04 Dec After #MeToo: #RemoveReplaceRepair
In the frigid winter of 1905, many of the craftswomen who exquisitely hand painted the world-famous Limoges vases and figurines went on strike in France—not over their low wages or long hours but because they were sick of being prey to the factory overseers’ sexual demands. Their protest was against a custom, the droit du seigneur (right of the lord), dating back to the Middle Ages, in which feudal lords—and, later, bosses—demanded sexual services from women subordinates. The Limoges porcelain workers won their fight only after the strikes turned violent and the army opened fire, killing one male supporter and wounding four others. A funeral procession of 30,000 workers, almost all women, carried flowers as a last homage to someone who had died fighting for their dignity.
So #MeToo, brilliant and powerful as it is, is hardly new or, as we’re witnessing, restricted to any one walk of life in a patriarchy. Just since I began writing these words, news broke that over 200 women serving in U.S. national security—military, diplomatic, and development positions–signed an open letter published by TIME Magazine, declaring that they are survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, or know others who are. Lo, the mighty are falling in the concert world, too, with the Metropolitan Opera suspending conductor James Levine over accusations alleging same-sex harassment. Now, two venerable historically black colleges, Spelman and Morehouse, are in ferment, as the women students of Spelman have risen up, broken through the wall of secrecy that demanded their “protective silence,” and dared accuse certain Morehouse men by name as having committed rape. And the list grows and grows.
Meanwhile, related implications are surfacing in public consciousness, crucial implications that heretofore have been scoffed at as feminist oversensitivity and exaggeration.
For instance, in light of his now-acknowledged sexual offenses, Charlie Rose’s distasteful “flirtation jokes” on “CBS This Morning” sound revelatory, as was his rude habit, during his own PBS interview program, of forcing his own opinions on a guest—particularly a female guest—while she was talking. (Full disclosure: the second time I was Rose’s guest, after returning from interviewing women in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East, he intervened argumentatively so often while I was trying to answer his question that I finally said, as nicely as I could, smiling through gritted teeth, “Well, Charlie, I’ll answer if you give me a chance to talk.” I knew then I’d never be invited back a third time, and indeed I never was.)
Another example: Matt Lauer’s previous misogynistic attitudes, comments, and behavior are now being reexamined in a different light—how he engineered the firing of journalist Ann Curry as his “Today” show co-anchor, his insulting sexual comments to actor Anne Hathaway, and especially his hurried, interruptive, condescending manner with Hillary Rodham Clinton during the campaign, as compared to his more respectful handling of Donald Trump. Yet Rose and Lauer were among those who controlled the narrative of that campaign, resulting in the current “presidency,” which affects the whole world.
Wow, maybe those batty feminists weren’t so crazy after all?
Does this signal a glimmer in society’s awareness that the way men treat women reflects and affects everything in our culture, from ostensibly objective journalism to politics, religion, business, the arts, education, sports, economics, ethnicity, class, “race,” age, ability—the entire social fabric?
Hopefully, the truth will continue to out, but not if an incipient backlash has its way.
I was braced for it, and sure enough: male, and a few female, pundits—some of whom a month ago were victim-blamers wondering why women had “put up with this so long” are already whining about an “overreaction” (after millennia of female silence), questioning whether women are becoming vengeful furies (tsk tsk, feminine anger is so unbecoming!), about rushing to judgment (even after multiple women have come forward), about men now being afraid to be friendly (if they can’t differentiate between friendship and assault, they should be afraid, very afraid), and about the career devastation faced by these perpetrators who are, after all (fill in the blank): good men, allies, even icons, of the Right or the Left depending on who is wringing whose hands. Besides, the worriers fret, what do women want us to do about this? How do women want men to behave? Is this or that now unacceptable? What’s OK, what are the rules?
These same people would not ask a man whose watch was stolen what punitive and rehabilitative advice he would recommend for the thief, but it’s just fine to throw yet another job back on women. Grow the hell up, people! Work it through for yourself, boys! God knows women are tempted to repeat that all we want is to be believed and for men to act like decent human beings, but apparently such simple counsel is mystifying beyond cognition.
