16 Oct Me, Too
You might as well settle back. This may take me a while.
Because, oh my god, this has already taken too long a while. Too many tipping points.
I think it was around 1974 that Ms. magazine ran the first cover story on sexual harassment, which was already an issue in the women’s movement. Almost 20 years later in 1990, Anita Hill’s courageous truth-telling before Congress galvanized American women–yet Clarence Thomas, the perpetrator of criminal sexual harassment against her, still sits on the United States Supreme Court. In the mid-1990s, feminists were divided over whether Bill Clinton’s semen stains on Monica Lewinsky’s dress were “consensual”: yes, she had told friends that she planned to go to the White House carrying kneepads in hopes of just such an encounter; and yes, many of his policies were good for women; and yes, there was a vast right-wing conspiracy out to get him and his uppity wife. But the simple truth is that consent is irrelevant when a power gap is present: Lewinsky was an intern in her twenties and he was the most powerful man on the planet, she worked for him, and furthermore he had a history of such behavior which, while possibly not an impeachable offense, is not a dismissible one. (Back then, I wrote that it seemed Democrats were always the ones getting caught in sex scandals, between the sheets—possibly because Republicans were busy wearing them. That was before Republicans began being caught between the sheets and wearing them.)
In the 1980s, on Howard Stern’s program, Trump boastfully agreed that he was a sexual predator, while his daughter Ivanka sat by his side and giggled; more than a quarter-century later, there’s Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape; today, Mr. Consistency sits in the Oval Office. Fox News gets convulsed by sexual-harassment, sexual-assault, and cover-up pay-off scandals and powerful men are fired—with golden parachutes, to do their damage and pursue their careers elsewhere. Silicon Valley’s revealing response to accusations that such acts saturate tech culture is to seriously float the idea of just not hiring more women so as to reduce the temptation, while Wall Street senior men consider it okay to openly express reluctance about sponsoring or mentoring female colleagues in future. Those are the ostracizing “solutions” that fundamentalist Christians, orthodox Jews, and Islamists already practice.
The music world, the academic world, the world of scientific research, the National Park Service, Uber, every U.S. military academy—the women are coming forward now. They would not be coming forward—at great personal cost and with enormous fear, even now—had not almost 50 years of Women’s Movement work made this possible. Apparently it requires hordes of women in order to be believed, just as in some countries a woman’s testimony in court counts as half that of a man’s. It took scores of women coming forward for anyone to believe that lovable Bill Cosby had drugged and assaulted them sexually. And now, the surprise that’s been known all along: Harvey Weinstein. Miramax movie mogul. Hollywood powerbroker. Liberal philanthropist, Democratic Party funder, nice guy who always finished first. Abuser, harasser, bully, rapist.
Personally, I have loved many of the movies his firms have produced, and personally, I hope he is tried and convicted for sexual assault.
“I’m used to it,” he says casually, pronouncing his entitlement. He says this on tape, feeling the breasts of an actor while he’s trying to lure her into his hotel room, during a sting operation that subsequently got squelched by another nice guy, the enabling New York County DA, Cyrus Vance, Jr. Culpable. “No,” she begs. “I’m not used to it,” she pleads.
Everybody knew, except somehow nobody knew. The all-male boards of Miramax and of The Weinstein Company didn’t know, though their financial books surely reflected hundreds of thousands of dollars for at least eight settlements to buy the silence of protesting, assaulted women. Culpable. Likable, nice-guy activist George Clooney never knew, although, um . . . he had heard rumors. Culpable. Jokes about Harvey and the casting couch were made openly on air and from the stage at Oscar ceremonies—and the star-studded audience laughed. They laughed. But somehow, gee, nobody figured it out.
