Harvey Weinstein’s not the problem. He’s a symptom.
Of course, we act as if he’s the problem, as if the problem is one of individual bad actors who do horrific things to women.
As if Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump are simply individual men committing individual bad deeds toward individual women who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
As if they are aberrations. As if most men never do these things. As if there is no pattern, no discernable imprint of misogyny, no deep and pervasive system of sexism that means these things are not rare occasions but are ubiquitous parts of the intimate and daily fabric of women’s lives.
Choosing to believe sexual harassment and sexual assault are individual problems rather than the systemic and violent enforcement of sexism and misogyny (with their interlocking companions of racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and ageism) is certainly easier. Men as a class don’t have to be implicated, and so we can pretend that if we address the bad behavior of individual men — let’s fire Roger Ailes or prosecute Bill Cosby — we’ve done our due diligence and taken care of the problem.
What’s needed is a gender revolution that tears apart the fabric of patriarchy itself.
But we haven’t even begun to address the real problem which is the deep-seated misogyny and structural sexism embedded in our social institutions, ideologies, language, and relationships.
Take Harvey Weinstein. How many women had to come forward before most people believed any of them? A number of his Hollywood buddies jumped right to his defense when the first accusations were made public, but they quickly backed away from that support as the testimonies and accusations cascaded.
Woody Allen warned us not to get carried away in naming Hollywood’s sexual harassment and sexual assault problem lest this become a witch hunt. How ironic given that historically witch hunts have often involved sexually repressed men murdering women who refused to fall under their control!
And why did women feel a need to participate in a #MeToo campaign to demonstrate how big the problem is? Why haven’t men believed us so far when we’ve said sexual harassment and sexual assault are a problem? We’ve had the data. We’ve published the numbers.
But we know women are not believed. By custom and by law in this country, women have been afforded much less credibility than men. According to Lynn Hecht Schafran, director of the National Judicial Education Program to Promote Equality for Women and Men in the Court, “Sociological and legal research documents that women have less credibility in courts across the board than men.”
The problem is not individual men like Harvey Weinstein. Men like him exist and get away with their barbarities because, despite the gains of feminist movements against sexism, we have not fundamentally transformed the interlocking systems of oppression that differentially disadvantage diverse women, transgender people, and gender non-binary people and penalize them for not being cis-gender men.
Think about how difficult the legal system makes prosecuting a rape, for example. Coincidence? Or evidence of a system created by men to maintain male dominance, particularly men’s rights over women’s bodies. Think of all the barriers to women’s reproductive justice. The barriers to women’s health care. The barriers to equal pay. Recent research has found that women of color face an astounding amount of harassment in space science. Just a few days ago, Boston University launched an investigation into a prominent Antarctic scientist accused of sexually harassing graduate students. Just one month ago, Mother Jones published the story of an aspiring academic harassed by a star professor. Last year The Atlantic ran a story of how women are harassed out of science.
These are not individual incidents of individual bad actors, any more than are the despicable actions of Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby.
These point to the larger systemic problem that will not be fixed by a few investigations, firings, or even prison sentences.
While women, transwomen, gender non-binary people, and even a few men have taken to social media to tell their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault, few men have spoken up beyond the cursory and expected condemnation of bad behavior. Some of Weinstein’s former friends have called him out, but calling one man out for sexual harassment and sexual assault won’t change the system that enables and preserves that behavior as a way to maintain male dominance.
What’s needed is a gender revolution that tears apart the fabric of patriarchy itself. And that’s not the responsibility of women, transgender folk, and gender non-binary folk. That’s the responsibility of men. The problem is systemic, and the response must be systemic. And it must come from men being accountable for the contours of patriarchal power and the violence that props it up.
Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
Women have told the truth. Is it possible the world is now splitting?