So let’s sort out this mess in pursuit of some clarity. And let’s start by being brutally honest about what doesn’t work.
Experience plus scholarly research teach us that the billion-dollar industry of sexual harassment training and “sensitivity awareness” programs in corporations, businesses, and academia constitute one big hoot. Such programs are there to protect the institution, not the employee. In fact, these trainings originated after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) guidelines first issued notice in 1980 that employers could be held liable for harassment.
As for human resources grievance procedures, HR delivers a wink and a slap on the wrist, if any, to the perpetrator, while the complainant becomes a quietly marked woman who soon is either openly dismissed (for other reasons, of course) or is subtly driven out and leaves.
Experience and research also teach us that the so-called therapies and inner journeys all these guys are embarking on are also laughable. As Vaile Wright, Director of Research and Special Projects at the American Psychological Association, puts it, “There are no evidence-based programs known of for the sort of men who have been in the news recently.” That includes 12-step programs, group counseling, impulse-control techniques, “life coaches,” hypnotherapists, and residential addiction clinics with names like Chirpy Birdsong Meadows. Furthermore, the evidence is also weak for empathy training in these offenders: such techniques as role-playing or attending court hearings where victims testify graphically to their anguish don’t work. Dr. Michael Seto, Director of Rehabilitation Research at the Royal Ottawa Healthcare Group, notes that it’s hard to teach empathy: “Accepting responsibility is often done confrontationally instead of collaboratively.” The Director of the Toronto Sexuality Center (clearly, Canada is ahead of the U.S. on this research, as in numerous other ways), James Cantor, concurs: ”Confrontation itself—being busted or outed as so many are now publicly—is enough to curtail or end the behavior in many cases.” This seems particularly true when the offender has much to lose in terms of money and reputation.
All the more reason for doing away with enforced secrecy: those noxious required arbitration clauses in employment contracts and those damnable nondisclosure agreements. Even when a woman makes a settlement in a principled manner, it backfires. Zelda Perkins, a former assistant to Harvey Weinstein, was one of the women involved in the sexual-harassment and assault settlement that was underwritten by his brother Bob twenty years ago. Even then, Perkins recognized that Harvey Weinstein had a serial pattern of behavior. She fought for—and obtained—requirements specifically intended to prevent him from continuing to victimize women, so the settlement mandated that he receive treatment from a psychiatrist of Perkins’s choice and that Disney, which owned the company, be notified of future harassment settlements made by him. Nonetheless, Weinstein’s actions continued, in secret, for decades. The system protected and enabled him—money and power, entrenched on a foundation of the unacknowledged conviction that women are somehow less than fully human.
Then there are the politicians.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA.) disclosed that the House of Representatives paid approximately $17 million to settle 260 claims of harassment over the past 20 years—which came out of taxpayer money assigned to Congressional representatives for “expenses” through the “Office of Compliance.” Speier is working with a bipartisan group of politicians to introduce federal legislation that would overhaul the way Congress handles harassment claims, including offering better legal counsel to employees with allegations and removing a long-standing requirement that they sign nondisclosure agreements. All good. But wouldn’t it make more sense to start back with those 17 million bucks, insisting retroactively that the predators repay the Treasury out of their own pockets—the funds then explicitly to be reserved for the budget of the EEOC and for reparations programs of particular value to female citizens?
As for differentiating degrees of offense, yes, that’s complicated—but hardly impossible. The punishment should fit the offense. Sexual abuse of minors, as in the case of Alabama’s would-be senator Roy Moore, is flatly in a category by itself. That’s a devastating crime, and should be punishable as such. Similarly, sexual assault of an adult is a crime, punishable, and should require removal from the position held by the perpetrator.
The “grey areas” of unwelcome flirtation, unwanted touching, and uninvited speech, leers, and phone/text/email/post communications are not so “grey” when we consider they create emotional insecurity; dread of one’s classroom, office, or other workplace; fear of being fired (and then blamed, and not working in that industry again); sleepless nights, nausea, revulsion, anxiety and its side effects; depression, and all the other symptoms of what is actually forcible conditioning to an intolerable situation.
