Though sexual harassment and assault is nothing new, recent cases with increased visibility beg the broader question of how our society is teaching men to treat women.
This past week, talented – and admittedly beloved – film mogul Harvey Weinstein joined the ranks of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, and other men of power who have, in recent months, been exposed as sexual predators. (And yes, it is possible for these men to be talented and beloved and predatory, all at once. It is important to separate these traits, though.) Male friends and industry stakeholders were quoted as shocked and dismayed in outlets like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and on Twitter, while female stars like Rose McGowan and Angelina Jolie expressed reactions that can be fairly equated to “We tried to tell you so.”
If power is to serve as a test of character, then it seems that many of our culture’s men are failing it. And the above named, along with Jian Ghomeshi, Woody Allen, and a number of others that can be counted on two hands – including arguably the most powerful man of the free world, U.S. President Donald Trump – are just the few who have been publicly outed.
These men are successful, wealthy, revered; all things that should insinuate their acceptability in at least some regard. And though they’ve each used their power to accomplish some good, in their way, they’ve also employed it in much more sinister endeavors – namely, in disrespecting women. Some of this disrespect came in crude comments, innuendos, and gendered insults; ways that many, for whatever reason, would be happy to dismiss as “locker room talk” or “boys being boys.” Some of it took the form of rape. And the majority of it fell somewhere in between, on the spectrum of violence and sexual misconduct towards women that has spanned the entirety of human civilization. A spectrum that is grand and, despite what many would like to think, not grey in the slightest, a thread connecting one act to the next, more terrible one. Any act of indignity is still just that, whether greater or lesser in severity. All still pain a victim, stripping them of their personhood whether or not clothes fell by the wayside, too.
An additional trait these men share is the fact that they are all well-educated, holding at least one degree from a recognized American university. And yet somewhere, their education in the worldly sense fell short. What had their friends, peers, and fathers taught them about how to wield power and how to treat others? How to treat a woman? What did society teach them beyond their scholarly education?
These stories hit close to home in 2017 because we as a society now have to face the realization that it was one of us. Someone our system educated; someone our system admired. Historically, the rare times a case of sexual assault was brought to court or even spoken about, there was always a sense of designating perpetrators of these types of crime as outliers, as individuals outside of societal norms – when in fact, it is our societal norms that manufacture this type of behavior. Our collective mindset likes to “other” sexual predators, saying things like “not all men.” We imagine strange men in dark alleys or criminals breaking into bedrooms. We don’t like to have to conceive of the devil we know: friends, former lovers, current lovers, coworkers, bosses. We don’t like to have to consider how the way we raise men has led to this.
Women, unfortunately, tend to know different than these antiquated assault myths from their personal experiences, which again have rarely been aired. One of the few non-awful things to come of all of the aforementioned cases is the fact that voices are getting stronger and once-hidden stories of what happens all-too-often are being heard.
Another silver lining is the fact that a dialogue has been started where before there was only silence. The conversation may be shrugged off by some or deemed too awkward by others, but it is being carried on by some people, somewhere; more people than ever before. Dialogues about believing victims. About what kinds of basic human respect a person deserves, regardless of race or sexual orientation of physical ability or gender. About what we are teaching our youth, inside of institutions and outside in the world. And if there is any hope to be had, it is in listening and learning.