Even now, although the Academy has expelled him, Hollywood is more concerned with not getting caught and with explaining at length how nobody knew than with addressing the systemic, epidemic problem. It took front-page headlines in The New York Times to remind everybody. Retribution for speaking up—physical and economic threat, legal action, and career-enders like slut-smearing, all backed up by legions of P.R. companies, law firms, gossip columnists, and other shrugging enablers, all culpable—can create impressively selective amnesia. Secretaries and assistants get drafted into pimping, as they learn to coax victims into the boss’s web for fear of losing their own jobs if they refuse to collude. Maybe, just maybe, some of the older, more relatively powerful women in Hollywood—actors or the rare producers and even rarer directors—actually hadn’t heard: a sexual predator chooses his prey carefully, and such women tend to be work-obsessed and to set an intelligent distance between themselves and any buzz. Meryl Streep issued a statement saying she hadn’t known and found the offenses inexcusable and the women who talked heroic. Jane Fonda told Christiane Amanpour that she had learned a year or so ago, but in confidence from one of the victims, so hadn’t spoken—adding that nevertheless she now felt ashamed she hadn’t.
We have to stop treating this as a far-out aberration. Although long-standing charges in the U.S. have been shelved against film director Roman Polanski for raping a minor (charges that had forced him to reside in Europe), a new woman has now come forward. Renate Langer, a 61-year-old former German actress, has reported to the Swiss police that Polanski raped her at a house in Gstaad in 1972, when she was 15. She is the fourth woman to publicly accuse Polanski of sexual assaulting her when she was a teenager; now even Europe isn’t safe for him. Such men are repeaters, serial harassers, serial assaulters. Which means, too, that survivors reluctant to speak up for themselves might also consider future victims of their assailant.
This will not truly change until women gain power–in the entertainment business and everywhere else. To remind yourself of just how drastic the imbalance of power is in moviemaking, look at the Women’s Media Center’s Status of Women in The US Media 2017 Report. Read it sitting down, perhaps with a strong drink at hand.
Nice guys. Liberal network executives at NBC sat on Ronan Farrow’s Weinstein exposé for months, until he took his exhaustive sleuthing to The New Yorker. (Decades ago, Ronan had allied himself with Mia Farrow, his mother, against Woody Allen—so he knows a sexual predator when he sees one.) NBC also claimed to have lost Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape, and had been home to his “reality” TV shows during Jeff Zucker’s tenure. Culpable. Following the Weinstein revelations, Lorne Michaels of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” ordered jokes about Weinstein deleted, claiming that this was “a New York story, not a national one.” Hmmm. What’s the classic opener of that show again? Oh yes: “Live from New York! It’s Saturday Night!” Culpable. The first week, although Trevor Noah mentioned Weinstein in passing, the only late-night host to take the news full on was John Oliver on HBO.
Weinstein’s statement was a masterpiece of denial, fake remorse, change-the-subject, and money pledging. But he can’t buy his way out of this one. Firing him from his own company is not good enough. Apologies from him, or his board, or Clooney, or Ben Affleck, or all the other nice guys, for not having believed or dismissing the women who told them about this is not good enough.
The Left, unsurprisingly, went into Get-His-Money-Away-From-Me Panic—not having even required threats to keep silent, merely donations, campaign contributions, and glamour. Culpable. Yes, it is possible, barely possible, that some of the politicians actually didn’t know, sealed in their own sexist world separate from Hollywood’s. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama did make a strong, swift statement—doubtless retroactively horrified at having let their daughter Malia intern at The Weinstein Company. But the heart-breaking three-day delay of a response from Hillary Rodham Clinton was not good enough—even though this touches the nerve of her Bill Clinton vulnerability, which has been used so cruelly against her. The stampede by other Democratic pols to send Weinstein’s former contributions to groups fighting sexual assault is good, but not good enough.
We need legislation. No more nondisclosure agreements covering criminal acts such as sexual assault or sexual harassment. No more mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts, denying harassed workers the choice of going to court. Waive the statute of limitations on sexual harassment and sexual assault, and waive limitation statutes on former nondisclosure agreements of women who reported sexual harassment, so that survivors can go public now.