But gradations of punitive justice are possible, ranging from suspension without pay or demotion or expulsion (or public censure, in the Congress) through compensatory financial payment and public in-person (not through a statement or spokesperson) apology, up to forced resignation (or discharge or firing, or political expulsion or recall vote). Personally, I think that if the offense is, after a considerable waiting period, proven to be a one-time event—and verbal, not physical—then, though it still needs to be scrutinized extra thoroughly, it might not result in a firing. Yet I also know that most harassers and assaulters are serial repeaters. Consequently, although I affirm the political stands of Senator Al Franken (D-MN.), and although he seems to be the sole politician who has so far thoroughly, publicly, in-person apologized, now that five women have come forward, I believe he should resign. And I’m furious at him for having put me in a position where I have to think that, and even more furious at his having betrayed and endangered his and my progressive agenda. I also believe that Representative John Conyers (D-MI.), despite his lengthy distinguished service to this country in general and his championing of racial equality and justice in particular, should resign. And I’m furious at him for causing this grief.
We need to shift our weight, shift the gravity, in how we think about it this.
To prioritize a record of action on progressive issues—whether for racial equality, economic justice, environmental imperatives, peace activism, or any other aspect of forward-thinking politics, even including being supportive of feminism in the abstract—while abusing real women in the specific, sends what message?
It sends the message that the female half of humanity somehow isn’t affected by racial inequality, economic injustice, environmental imperatives, war, and the rest—or else is affected only by those issues, which are important because they also affect men. It sends the message that liberal human concerns are over here, front and center, and then women are over there. It sends the message that half of humanity is just not as important as the other half, that one half does the defining and the other gets defined, that one half acts as if it comprised the whole, thus reducing the other half to partial or total invisibility. It sends the message that women are still sexual prey. It sends the message that the female half of humanity is less than fully human.
So I would like to see a list of all the congressional payouts by whom and to whom over the years—and if any of those perpetrators are still serving, they should resign. As of this writing we know of only one sitting member of Congress—Blake Farenthold (R-TX.)—to have used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment claim brought by his communications director, Lauren Greene. She sued and in 2014, as reported by Politico, settled for $84,000—of your and my money, not his, though Farenthold has a minimum net worth of $2.4 million according to his most recent financial disclosure form. So far, Farenthold says he will seek reelection, despite the fact that the make-up of his district may soon change to include more Democratic areas, due to a federal ruling over the summer that the district had been gerrymandered, drawn primarily based on race and thus in violation of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
If Roy Moore is elected and the Senate Constitutionally has to seat him, they really must immediately expel him. The private sector reacted forcefully and swiftly because of fear, fear of losing stockholders, audiences, ratings, advertisers, and consumers. Not until there’s a price to pay by politicians, too, will there be change.
And I have another thought, probably too good ever to be adopted, because it would work, almost overnight.
Every man forced to resign his post due to these behaviors, whether in business, academia, politics, or anywhere else, should as a matter of course be replaced by a woman qualified for the job. In politics, this would mean a special election, with only women candidates running; political parties could commit to this, and they would damned well find the political will to do so under sufficient public pressure. In other jobs and professions, it would mean facilitated entry for all those qualified women the boys always claim they’d gladly hire “if only” they could find them, plus all those women the boys dismiss as over-qualified. I leave it to the many (qualified) feminist legal minds to work out details of how this could be mandated, but surely Affirmative Action is one model.
This much I know:
1) The United States has been deprived of the full talents, skills, vision, and drive of slightly more than half its citizens;
2) Evidence shows that perpetrators—who apparently form a critical mass of men every day acting out variations of this warped “normal” behavior—respond best to confrontation and to corrective loss; and
3) Ultimately, the situation won’t change until women in a critical mass are in positions of real power. So an out-with-him and in-with-her campaign could solve a lot of problems in one simultaneous sweep.
It’s a triple strategy.
Remedial justice. Restorative healing. Societal transformation.