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It’s amazing how violent some men become when they think they’ll never be found out. When the New York Times and the New Yorker published their bombshells about Harvey Weinstein, I was immediately reminded of a 2014 study of male college students on sexual assault. Asked if they would “force a woman [into] sexual intercourse” against her will if no one would ever know and they’d never face any consequences, a whopping 31.7 percent said “yes.” But asked if they would “rape a woman” if they could get away with it, only 13.6 percent said they would.
Let that sink in: Not only would nearly a third of young men surveyed say they’d force a nonconsenting woman into sex, but most of those who would commit this violence didn’t even realize that would make them rapists.
The researchers noted some reasons why: Some men, they said, view “forced intercourse as an achievement,” where a woman saying “no” could be “perceived as a token resistance consistent with stereotypical gender norms.” That’s academic speak for “they believe that women who say ‘no’ really mean ‘yes.’ ”
Where does that belief come from? In part, from the output of the same industry that protected Harvey Weinstein for so long — the “no means yes” narratives that have become so ingrained in public consciousness as to bolster the acceptance and prevalence of workplace and street harassment. We’ll circle back to Hollywood’s harmful imagery in a bit, but first let’s talk about sexual abuse, “open secrets,” and how we put women at risk in private and in public.
We now know that Weinstein was able to use Miramax and the Weinstein Company as his personal fiefdoms to sexually abuse women for several decades not because he was especially stealthy, but because Hollywood conspired to push victims into his clutches. At least fifty harassment allegations are now on record — including five rape claims — with noted actresses such as Rose McGowan, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lupita Nyong’o among Weinstein’s accusers; more are emerging daily. Yet the industry dutifully protected the mogul so long as he continued to orchestrate lucrative deals, careers, and box office bank. Seth MacFarlane riffed on Weinstein’s open secret during a 2013 Oscars host stint where he also sang “We Saw Your Boobs” about actresses’ nudity, including some in rape scenes; 30 Rock’s jokes on two pointed occasions have aged better, but still speak to how widely Weinstein’s predatory behavior was known and allowed to continue.
Echoing the trajectory of the Bill Cosby story, Weinstein’s unmasking has prompted an outpouring of reporting and commentary on sexual harassment in Hollywood. Just as we did with #YesAllWomen after Elliot Rodger’s misogynist murder spree, and with our social media outcry over the Pussygrabber-in-Chief’s Access Hollywood tape, millions of women flooded social media (half a million #metoo tweets were posted within the first 24 hours) with harrowing personal stories of sexual abuse ranging from ever-present street harassment to gruesome anecdotes about rape, coercion, and other assaults at work, at school, and in their own homes.
But Hollywood isn’t the only industry harboring reported sex offenders. As we learned Saturday, hate-spewing Fox News ratings machine Bill O’Reilly paid at least $32 million to one victim (after either O’Reilly or the network made payouts to at least five others) to settle sexual harassment charges — something Fox knew about when it renewed his contract for $100 million. It was a bold declaration of priorities from a corporation run until last year by fellow serial harasser Roger Ailes. At Fox, just like for Weinstein, buying victimized female employees’ silence was just another line item in the budget.
In the music industry, serial abuser/lyrical cash cow R. Kelly has had continued access to hush money — and to an unending stream of young black girls and women to assault — because studios, producers, promoters, and fellow celebrities have continued to partner with him despite being aware of his predation since the 1990s. Fashion similarly endangers its female workforce: Numerous models have come forward over the years alleging rape or sexual assault by high-profile photographer Terry Richardson, yet major magazines and advertisers still book him to shoot their covers and campaigns. (Model Cameron Russell has launched a #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse campaign pleading for change, through which at least 78 anonymous models have described being harassed, coerced, and raped by photographers, agents, and others, some when they were as young as fourteen.) And yesterday, celebrity chef John Besh stepped down from the Besh Restaurant Group after the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported allegations of sexual harassment and assault from 25 women at the company, including two Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sexual discrimination cases filed since December.
