If You’re a Star…

By Bobbie Kirkhart

Pho­to cred­it: cac­camo “Walk of Fame – Hol­ly­wood 2”

 “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.


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Bob­bie Kirkhart is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al and of Athe­ists Unit­ed. She is a founder and past vice pres­i­dent of the Sec­u­lar Coali­tion for Amer­i­ca. She is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.