Yesterday’s New York Times article about Harvey Weinstein’s “complicity machine,” was an important pivot in our nation’s cultural reckoning on sexual harassment and assault.
The article provides an opportunity to re-center the public conversation -- away from individual superstar predators and the consequences warranted and toward the structures that enable and facilitate such behavior. As we celebrate the #MeToo movement’s incredible accomplishments, including being recognized as Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” a mere two months after becoming a viral hashtag, we must guard against the backlash that’s already brewing. Because the simple fact is that far from overreaching, the #MeToo movement has not yet gone far enough, in three important ways.
1. We are not paying enough attention to the more routine “complicity machines” that keep women silent.
Harvey Weinstein, whose serial predation spanned decades and allegedly included the most egregious offenses, not surprisingly had a complex web of individuals and organizations who served as “instruments and shields” for his behavior. Yet the unfortunate reality is that most harassers don’t need such extensive operations. They are aided and abetted by one bitter truth: that women are rarely viewed as having as much professional worth as men, particularly the rich and powerful.
When a man senior to me groped me, no extensive pressure network was needed to keep me silent. Although I had worked at the organization for only a few months, I understood all too well my place in the hierarchy. I never doubted that I would be believed -- I was articulate and credible and held a senior position; he had a reputation for being handsy. But he was also wealthy, with a public profile that benefitted the organization and peers in positions of power. The message was clear: important men were untouchable. Reporting the incident would have required me to leave my job and deal with the repercussions of outing someone considered critical to the organization’s success. Because I worried what a hasty departure would mean for my future employment prospects, I served as my own complicity machine.
As powerful men are facing consequences for their actions, we are beginning to see the ways that they were were propped up -- often at women’s expense. When honored with an award in 2014, Charlie Rose said he was lucky to have worked throughout his career with “women who were smarter, more thoughtful and more eloquent than I was.” Yet it was he, not they, who reaped the greatest professional rewards -- the show that bore his name; the plum co-host and correspondent jobs; the wealth, recognition and praise. It was Ann Curry, not Matt Lauer, who was fired from the Today Show in 2012 amidst lagging ratings, even though “internal research showed that Lauer -- not Curry -- was losing favor with viewers.”
For this moment to be meaningful, we must work to dismantle the long-held beliefs that shape our perceptions of women's relative worth. It would require us to question why, as Rebecca Traister writes, “we can [always] see in men — even in the bad ones — talent...what value they bring to the world,” whereas women’s value and professional currency is too often circumscribed by our youth, beauty, and utility to men.
2. We are not yet connecting sexual harassment to other discrimination -- or the structures that make women chronically vulnerable to mistreatment.
Sexual harassment and assault don’t occur in a vacuum -- they are both reflections of and tools that perpetuate gender power imbalances. Until we root out the multitude of ways that that women are minimized in the workplace -- the ways we are talked over and ignored, expected to perform professional “housework,” that our male counterparts never are, denied platforms that showcase our talents, or threatened when we step out of line -- sexual harassment will continue to flourish.
A friend of mine, a VP of communications, recently fielded an urgent 6 a.m. call from the boss she was traveling with for a day of media visits. “Will you carry my suitcase?” he inquired. Too stunned to protest, she spent the day schlepping his bag, as well as her own, all around New York, while he glided into meetings unencumbered. Another friend in a senior staff position was asked repeatedly by her boss to park his car. When unavailable, she suggested her boss call a male colleague who was at the same level in the organization. He never did.
We must similarly begin grappling with the race and class bias in much of the public discussion of sexual harassment and assault. Although there has been recent recognition of the vulnerability -- and bravery -- of women in service industries, like hotel or home health care workers, our discussion of solutions has been far too limited. Real change would require that we not only address HR policies and barriers to reporting sexual misconduct but the broader lack of job protections for domestic or farm workers -- those for whom declaring #MeToo could be a threat to their survival, not merely their career trajectories -- and re-think how the economic structures like the restaurant industry’s reliance on tips guarantees its workers’ chronic vulnerability to harassment and assault.
3. Men are not yet owning their $%#@.
There is little evidence that men are stepping up in the way that the moment requires. Much of our cultural dialogue remains focused on men’s fear -- whether an innocent workplace hug could be misconstrued as harassment; whether we are in a moment of “mass hysteria.” No one accused of misconduct has voluntarily left their position in the wake of public allegations -- or at least until sufficient public pressure has mounted. In a perverse twist, we’re also beginning to see a widening ideological divide, whereby progressive men like Al Franken may face harsher penalties than their conservative counterparts like Roy Moore or Donald Trump simply because they show sufficient good grace not to deny accusations outright or denigrate their accusers.
A new focus on systems that aid and abet sexual misconduct, rather than solely the actions of individuals, could be a welcome opportunity for all of us to begin to locate ourselves in this cultural discussion. But fundamentally, in order for this moment to incite the deeper cultural realignment that is needed, it will require men to rethink their relationship to power -- for men to, as Lindy West said, begin taking up less space; to step aside when they fail to treat women with basic dignity and respect that we deserve. It will require men to confront, head-on, their own misbehavior, rather than sitting back and nervously waiting for accusers to come forward, and reflect critically on ways they have benefitted from remaining silent, complicit, or “unaware.”
There is opportunity for the #MeToo movement to grow and address the limitations of its messy and exhilarating early days. But doing so will require that all of us, men included, do the painful, hard-eyed work that is required.