Even sectors dedicated to equality and justice aren’t immune. Last week, the SEIU suspended executive vice president Scott Courtney, head of the Fight for $15 living wage campaign, over multiple complaints of inappropriate relationships with young women that union officials had let go on for a decade: “The staff union at SEIU headquarters refused to allow its members to be sent to work on Courtney’s campaigns when he worked at SEIU1199 in Ohio in the mid-2000s because of his serial sexual harassment of union staffers,” a male SEIU staffer who prefers to remain anonymous tells the Voice. And in 2015, multiple female employees leveled more than half a dozen sexual harassment and assault allegations against Trevor FitzGibbon, president of progressive PR firm FitzGibbon Media, whose clients included NARAL, UltraViolet, MoveOn, AFL-CIO, and Wikileaks. FitzGibbon folded the firm in response, and the entire staff lost their jobs just days before Christmas.
The discussion of how powerful men have manipulated financial, structural, and social systems to victimize women is crucial and long overdue. Yet it omits a point explored only in conversations between women: Sexual harassment isn’t just perpetrated in darkness by rich Svengalis who can pull strings to hide their crimes (or by skeevy middle managers, bank tellers, bus drivers, teachers, or any dude getting handsy in the workplace) — it also happens every day in plain sight. Street harassment is our collective open secret, one in which all women are expected to systematically endure the potential for sexual abuse every time we go outside.
As a culture, we put women at risk as a matter of course. Constant “Bring that ass over here!” quips and condescending demands to “Smile, baby!” — like the reminder tween boys are taught that it’s perfectly OK to ask grown women, “Those are some big titties, slut! How much?” — are dehumanizing enough. But this sort of routine degradation can seem like getting off easy compared to the guy with his hand down his pants on the F train loudly muttering, “Bitch in purple, tell me you wanna suck it! Suck it, bitch!” while an entire subway car pretended not to notice him threatening to kill me (“You’re dead! Thanks for showing me your face. I know you now. You’re dead!”) after I told him off; or the too-close stranger whispering explicit fantasies at me for several blocks and mocking my attempts to avoid him with “What, you scared?” followed by a menacing, movie villain laugh.
Street harassment is a daily reminder of the same message that powerful businessmen send on the job: that women exist to slake men’s sexual whims, that we’re not entitled to bodily integrity, that our wishes are negligible. Just as the women who had the misfortune of catching Weinstein’s eye feared retaliation and so kept quiet, women know it can be dangerous to reject strangers’ invasive “compliments” about our bodies and detailed descriptions of exactly what they want to do to us. I started learning at age eleven that when I spoke up or flipped off these men, I’d often end being called grotesque slurs, followed, pinched, slapped, grabbed, groped, rubbed up against, cornered, or threatened with rape, beatings, or weapons.
The pattern of misconduct by Weinstein, Rebecca Traister writes, speaks to “the abusive thrill gained not from sex but from the imposition of your will on someone who has no ability to resist or defend themselves from you, an exertion of power on the powerless.” I recognized that exact thrill in the cold smirk of the white guy in the three-piece suit who cornered me in a remote Port Authority stairway in the mid-1990s, pinned me against a wall, grabbed my breasts, pressed himself against me, and paused, clearly getting off on my fear — while deciding whether he had enough time to rape me. I was physically overpowered, so I repeatedly screamed the one thing I thought might summon New Yorkers’ attention and aid: “PERVERT! HE’S A PERVERT! GET HIM!” Afraid of getting caught, he ran away.
This kind of attack is such a part of the air we breathe that even as a feminist journalist who’d written extensively about violence against women, I’d always considered myself “lucky” that I’d never been sexually assaulted. I never forgot the traumatic incident, but I rationalized that “nothing really happened” since his attempted rape wasn’t successful. It wasn’t until I wrote a media literacy speech in 2013 about the normalization of catcalling as all-American fun in six decades of popular music that I realized that, yes, this was actually assault (as were all the other times creepers touched me without consent).
On the sexual abuse continuum, street harassers are small-scale Harvey Weinsteins without power. Catcalling is still largely shrugged off by society at large as “boys being boys,” so too many men verbally or physically accost women passersby with impunity simply because they can, rationalizing that we must “enjoy it” or “want it” because of the way we dress, how we look, who we are, or because we simply exist in public space (as one 24-year-old harasser insisted when I confronted him about his intrusive come-ons).