Perhaps the few principled Republicans left among all those others gleefully pointing fingers at the Democrats over Weinstein would like to start such legislation rolling? Or are they too consumed with terror? Because what would happen if at first one, then two more, then 10, then up into the hundreds or even thousands of women who have been harassed, molested, groped, and raped by Donald J. Trump— now, at this historic moment, despite dread and with almost superhuman courage—would come forward and tell their stories? A few tried during the campaign—and despite his threats he never did sue them. Today there would be armies of lawyers massed to defend them. Today, they could change the world.
We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, so yes it’s important when Taylor Swift speaks out, and Ashley Judd, and Angelina Jolie. But it’s those “ordinary” women, lesser-known women, who suffer most: destroyed careers, devastated lives, ashes of dreams. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis wrote an excellent piece about this plague, naming it “the banality of abuse.” One of the many times it happened to her, for example, she describes as having been not even traumatic, but ordinary. The perverse, insistent, matter-of-factness of male sexual predation. That’s the point.
Harvey Weinstein didn’t need to be an open misogynist or anti-Semite or white supremacist. On the contrary, the twin justifications of compartmentalization and denial allowed him to give money to feminist causes and good candidates, and to further the careers of women like Jane Campion and Julie Taymor—though at what cost, if not to them then to other women who paid their dues for them? Yes, I do believe that the women are less culpable, not out of some misty eyed feminism but simply because they had less power. Nevertheless, unless women stand together with women in every field of endeavor, we cannot level that field.
So, sorry, liberals and Democrats and leftists, but it isn’t conveniently only the O’Reillys and Roger Aileses and Trumps who demean and assault women. Sorry you can’t hide your hypocritical hearts and get outraged only when right-wingers are the culprits. The truth is that nice guys rape, too. The truth is that the wholesome boys next door harass and make sucking noises and obscene gestures and call women animal names. The truth is that in 2017, still, appallingly few otherwise decent, progressive men actually get it or even want to get it.
Breaking news, nice guys! You’re not funny or cute and assault is not welcome or forgivable, whatever the hell your politics are. Keep your hands to yourselves and your genitals in your pants—is that so very difficult? Breaking news! Sexual assault is political.
As for nice guys who genuinely want to be good guys: Believe women when they tell you what we face everyday. Try putting your lives and careers on the line to stand by and beside us. Think about the cognitive dissonance when you denounce Weinstein’s invasion of women’s bodies but simultaneously defend the industry of prostitution as “sex work,” defend the industry of violent pornography as “free speech,” and claim to fight for “equality” while paying male actors more than female actors and assembling all-male boards and hiring more male executives, more male directors, more good ole’ boys.
And women, keep coming forward and tell your stories. Because your stories are my stories and because our stories are commonplace, the stuff of our lives. Because in India sexual harassment is called “Eve-teasing,” and in some African countries it’s called “Mama-get,” and at UCLA men still refuse to understand that no means no. Because if we are not for ourselves, who is for us? Because social media has come alive with women posting and tweeting Me,Too in an avalanche of evidence.
Well, me too.
Here are my commonplace stories. When I was four, my mother and aunt took me to visit elderly Torah scholars at The Jewish Home for The Aged in The Bronx, and they told me to be very quiet and very respectful. One old man who smelled funny took me to see a scroll, and when my mother and aunt weren’t looking, he lifted my skirt and grabbed me hard between my legs. When I was eight, a beloved substitute for my absent father, a man my mother trusted—a white, Franciscan, nympholeptic Catholic priest–sexually abused me. He brought me to meet his parents, and then his father abused me as well. When I was about nine, a popular song of the day was “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” by Frank Loesser—a duet in which a “mouse” (woman) tries to escape a “wolf” (man); the full lyrics are available online but a sampling includes “I really can’t stay/I’ve got to go way/my mother will start to worry/the neighbors might think/say, what’s in this drink?” —with him interposing “But baby it’s bad out there/no cab to be had out there/mind if I move in closer,” and so forth. It was a big hit.
