would object, are they gay? It becomes a masculinity challenge to say anything. And I think there are some men who have a vulnerability themselves, they may be from a minority and they feel like their hold on their position is quite tenuous. There are different ways in which men can become complicit, and not all of it is about thinking the behaviour is OK.
Men say things to one another that women never hear, things that are sexually aggressive, things that are contemptuous of women. Thats a difficult thing to say without sounding paranoid, but it is also true, and surely if theres one overarching lesson from this, it is that sometimes you have to risk sounding paranoid in order to say true things. One of the nice things about growing older, Bourke says, is that men just dont notice you any more. So its really interesting to sit in a bar and listen to them talk. Its quite shocking at times. You realise there must be a lot of guilt in their silence on sexual aggression.
The cultural shift away from accepting sexual harassment as a joke lies, Bates suggests, partly in seeing its wider effect. In many cases, it stops victims from putting ideas forward in the workplace, and to avoid certain situations; in some cases, to leave work altogether. Not to mention the morale of an organisation in which sexual harassment is allowed to continue.
The American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates was on the Today programme on Tuesday, musing on whether a black politician could have spoken about women the way Trump did and got away with it. He wouldnt have made governor, Coates said, with a tone of redolent understatement. There is a racial component white men can harass, black men cant; women of colour, when harassed, are less likely to be believed and more likely to be written off that underscores the element of contempt in sexual harassment, that its about one person having scorn for another, rather than unmanageable desire. If it were seen for what it was, a show of power that is impersonal and structural, it would make it both more natural and more urgent for everyone to take responsibility for it. Katz makes another, telling comparison with racism: Do we think that incidents of racism, like burning a cross on a front lawn, are isolated, that an individual pathology is at play? Public institutions have a huge amount of work to do in establishing a zero-tolerance to harassment, and in having safeguards, transparent policies and processes.
Ultimately, sexual harassment should be treated like a gas leak: if you smell it, you report it; if it turns out to be nothing, brilliant, no gas leak; if you think you smell it but arent sure, you ask everyone around you, in an unabashed fashion; you neither ascribe nor internalise any shame related to the leak, even if you turn out to be wrong; you consider the ramifications of being seen as the person who always smells gas, and decide that risk is acceptable; you take responsibility for noticing it, not for altruistic purposes but because, if it explodes, it explodes upon you all. Kellys conducive context is created by the shame of the act and the ease with which the powerless are overlooked, but takes millions upon millions of blind eyes to perpetuate.