8 big questions we need to ask ourselves in the wake of America's sexual assault reckoning
Is real change possible?
There's a big question haunting the ongoing culture-wide epiphany about the scale of sexual predation in American workplaces: Can it all build to substantive change? What, beyond the obvious, can anger and testimony achieve? So far, we've seen them produce a great deal: There's an emetic, purgatorial quality to this outpouring of experiences that have never been sayable before. Along with the catharsis and relief, there's a grievous but essential corrective to the stories we've told ourselves about where we are in the fight for gender equality.
But in concrete terms, even though some malefactors are indeed seeing consequences, the effects have been more chaotic than systematic or surgical.
Yes, Harvey Weinstein was forced out of The Weinstein Company. Mark Halperin did indeed lose his job. So did Charlie Rose. Former Oklahoma state Sen. Ralph Shortey — the chair of Donald Trump's Oklahoma campaign — is expected to plead guilty to child sex trafficking on Nov. 30. Emerson Collective canceled its backing for Leon Wieseltier's new journal. Fox News pulled Bill O'Reilly's show. Kevin Spacey was replaced by Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World.
But whereas Louis C.K.'s Netflix special was canceled, Danny Masterson — who stands accused of a great deal more than Louis C.K. — still has a deal with Netflix. Why?
Anthony Weiner is in prison for sexting with a minor; Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore received the president's endorsement despite multiple allegations of molesting one.
Armie Hammer pointed out (in a tone-deaf, vaguely self-serving way) that allegations of sexual misconduct affected Nate Parker and Casey Affleck quite differently. Parker is in "director jail," Hammer says, whereas Affleck won an Oscar.
The haphazard way in which consequences are coming should concern anyone who's hoping for a systemic response to a systemic problem. The fact is, some of these scandals have become inverse popularity contests; that means the most beloved or famous figures are — in an interesting reversal — absorbing most of the response. People care deeply about Louis C.K.'s misconduct (myself included) because they thought he was better than that. No one seems to care much about the allegations about Steven Seagal; no one liked him enough to be surprised. But that lack of interest shouldn't mean that Seagal gets to escape the professional repercussions some of his colleagues are facing.
This is no way to proceed. For one thing, it's simply not fair. For another, this folds fame into the equation in ways that exclude ordinary people. If the consequence for being accused of sexual assault is that you lose your platform — and that seems to be the best ad hoc solution we've come up with — then women who aren't famous in non-celebrity industries don't have the same recourse. Whether it's female marines or hotel staff or restaurant workers, their plight won't generate the same public response. Our imaginative attachments to public figures matter, but they aren't particularly good at delivering equality or justice.
The more we watch consequences accrue in response to eddies of public outrage, the more likely a backlash becomes. We have to develop better metrics if we want this movement to translate into real change. I don't have the answers for how to go about that; but we can start compiling some of the relevant questions:
1. What are appropriate consequences for sexual predation? Assuming a harasser isn't famous, what form of justice can his victim expect? So far, the tacit consensus seems to be that they shouldn't get to work in their chosen careers. For how long? If the victim is tasked with publicly judging an apology (or otherwise absolving her harasser), doesn't that just open her up to being pressured behind the scenes? What do we as a society want from this process we're being forced to collectively improvise? Punishment? Rehabilitation? Restitution?
2. What are the hierarchies of harm? This is tough; sexual assault and sexual harassment exist on a worryingly wide spectrum, and the damage is hard to objectively measure. But it must at least be attempted. As Michelle Goldberg says at The New York Times, "Weinstein's sadistic serial predation isn't comparable to Louis C.K.'s exhibitionism. The groping Franken has been accused of isn't in the same moral universe as Moore's alleged sexual abuse of minors." The terms we have — sexual harassment, sexual misconduct — are such blunt instruments that they practically force false equivalences. If we're going to take this seriously, let's take it seriously. You know that old, semi-correct story about the Eskimos having 50 words for snow? A culture needs to develop a rich lexicon to properly describe its environment. We need to radically expand our glossary for sexual misbehavior so that we may precisely address the sheer range of sexualized abuse to which people are routinely subjected.
3. What should men who know they're guilty of sexual misconduct do? The Establishment's Ijeoma Oluo suggests that, rather than wait to be denounced, they should come forward and face the music. It's the right thing to do. Others have suggested some kind of "truth and reconciliation committee" — complete with amnesties — whereby harassers could confess to all the reprehensible things they've done. The merits of this are largely academic: It would be useful to have as complete a picture of exactly what our workplace culture has been, and it might be validating to victims. On the other hand, this robs people whose entire careers have been derailed of more forceful remedies. Are there other solutions?
4. How does a culture standardize its approach across industrial and political divides? Is this even possible, given how different the incentives and power structures are? Mike Allen at Axios points out that certain industries have remained hitherto untouched: "The wave has yet to hit the New York corporate suites. I'm told they're hardly immune," he writes. It's possible there simply aren't any allegations; it's also possible that some industries are still managing to pressure victims into keeping quiet. Academia, for instance, has shown itself to be remarkably resistant to addressing sexual misconduct. The restaurant industry is just barely starting to take this stuff seriously. Politically, too, there are splits emerging between those who are ethical and those who are tactically-minded. While Democrats have roundly condemned Sen. Al Franken's actions, they can't quite decide what he should do now. As for the GOP, it has wrapped itself in knots around Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, variously arguing that the allegations against him are disgusting untruths, a total conspiracy, or perfectly fine, as some 14-year-olds could pass for 20, and the Virgin Mary was a teenager. If there's anything that unites us all as Americans, it's that many men on both sides of the political divide have been guilty of pretty serious wrongdoing. That's not a recipe for a healthy society. Less healthy still is the lack of political will to deal with offenders in the same way regardless of party.
