Hands up skirts, on thighs, brushing bottoms. Off-color comments, propositions, power. Roy Moore? Sure. But Charlie Rose?! Et tu, Brute?
The tsunami unleashed by Harvey Weinstein’s fall from grace, the finally-making-public of distasteful truths everyone acknowledged but colluded in keeping under wraps until they didn’t, just keeps coming. The alleged perpetrators just keep toppling. Even liberal icons—Al Franken (though, for the moment, he’s still standing), and Charlie Rose. And Matt Lauer and Garrison Keillor andandand.
Public pressure and #metoo is flushing them out of the bushes in staggering numbers.
Now we need to figure out a way to get to the “…owner of the grocery store, the coach, the teacher, the neighbor, who”—as stated in an interview with Amy Goodman by Tarana Burke, sexual assault survivor, activist and founder of the #metoo movement—“are doing the same things.” #metoo is ten years old: this, to me, was news. To Tarana Burke, this moment must feel like it’s been a long, long time in coming.
And it does appear as though a tipping point may have been reached.
So let’s not waste it. In order for the correction of course to extend its reach beyond Hollywood and prominent national media outlets, something besides name-shame-sack-damnatio memoriae needs to happen. The accusations—often held back for a decade or more following alleged perpetration, and often for very good reason—are coming so thick and fast it’s hard to even keep up. Let alone assess the merits of each case. These guys are named by their accusers—often anonymously, which smacks a bit of the Inquisition, or of the Obama administration’s well-intentioned but misguided overreach with Title IX (I’m a medievalist and an academic in my day job, so I know of what I speak). The news is then picked up by the press, if in fact the initial declaration hasn’t been made to a journalist in the first place, and that seems to be enough to get the alleged perpetrators kicked to the curb by their employers, their lives scorched and burned, all without trial, judge or jury.
I am not claiming innocence for these men. My propensity, as someone who has undergone everything from the hand on the thigh to violent sexual assault, is, frankly, to believe the women. But the unfortunate truth is that, for actual justice to be done, the accuser must have recourse to the justice system, imperfect as it is. Which process can be extremely traumatizing.
When I was assaulted, I did not report it. There were extenuating circumstances, which are not germane here, but bottom line: I made a risk-benefit calculation and decided to keep it to myself.
As I did, two decades later, when two men followed me through the supermarket on a summer afternoon, snapping photos up my skirt with their cellphones from the vegetable aisle all the way to the cleaning products, where the more daredevil of the pair finally stuck a feather duster between my legs from behind. I screamed, they ran, the usual. The curse words only came once they’d rounded the corner, disappearing into a maze of bottled water and soft drink aisles. Which left me yelling at a feather duster, feeling helpless, furious, and more than a little ridiculous.
The supermarket’s security cameras had caught the whole thing—which felt, at the time, like yet another indignity—and I had several interviews with a detective, who pressed me (politely, but he pressed) to press charges.
While seated in his office, I had a flashback of the earlier, more violent attack that left me choking back sobs. The men, as it was his duty to inform me, had a record, involving drugs and arms. By coming forward as a victim, by pressing charges, I would have to reveal my identity, to them. That was the price of justice, and I was not willing to pay it.
The people who assaulted me, both very violently and not-as, were not famous. I would not be able to go to the media tomorrow, anonymously denounce them, walk away, and wait for all hell to break loose. I’d like to be able to do that. I’d even love it. But the result would not be justice. It would be punishment.
The rush to public shaming and hasty sacking, moreover, runs the risk of throwing everything into the same drawer and slamming it shut. Of conflating, for example, a very ill-advised, feigned-breast-grab of a photo op (Franken), with, say, what appears to have been, if accusations are borne out, a calculated and systematic attempt to engage in sexual contact with a series of underage girls over a period of years (Moore), and even with repeated instances of violent sexual assault (Weinstein—again, if accusations are borne out–and a couple others added to the list just today).
These things are not the same. We need to be clear and careful about distinguishing between off-color comments and unwanted touching that should be addressed by a thorough reassessment of workplace environment, and rape, for which perpetrators—even famous ones, or maybe especially them—should do long, hard time.
The liberals, of late anyway, tend to get harsh, swift punishment. Once the Weinstein dam broke, those in a position to publicly wash their hands of people like Kevin Spacey (at least one of whose foibles sounds, to me anyway, like the behavior of pretty much every drunk 26-year-old guy I’ve ever encountered at a party) and Charlie Rose, couldn’t scramble fast enough to do so. It’s worth remembering that these punishments are being meted out by elements of the same media and celebrity culture that allowed the Matter of Weinstein to fester, hidden in plain sight, for—literally—decades.
The conservatives are another matter. Moore has yet to stand down from his Alabama Senate race, despite (tardy, tepid) mumblings from high-profile Republicans that maybe he should. And our President has (also tardily, and tepidly) defended the Senate hopeful—something to the effect of ‘well, he said he didn’t do it…’
Said President, of course, despite recent denials, did do it, and he bragged, on tape, about the sexual-assault notches in his own belt.
Liberals are desperately ashamed of the fact that Donald Trump occupies the White House. Yes, we are furious, and shocked, and disgusted, and offended, but we are—I submit—above all, ashamed. We couldn’t prevent it. We didn’t know we had to. Until it was too late.
And so now, unable to get at the guy we’d really like to topple, it’s tempting to allow anonymous accusations and rush-to-judgment punishment of highly visible men, for unsubstantiated objectionable behavior of varying, and to a large extent undifferentiated, degrees of seriousness—a great deal of which they very likely did perpetrate, but at this rate we’ll never know what, exactly, they did and did not do—to serve as catharsis. Let’s not call it a witch-hunt, though that would not be entirely off base either.
I don’t know if there’s a way to orchestrate a collective deep breath here, but it might be good if we could.
We need better, more victim-friendly accountability, both in the workplace and in the justice system. Women need to feel as though it’s safe to come forward and name their accusers. That their accusations will receive sensitive, fair, respectful and thorough evaluation. That, if appropriate, justice will be rendered in return. That’s not where we are now, and I don’t think the avalanche of anonymous accusations and indiscriminately ruined lives is going to get us there.
What will? Not sure, but we need to think about it, hard.