When I was 16, a handsome white young concert pianist forced me to give him a hand job. When I was 18, a disabled, African-American professor sexually harassed and tried to rape me, calling me a racist and hitting me with his cane when I slipped out of his grasp. In the Civil Rights Movement during voter registration in the South, volunteer men both black and white shared a common form of address to all the volunteer women: “How about giving me some of my civil rights tonight, baby?” When I was in my 20s, a Vietnamese poet I was helping win a fellowship became physically forceful when I declined his insistent marriage proposals. Later, male-defined “sexual revolution” pressure (including from my own gay white husband and other gay men) caused me to collaborate in my own rape more than once, compartmentalizing and denying my own collaboration until continual vomiting and chronic hives, plus nascent feminist consciousness, made me realize No More.
In my 30s, my white “radical” boss at Grove Press hit on me and probably would have fired me for refusing him, except that he was already about to fire me for union organizing in the publishing industry. When I was in my 40s, a liberal lawyer particularly well-respected for his civil-rights work—who was at the time also the lover of a long-time dear woman friend, another well-known feminist—chased me around the room, pinned me down, unzipped himself, tore at my clothes, and tried to penetrate me. He was drunk enough so I could fight him off. When I was in my 50s and moving down a distinguished receiving line at an elegant fundraiser for a progressive cause, I was stunned to find a second tongue in my mouth. During a handshake, I’d been suddenly yanked forward into the embrace of a man who acted as if I were an old friend and who was evidently unable to keep a civil tongue in his mouth. This man is a former civil-rights leader, an investment banker, a member of the board of directors of multiple corporations, was counselor to President Bill Clinton and adviser to Senator John Kerry, former president of The Urban League, and is the only black person to attend more than a few meetings of the Bilderberg Conference (annual private meetings of 120 to 150 people of the European and North American political elite). Only later did I learn from Washington women friends that the powerful Vernon Jordan is notorious, as they euphemistically described it, “for giving the wettest French kisses in town.”
Those are just some of the headlines–it’s not as if there wasn’t more then one such occurrence per decade. It’s not as if I’m particularly beautiful or attractive. It’s not as if any of these intrusions and invasions were invited by me. It’s not as if I gave off signals of masochism or of welcoming being victimized—quite the contrary. These are just some specific examples I have experienced of the standard female reality. You open one box and nested in it are 14 others. Some of these stories I have never told until now, despite publishing six books of intimate poems and a revealing memoir. Why did I keep silent?
The reasons changed as life changed. Sometimes fear was present, certainly, but it’s more complex than that. As a child I thought maybe I was making it up, because my mother and aunt said to be respectful and when I told them they said forget it ever happened. When I was a teenager I had a crush on my pianist assailant, so despite feeling heart-broken I wanted to protect him. Later, I told myself I didn’t want to ruin the lives of those men, those men who are painfully young or pitiably old or disabled or gay or straight or talented or black or liberal or in exile or civil-rights organizers or political brothers. Later still, I told myself I didn’t want to provide ammunition to psychologically reductive opponents of feminism who would try to diminish my politics by attributing them to personal neurosis based on these incidents. I told myself this, even though I knew that the corrosive acid of such occurrences leaks into the body and spirit steadily, a drip-drip rhythm, the normal tick-tock of Everywoman’s daily life. Still later, I told myself I couldn’t endure hurting my woman friend by telling her what her lover had done. Finally completely freelance, not even vulnerable to a boss’s retribution, a writer lifelong in love with words, and a feminist activist, I still encountered reasons to keep silent. I told myself that’s just life, turn it into art, turn it into politics. And I went on.
That’s what we do. We go on.
This is what is done to us. The click of a lock. The seizing of a wrist. The head shoved into a lap. The warning look. The finger to the lips. The hand clamped over the mouth. The voice stopped in the throat. The truth suffocated in memory. This is the violation after the violation. This becomes literally the unspeakable.
And it must stop. Not in another 50 years. Now.
Or is this just another tipping point?