5. Why haven't past solutions worked? Why, in particular, have HR solutions failed? Sexual harassment training is widely seen as a joke — so much so that The Office even dedicated an episode to the phenomenon. "The basic compliance function of human resources — to ensure a company doesn't violate the law — is often interpreted as a mission to protect a company from lawsuits, and employees know it," Rebecca Greenfield writes at Bloomberg. Is there a way to uncouple HR from the company — or at least from its naked self-interest?
6. Now that so many people finally see the scope of the problem, how do we deal with how repugnant our beliefs were? How to reconcile the deplorable conditions under which so many women have worked with the fact that, for generations, we tolerated and even sided with their tormentors? While some serious introspection is called for on this front, I want to offer an important caveat: Let's not get carried away and pretend that historically, everyone truly believed that sexual harassment was okay. As we reckon with all this, it's tough but essential that we practice holding multiple truths in our hearts at one time; for example: a) it's true that our culture used to turn a blind eye on this behavior, and b) you don't usually have to turn a blind eye on actions you deem desirable and correct .
To put it bluntly: While there were no social or professional repercussions for men who violated their female employees, there isn't a single man in the world who thought groping his secretary was good, upstanding behavior. Even the language we used betrayed that. Translated, "boys will be boys" means "men will do bad things and it is our job to tolerate them and love them anyway," not "those things aren't bad." As CBS News president David Rhodes said in the internal memo announcing Charlie Rose's termination, "what may have once been accepted should not ever have been acceptable." We all knew sexual harassment was wrong. We tolerated it anyway. Why? More importantly: How do we stop?
7. How do we come to terms with how awful so many people seem to have been? When someone you love is accused of doing a terrible thing, how will you reconcile your ethics with your affection? There will be a lot of different answers to this; we're only at the beginning of that reckoning. Elizabeth Bruenig offers one useful approach that brings us back to the need for systemic, culture-wide solutions. I've argued that many of the most powerful men who've been accused of sexual malfeasance have tried to hide behind the alibi of the male bumbler. While I don't think she'd disagree that there are plenty of socially savvy abusers who feign social ineptitude to escape social sanction, Bruenig suggests that there are varying degrees of malice. Yes, individual agency matters, and so does personal accountability. But habitual, systemic abuse on the scale we're seeing here is abetted by a society that actually makes it easier to engage in behavior that victimizes women than it is to stop it. One thing to try, then, is to alter those paths of least resistance:
When we conceive of social inequity operating through power structures, we're admitting that certain behavioral pathways are easier to traverse than others, and that certain bad behaviors are rewarded with power, prestige and esteem. Behaving accordingly is the agent's choice, and they are accountable for their decisions to cooperate with power at the expense of others. But because they are also, to some degree, following the path of least resistance, it isn't necessary for them to be willfully malicious to participate in these behaviors. That's why these power structures are so dangerous: They can sort of sweep people along, meaning that it doesn't take a whole lot of intense, volitional evil to wind up doing a very bad thing. This is in fact what it means to describe biases like sexism in terms of culture, paradigms and structures. [Medium]
8. How do we move toward a truly equitable society? Especially given how well many people thought America was doing with gender equality and how spectacularly we failed. Or, as journalist Rose Eveleth puts it, "how do we prevent this s--t more broadly?" This is the biggest question of all. And, as is often the case, women of color got there first. We'd do well to look at those histories for guidance. Another angle of approach might be cultural: It will likely involve talking a lot about consent, and social cues, and sexual mores.
But all these questions exist under a giant conditional, an umbrella question: What happens when a critical mass of people, tired of unequal treatment, finally talk openly about it and find a sympathetic hearing? Can society really shift in response, or will the backlash I and others have been predicting ensue? Could something good and lasting really come of this?
It's possible. I'm starting to see glimmers of something like hope. For all that some are concerned about a "sex panic," those fears strike me as premature, misnamed, and fundamentally misplaced. I mean sure, it's possible that Americans will become so skittish about sex that they'll over-legislate social boundaries, or that some will adopt versions of the "Pence rule" as a massive and moronic overcorrection that in no way addresses the problem. But this strikes me as paranoid thinking and worse, inaccurate paranoid thinking. This isn't about sex. Not really. I submit that the real panic is happening elsewhere. The fact is, nothing causes more paranoia than a call for widespread, systematic change. Mass movements of any kind get instantly pathologized in America, and little frightens the average person more than a group with legitimate grievances finding the will to seek redress. Hence the proliferation of terms that not-so-subtly suggest that the present response to this decades-long epidemic of exploitation is overblown — terms like mob, witch hunt, and panic.
But if we can keep from panicking, and instead keep asking careful questions and try to answer them while fully acknowledging their difficulties and contradictions, there's a small but real chance we might channel all that fear and anger into change that lasts.