“If you’re a star, they’ll let you do it,” Donald Trump explained in his boastful account of casual assault on women. This rant, known as the Access Hollywood tape, was released years after he said it, during his presidential campaign. It did not, however, keep him from becoming President. He was right about the privilege of stardom. We are a country that protects power, whether it’s the star, the producer, the tycoon, or the supervisor in the department store in Topeka, Kansas. Women learn early: disrespect power at your own risk.
Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, made the mistake of disrespecting star power. When Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie, Daryl Hannah, Rosanna Arquette, Salma Hayek, Gwyneth Paltrow, and 78 other women – mostly actresses – accused the movie producer of sexual misconduct, ranging from improper propositions to rape, he learned that there is no defense against star power combined with the power of numbers. It outweighs even the huge financial power of Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax. Hollywood listened to the women in power. Weinstein was fired from Miramax within three days and resigned from the board within two weeks.
This was the first of an outburst of allegations. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a list of 47 well-known men in entertainment, politics, and business who were accused of improper sexual behavior, ranging from verbal harassment to groping and worse. Often, there was overwhelming evidence, and frequently the men confessed and apologized. Most lost their jobs. As of now, no criminal charges have been filed against these 47, in part because the statute of limitations has expired on many.
Among the 47 was Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senator of Alabama. Moore was already controversial, having twice been elected Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court and twice removed for having disobeyed the law in deference to his concept of Christian law. But up to that point, gossip about his sexual history had been limited to local talk. A month before the election, nine women accused Moore of inappropriate sexual behavior, including assault; at the time, he was in his 30s and some of the women were as young as 14. (The legal age of consent in Alabama is 16.) Moore denied the assault charges. The women’s stories were backed up by former policemen and security guards who remembered that part of their job at that time had been to keep Moore away from the teenage girls. At Donald Trump’s urging, the Republican establishment reluctantly supported Moore, though several prominent Republicans dissented.
It was by no means assured that the scandal would doom Moore’s election. Several prominent Alabamans argued that, even though they may have believed the women’s stories, they were voting for Moore because it is more important to have the Republican agenda enacted than to keep child abusers out of Congress. In the end, Democrat Doug Jones won, 50% to 48%. By this narrow margin, Alabama had voted against child sexual abuse.
Although more Democratic politicians than Republican had been named in the spate of scandals, the ongoing Moore story and the Republican Party’s support of him had made this a Republican problem – until liberal Democrat Al Franken was accused, that is. News anchor and model Leeann Tweeden said Senator Franken, a former comedian, harassed and forcibly kissed her when they were on a tour together as entertainers, before he was a senator. She produced a photograph of Franken holding her breasts while she appeared to be asleep. The photo was obviously an attempt to be humorous, not salacious, but it was neither. Franken apologized for the photo and any discomfort he may have caused her. He said his recollection of the week in question was different from hers and asked for a Senate ethics committee hearing. The Republicans, including Donald Trump, called for him to resign while Democrats and many women he had worked with stood by him. Then seven more women made allegations. None of these women would appear in public or allow their names to be used. One woman complained that he held her around the waist during a photo shoot.
Democrats, afraid of the political fallout while an investigation was under way, deserted him. Thirty-nine senators called for his resignation. His resignation speech was dramatic and thoughtful. Again, the American public was deprived of an investigation which might have proven his guilt or innocence. By mid-December, the rush of accusations waned. No doubt, Franken’s resignation gave comfort to those victims whose grievances were addressed. Most tangibly, it prompted the growth of the “Me Too” movement, an organization that supports women who were abused. Most broadly, it prompted an open discussion of the importance of listening to women who named their tormentors.
This painful period had not, however, dealt with the underlying problems that had left these wounds festering for so many years. In addition to our support of power, there are other American traits that created this problem. Some Americans see talk about sex as “dirty.” Any serious discussion of such issues is restricted to the family or the religion, both highly varied groups. Our reluctance to talk freely is responsible for a common situation where the man thinks he is invited to action, and the woman thinks he is abusive. Too frequently, they don’t have the vocabulary to negotiate the misunderstanding.
Furthermore, workplace abuse enabled the fact that we have few laws regulating rights of workers. While it is illegal to use the promise of a job or threat of firing to get sexual favors, the lack of other standards regulating fairness in employment make sexual harassment almost impossible to prove. Most of all, too much of our popular culture reinforces – and too many of our people believe – stereotypes of the sexes. Men, “real men,” are expected to be forceful, unemotional, hypersexual, and controlling. Women, if they are “really feminine,” are supposed to be weak, emotional, hypocritical, and manipulative. While these ideas have been dying, it is a slow death. In the meantime, they not only encourage men to abuse, but also intimidate women, making them likely to suffer silently.
Since the outburst of accusations and retribution, I’ve heard that we are learning to deal with man’s abuse of power. We will know that’s true when waitresses, store clerks, staff sergeants, or junior partners complain. If they are listened to, if there is a fair investigation and an appropriate reaction, we will have learned.
Frankly, I’m not holding my breath.