Why is this the moment of truth? Why is the fallout from the most recent accusations against Harvey Weinstein finally what is getting us to talk about our culture of accepting inappropriate sexual behavior from people who are in power against people who are not in power?
What are your thoughts about it? I’d love to know your opinion for why the public reaction to this rape scandal is different than the ones before.
As a woman who has been raped, as a woman who has suffered repeated sexual harassment by people of power in the workplace (this was long ago; it is no implication against my current employer), I am particularly sensitive to this topic. It puts my whole body on edge every time I hear a public accusation of sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment. I understand too much about the unspoken details. I’ve paid attention when it’s in the news – I can’t help it – I remember the cases.
Till now the common undertone that I’ve sensed is that of not believing the victim. As in, “That person is probably exaggerating,” or “That person is probably trying to get attention,” or “The person they accused is famous so maybe they want a settlement.” Me included! I am complicit! It seems like the main social response in the past was *not* instantly that they are telling the truth and that we need to stop everything and listen and believe it. That tends to come along a little later.
It’s different this time. We are believing, and it feels so good – as another victim – it feels so good to know that a victim is being listened to, and believed. We need to be believed or else we’re never going to start telling these stories.
But I keep asking myself why. I mean, what is it this time? I don’t understand what’s different. Why didn’t this happen during the recent accusations surrounding Bill Cosby? The similarities: they’re both famous people, they’re both of Hollywood, they both have a decades-long history of accusations of sexual assault, unfortunately in both of their cases the number of victims is high. So why has a case against Henry Weinstein resulted in an outpouring of “Me Too” stories and social pressure for the accused to take the charges seriously. Suddenly I’m hearing reports of sexual assault by a different famous person every day. Kevin Spacey. Dustin Hoffman. Others can feel the change, too, and have realized that now they can give voice to their trauma.
With the case against Cosby, discourse didn’t happen. We just all …groaned, because it was such an ugly horrible story.
So I’ve been thinking about that for a couple weeks. I’ve been trying, but couldn’t figure out what the trigger was. This morning the news coming out of Washington, D.C. was about people coming forward to talk about sexual harassment in the workplace among politicians. And again this morning I asked myself what is different now. If we’re talking politics, why not when Clarence Thomas was accused publicly? When Anita Hill had to fight so hard to get people to believe her? It was an ugly, high-profile story, but it didn’t change the national conversation. And Thomas was implicitly forgiven for his heinous crimes when he was confirmed to the US Supreme Court, where he continues today. I’m comparing the facts: it’s politics, it’s a man in power abusing a woman with less power in the workplace. If it’s as similar as it seems, then why are people in Washington, D.C. being listened to now but not then? What is going on?
I can’t take credit for the uncomfortable conclusion I came to because I arrived here after talking with someone else and comparing notes. If I continue to compare the general circumstances of today’s accusations against the general circumstances of historic accusations, I might not ever find an answer. But instead, if I ask what those past accusations have in common with each other, I find a potential answer.
What do the cases against Bill Cosby and Clarence Thomas have in common with each other that is not the case with Weinstein? Race.
If it’s true that our public reactions are based on faulty racial assumptions, the implication is brutal. It’s as ugly as the crimes themselves. It means we heard those other stories and at some deep subconscious place concluded to ourselves: well, that’s what they do. And I don’t want to believe this is what happened. I do not want to admit I’m part of this system, that I’m a collaborator in it. By collaborator, I’m not saying I’m out there actively promoting racism. Rather, I’ve been raised in a world where the norm is to make assumptions about people based on skin colour.
I loathe racism. Anyone who knows me personally figures it out pretty damned quickly. I refuse to accept outward signs of prejudice against any group for their lifestyle choice, their differing physical or mental abilities, the colour of their skin, their faith or lack of faith, you name it. But what I’m talking about here is stuff that I’m doing to contribute to the system of intolerance simply because it’s so ingrained in me that I don’t even notice it. It’s not my fault. It’s not your fault. We are a product of our world. And I hhhaaaatttttee knowing that I am probably unintentionally adding insult to injury.
In the beautiful song Stereotypes by Black Violin, Kev Marcus says when people ride with him in an elevator: “Maybe they’re not afraid, but they’re on notice.”
I tried to test my theory by recalling media storms over public figures accused of sexual assault, in order to prove myself wrong. Let’s see, there was Michael Jackson. Who was that guy who assaulted his fiancée? Oh yeah, Ray Rice. There was Mike Tyson. All of them black. I was scaring myself. But then I recalled President Clinton, Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, all white men.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be the case – and it would be hard to prove – that what’s different now is race-based, but I want to resist performing too many contortions in order to argue in favor of another explanation. I want to be open to this one. Maybe what’s different this time *is* the obvious thing.
I believe in life’s subtleties. I do not intend to state that racial prejudice is the sole reason for my country’s slow awakening to the rampant scourge of sexual assault among us. I just want to make sure this one isn’t left out of the discussion.
We are talking about this crime everywhere today because 1) Weinstein was already so famous for rape that it wasn’t a shocker when the latest case was made against him, and thus we were primed to believe the victim. 2) Because of the tireless efforts of activists all over the globe who have been laser-focused on de-criminalizing victims. The people who are making it ok to be a man and admit to being a victim of sexual assault. The people who are saying there is no shame in being an unmarried woman who is raped. 3) Because social consciousness (at least in the country where I live) is getting better at admitting fault even when it’s uncomfortable. 4) Because the perpetrators right now are white.