Weinstein and the women who 'benefited'
Sexual assault is never a mutually beneficial business transaction
There's an awkward question orbiting the Harvey Weinstein scandal: Who benefited? Who prospered thanks to the culture of silence surrounding years of rumors of sexual assault?
Recently, a person I was talking to about the case suggested that Weinstein's alleged targets — the ones who didn't report, the ones who failed to pit their 19-year-old no-names against his brand in lights — were just as culpable as the bystanders who enabled him and knew. I was, I confess, unprepared for this argument. These women had a choice, this person felt. And they made it. They chose to benefit instead of disclose.
The point he — an ultra-capitalist — was trying to make was that sex and power are transactional. It's a big world, after all, and there must be some people for whom being raped, or pressured to watch a man masturbate into a potted plant, is the acceptable price of doing business.
I find this line of thinking so astonishing I don't often take the trouble to respond. It feels like trolling. It seems steeped in bad faith. It does what capitalist arguments so often do, which is insist there's a choice (or a contract) when none exists. It presumes, further, that male and female artists in Hollywood face similar hurdles that just express a little differently. It's the kind of thinking that says things like women have an advantage men don't: sex!
I want to slow down and think this through, because we're at a cultural crux and it seems to me important to be extremely careful; to think rigorously about what happened with Weinstein, and whether his alleged victims were indeed partly to blame — not just for their own harassment, but for everyone who came after, because they benefited.
The argument is that the actresses who didn't report Weinstein's alleged behavior failed to do so because he helped their careers. There could be some hypothetical merit to this. We've seen several reports — in particular screenwriter Scott Rosenberg's scathing and honest assessment of his own complicity — that suggest that Weinstein controlled people by richly rewarding them for their cooperation. He made their lives so fun that he sort of incidentally bought their silence. Rosenberg makes a point of including "actresses" in his list of people who "knew."
So the man I was arguing with was right to note that some people benefited hugely from staying silent.
However, I don't think his victims were among them.
We'd been talking about the people who said (in the wake of the accusations) that they "didn't know," and how that state of "not knowing" technically expands forever, even to us — the consumers of Hollywood who hear rumors, or allegations, or detailed accounts with multiple witnesses. The trouble is that our culture has structured our standards of proof such that we think we're being "objective" and judicious when we've actually made it impossible to know. "Not knowing" has become the only state we can responsibly and justly occupy. Consider the scripts people have at their fingertips when women do report — when women try to make people know. I'm putting those scripts in italics:
1. If the stories are untethered to any particular woman, then they're just rumors. C'mon, the old machine creaks. This is gossip. There's not even a victim to substantiate these.
2. If a particular woman comes forward, the possibilities fork. There are gems like a woman scorned, or she had "regrets" (after sleeping with him), or she's a golddigger. One of the most popular false narratives around is that rape and sexual harassment charges earn women gigantic payouts. Worse still: She's an attention whore. Worst of all: She's a golddigger who didn't even put out.
3. If two or three women come forward, suspicions sharpen: Obviously a conspiracy to take a good man down. Why would they do that? Attention and money.
4. If dozens of women come forward? It's a bandwagon. Women see a chance to grab attention or money or to burnish their brand. Hop on board, ladies.
There's a script to invalidate every possible scenario. It doesn't matter whether there's no accuser, one accuser, several, or many. The result is the same. And in almost every case, the woman's motivation for reporting gets flattened to attention and money. Not fear, not justice. This has the effect of creating a handy false equivalence between her and the man. At least the man wanted sex! That's sincere! That's human connection! But women? They're calculating. Conniving. Out for what they can get. You get the point: There's a vague prostitution subtext here. Every one of these scripts effectively positions the woman as morally inferior to the man she's accusing.
Even a straight confession from the harasser isn't enough; now-President Trump said on tape that he likes to grab women by the genitals. His supporters dismissed this as standard conversation between healthy American males. When many men came forward, startled, to say they didn't talk like that, even in the sacrosanct "locker room," Trump's supporters derided them as pansies at best, dishonest "virtue-signalers" at worst.
Let's loop back for a moment to the scenario of a woman hoping to make it in film, stuck in a room with Harvey Weinstein, who invited her to a meeting in his hotel — or his office, or an elevator.
Weinstein starts to disrobe.
The man with whom I was arguing would, I suspect, see this as the beginning of a transaction. He thinks this is rather clear and fair: Weinstein is clearly proposing professional help in exchange for sex.
But to me, it looks like a classic case of a man abusing his power — performing a monstrous professional bait-and-switch. More significantly, it's the kind of bait-and-switch to which very few men struggling in Hollywood will ever be subjected. If you're a guy like Scott Rosenberg, a meeting with Weinstein isn't much of a transaction. Your talent is validated. The only cost to you is turning a blind eye to the troubling rumors about women you don't know.
If you're the woman — every bit as talented as Rosenberg, with the exact same ideas — guess what? You're stuck in a room with a man everyone tells you is powerful and great, and he's naked. Several things are clear: He didn't think you had promise. He doesn't even like you. All you are to him is a hole — maybe a thing to dominate. Any hope that you had talent has been dashed by one of the major movers and shakers in the business. And now, on top of all that, if you want a career, you have to sexually pleasure him. It's a grim choice.
This isn't exactly an even playing field. It would actually be hard to come up with a more perfect recipe for unequal treatment. And the main people I see "benefiting" in this system are men. The women sacrifice their bodies and self-respect. The men get sex and professional validation.
So what happens to the women who got targeted or raped and don't report? Who somehow run the gauntlet of harassment and dismissals and make art after all? Did they benefit, as the man I was arguing with at the start of this piece would say?
Sure, I think he'd reply. They made money. They're famous. They got what they wanted. If you subscribe to the idea that women only care about money and attention (and that's the subtext here), then yes, they benefited.
They also get to live in the shadows of their male colleagues: devalued, objectified, trained to accept the predatory overtures of men who casually destroy the women who resist. They'll forever be suspected of sleeping their way to the top, whether they did or not. Meanwhile, the people Weinstein actually bought, the men who accepted his help and gifts without paying with their bodies or self-respect — got to bask in the knowledge of their merit, their artistic integrity, and their overall worth. They get to create, without feeling that the only value they carry is between their legs, without knowing that everyone secretly wonders whether their success is legitimate. If sexual predators profit from our "not knowing" that they're guilty, their victims bear the burden of our "not knowing" that they're innocent.
There's no benefit in that.