As a former lady friend of mine used to observe with troubling regularity, men are pigs. By this she meant not some, but all men. In her not inconsiderable experience, men are constitutionally incapable of not being pigs. It’s in our genes, in our hormones. Even the smartest, sweetest guy is ultimately a slave to his testosterone. Given the chance to behave badly toward a woman with impunity, most men will behave badly. And I’ll readily concede that, just as even a broken clock is right twice a day, she must have been right in this regard about some man, somewhere, about every ten minutes.
These are shameful days for my gender. We’re currently in the midst of a virtual tsunami of news stories about men in positions of power taking various kinds of advantage of women who had stumbled or maneuvered or been dragged (often by other women) into their paths. Liberated by stories of Harvey Weinstein’s barely-concealed debaucheries, women from a wide range of work environments are coming forward to relate their experiences of sexual harassment. It’s like nuclear fission, and almost as hot; each me-too story begets at least five more. We have to remind ourselves that most of us actually do manage to keep our more porcine impulses under control.
One of the best journalists of the 2016 presidential campaign, Mark Halperin, has been kicked to the media curb for having come on, a decade ago, to a then-young mentee, now all grown up and newly emboldened by the Weinstein disclosures. A dozen more women promptly told their own stories about Halperin, which included recollections of breast-groping and penis-pressing. The head of news of NPR has been dismissed because of accusations of inappropriate conversations and unwanted tongue-kissing in the late 1990s. Even men are piling on, as in Anthony Rapp’s accusation that he was manhandled by Kevin Spacey when Rapp was fourteen, some 26 years ago, while Spacey claims drunken amnesia and newly-proud bisexuality.
As the net spreads to catch up famous publishers, studio heads, and other media figures, half of the executives in the entertainment and news businesses must be cringing in their offices, ransacking their memories of their past misbehavior and waiting for the axe to swing their way.
The Weinstein story was the perfect catalyst for this renewed scrutiny, as he’s right out of central casting: fat, squinty-eyed, with a thuggish stubble he can’t be bothered to shave, candescently arrogant and generally loathsome enough in appearance even when dressed up to receive some award that the only possible reason any woman would come near him is in exchange for some form of immediate personal gain. And come near him they did, seemingly in droves.
The sudden collective piousness that these stories have elicited recalls the Vichy French cop played by Claude Rains in Casablanca as he hurriedly closed down the casino. We are shocked – shocked! – to find that sexual harassment has been going on in the workplace!
Let’s all take a moment to remember Anita Hill, and the fact that the man she accused of inappropriate workplace behavior continues to sit on the Supreme Court.
There’s at least a whiff of hypocrisy in the air around this topic. Shameful as it is for a man to grab a female subordinate’s breast, it’s not exactly courageous for her to remain silent about it for decades, exposing her colleagues to similar predations while she remained in her desirable job and waited for someone else to do the risky job of reporting the jerk. Then there are the female functionaries who enabled Weinstein’s liaisons, going so far as to escort his victims into his hotel rooms. Would that their names were being named.
And it’s perhaps a wee bit self-aggrandizing to decide that now, after the Times and the New Yorker have made the issue hot, is the time to go public with wrongs done decades ago by now-famous men, as though this were a brave visitation of belated justice, rather than an opportunistic grab for the transient celebrity that has become the bitcoin of our tawdry culture. It’s surely no accident that most of the calling-out of male impropriety has happened from within industries – film, publishing, news – that rely on sensationalism for their existence and consist of factions of elites on both coasts with immediate access to mass media channels. We probably won’t be hearing about some line foreman’s demeaning remarks to female workers at a Midwest auto plant, or the mid-level executive at the local bank who got out of line at that company retreat back in the aughts.
It’s been obvious to anyone paying attention that sexual harassment in the workplace – and elsewhere, for that matter – is a pernicious ongoing problem, despite decades of HR sensitivity training (though once you get to be a Weinstein, or a Trump, you’re probably not attending many HR sessions). And bad behavior shouldn’t be overlooked just because it happened long ago. But there’s a reason our legal system relies on statutes of limitations, which deny the right to complain if the complainant has slept on that right for too long. Over the years, memories do fail, or become embroidered, or suppressed. People change, and should not always be held to account for the failures of their former selves. The passage of a great deal of time before a complaint is lodged is at least suggestive that the damage done may not be worthy of recompense. At some point, the law says, the past is past (William Faulkner notwithstanding). Twenty-six years should probably qualify.
So far absent from the cavalcade of harassment stories are ones involving women who have taken inappropriate liberties with subordinate colleagues, though there are no doubt countless such stories to tell. This may be in part because men, being pigs, are far less likely to take offense at such an occurrence. But as most women would readily admit, women are hardly innocents in matters of sexual exploitation, and relative power is not always measured by a person’s title. A female employee of my former company who was, by any objective measure, an inveterate flirt, eventually elicited responses from her boss that gave her grounds to sue him and the company, which she promptly did. Later it was discovered that this was only one in a series of suits she had brought against former employers in her short but rather lucratively litigious career. Which is only to say that while, yes, men are pigs, there are awful people out there of both genders.
The larger, largely unexamined issue is the degree to which women are complicit with us pigs in the persistent misogyny that pervades our popular culture, not to mention our politics. Donald Trump, self-proclaimed groper of female genitalia, would not have been elected without a majority of white female voters deciding that they didn’t care about his fratboy sexual ethics, and indeed preferred him to be President over a certifiably competent if unglamorous woman. Actresses now fingering Harvey Weinstein and his ilk have built careers largely based on portraying themselves as sex objects. The deposed slimebag Roger Ailes built Fox News in no uncertain measure on the backs and blonde coifs of sexually-presented women from Megyn Kelley to Laura Ingraham, all too eager for whatever slanted media limelight they could inhabit. Women constitute the core personnel infrastructure of the advertising, fashion, publishing, and entertainment industries, which routinely purvey characters, narratives, and images that legitimize the kind of self-indulgent impulsivity in men that in the real world those women would abhor.
Women and men alike have every right and reason to complain about sexual harassment, and men like Weinstein, who is but a stand-in for unidentified thousands who will never be brought to account, should be publicly denounced and demoted whenever possible. But all of us – women included– also have the right to decline to work in a field or on projects where the objectification or degradation of women is the implicit business model, and we can refuse to consume the products of that model. Until our daily work, and our politics, become more closely aligned with our stated values of gender equality and respect, men will remain pigs, and we’ll all remain hypocrites, fascinated by stories of powerful men brought low, even as we enable them.