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#365feministselfie This 24yo hit on me on street–so I gave him a 15min education about #streetharassment, sexism, violence &at end, he agreed to do #bystanderintervention! @ihollaback [PS: I didn't have time to mention in my initial caption that this guy didn't just hit on me. He followed me down the street for three or four blocks with a constant, invasive litany of comments and come-ons. I didn't read him as dangerous, just incredibly obnoxious and sexist. So since he wouldn't leave me alone, eventually tried to engage him in a very pointed conversation about why street harassment is never ok. He kept insisting that women like it and I kept saying that I did not like it and that no woman I know likes it (of course dudebro here was fully convinced that he knows what I like better than I do, and would not let it go). Eventually though he agreed that making women uncomfortable was not a good strategy for connecting with women, and he even agreed to tell other guys he was friends with to tone it down.)
What makes jerks on the street and celebrity assailants alike see sexual harassment and assault as acceptable, even normal? What makes women’s consent seem irrelevant in the face of men’s desire?
For that, we come full circle to the creative vision of Weinstein’s industry. For decades, film and TV plots have not only normalized sexual assault, but portrayed it as “romantic.”
TV and movie characters fall in love with their rapists so often as to be cliché, as in General Hospital’s Laura, who eventually married her rapist, Luke (their wedding was the highest-rated soap opera episode ever on American television); and non-monogamous Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) dating three men in “She’s Gotta Have It,” only to settle down with the one who rapes her.
Even more ubiquitous, the “No Means Yes” trope has been embedded in the cinematic psyche for as long as movies have been made. From Gone With the Wind (named no. 2 on American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest love stories ever) to a “hot” Oval Office sex scene on ABC’s Scandal, Hollywood has consistently represented women as just pretending to resist until some dude’s Very Special Penis forces her to realize that she really wanted it all along. Through the magic of a male-dominated industry’s imagination, it takes only 21 seconds (A History of Violence, 2005), 25 seconds (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000), 49 seconds (Crank, 2006), and 55 seconds (Blade Runner, 1982) for female characters who start out saying “no,” kicking, slapping, punching, pushing, and/or trying to get away, to suddenly transform into passionate sex partners. Or as Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) put it in an infamous Sex and the City elevator scene, 19 seconds to go from pushing Big (Chris Noth) away and yelling, “FUCK YOU!” to lustily begging, “Fuck me.”
In the 2013 Tyler Perry flick Temptation, Harley (Robbie Jones) asks Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) if she wants him. She says she’s married. He forcibly kisses her and she fights, struggles, says “no,” says “stop,” says she doesn’t want it, repeatedly tells him no, and tries to push him off her. When he tires of her refusal, he barks: “Stop it,” then says, “Now you can say you resisted.” At that point she kisses him, fucks him, and they begin a torrid affair. “You can say you resisted” is rape culture in a nutshell: the notion that it’s only societal judgment that makes women protest, while what we really want is a strong, decisive man to force us to give in to our hidden desires. This is the exact rationale those would-be college rapists gave researchers.
Crimes such as the infamous 2012 Steubenville high school gang rape of a unconscious teen echo big-studio comedies — comedies! — like Observe and Report (2009), in which Ronnie (Seth Rogan) rapes his date, Brandi (Anna Faris), while she’s so high on tequila and antidepressants she pukes and can’t walk, pumping away on top of her while she’s passed out. He eventually pauses because she’s unresponsive; eyes shut, body slack, and without moving, she barks, “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?” We’re supposed to consider this line a hilarious, retroactive get-out-of-rape-free card, as the New York Times did when they mischaracterized it as “indicat[ing] that she had given her consent.”
We should be outraged that Hollywood enabled Harvey Weinstein’s egregious abuses of power for decades — and that of other serial harassers, including director James Toback, who the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday has been accused of sexual assault by at least 38 women, Screen Junkies and Honest Trailers creator Andy Signore, fired by Defy Media two weeks ago for allegedly harassing and assaulting at least five women, and children’s cartoon showrunner Chris Savino, fired by Nickelodeon after a dozen women alleged harassment dating back a decade. But we shouldn’t be surprised that they not only internalized but acted on one of their industry’s most deep-seated values.
Police in New York, Los Angeles, and London are now investigating Weinstein, and New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman announced yesterday that he has launched a civil rights investigation into the Weinstein Company. It’s a start. But to create a world in which real women are safe from sexual harassment and assault, we have to transform not just the legal and structural systems that allow it to flourish in the entertainment industry and the broader community, but also how Hollywood treats its female characters.