Thanks to Harvey Weinstein, we have found ourselves in an oddly reflective cultural moment. But most of us have yet to grasp upon how far-reaching it really is.
What began a few years ago with discussions about rape on college campuses has continued apace with not especially shocking revelations about Roger Ailes and Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, both of whom reportedly spent scores of millions of dollars on hush money for women who had accused them of sexual harassment. The discussion continues following a recent New York Times report about Weinstein's alleged use of his vast fortune to silence women accusing him of sexual assault.
What will happen to Weinstein? If even one or two of the accusations reported by the Times and in a follow-up piece by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker can be proved — and let's face it: One of them has audio behind it, which I would not recommend to weak stomachs — then Weinstein should go to prison, along with the many associates, hangers-on, fixers, and yes men who stage-managed his alleged decades-long sexual assault tour.
But this will not — cannot — end with Weinstein. We already know this. Since the publication of the Times piece, Hilarie Burton has come forward with a story about being groped by Ben Affleck during a television program; the Gigi star has not denied it. Terry Crews has rather bravely recounted the time he was molested by a Hollywood executive in the presence of his own wife.
The legacy of criminal sexual assault — of unwanted advances, touching, groping, molestation, and rape — in the entertainment world is easier to come to grips with when its face is that of a fat behind-the-scenes money man or a dated, unfunny comedian like Bill Cosby. What do we do about predators we actually think are cool?
It is not enough to absolve ourselves by pretending that this has always been a cloak-and-dagger affair. Hollywood culture is rape culture — and it always has been. There is a reason that "casting couch" is a slang term. The same thing is true in the music industry. Do we really want to pretend that the now-septuagenarians responsible for "Under My Thumb" and "Stray Cat Blues" ("But it's no hanging matter / It's no capital crime … I bet, bet your mama don't know you scream like that / I bet your mother don't know you can spit like that") have uniformly respected boundaries, including those involving the age of consent, over the course of their long and storied careers?
In 1980 paramedics were summoned to the home of Don Henley of The Eagles, where they found two girls, aged 15 and 16 respectively; the former was arrested for being under the influence of drugs and the latter, who was naked when the authorities arrived, charged with prostitution. Henley paid a $2,500 fine and got probation.
Ted Nugent, a man who has performed at numerous official Republican Party functions, became the legal guardian of a 17-year-old girl in Hawaii rather than face potential kidnapping charges.
There are scores of incidents involving women and minors in Stephen Davis' Hammer of the Gods, a biography of Led Zeppelin based on extensive interviews with the band's tour manager, that I do not feel at liberty even to paraphrase in a family website like this one. (The band has insisted that every page of the book is false, naturally). Miles Davis in his memoir tells us that Charlie Parker once forced a woman to perform oral sex on him in the back seat of a taxi while "Bird" ate fried chicken; the trumpet legend himself was unabashed about his violence toward female companions over the years. When David Bowie died, how many of the glowing tributes bothered to mention his alleged penchant for teenaged girls?
Most of this has been in plain sight for decades, not lamented or agonized over, but simply ignored or, worse yet, consumed indifferently as mere gossip and forgotten. Finally we have decided to start caring about it.
This is an unambiguously welcome development. But beyond pursuing credible accusations and delivering the stingy justice of the courts, what else is incumbent upon us? How much do we want to commit to? If Weinstein's name is to be removed from the credits of television shows in the production of which he played even a small part, what are we to do with the mountains of records, CDs, posters, books, memorabilia, commemorating rockers? What about the so-called "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame"? What is the point at which it becomes necessary for us to channel our inner Savonarolas and just start burning? Is one confirmed incident enough? How many Station to Stations or Physical Graffitis are worth the assault of a single woman or child? Are we affirming or materially contributing to their crimes when we watch films or listen to music made by abusers?
Like the rest of human life, sexuality has been subsumed over the course of the last few decades into the language of economics. The sexual act, we tell ourselves, is a simple matter of exchange between consenting partners, like a business transaction. It has nothing whatever to do with marriage or children. Like the deregulation of the economy, the privatization of sex has given us some apparent winners and a rather larger number of clear losers.
It's hard to care how much has to burn for us to start listening to them.