Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is apologizing for decades of sexual misconduct with multiple women, some of them household names, and is even accused of rape by some of the women. News reports have him atoning by checking into a European sex addiction clinic. So widespread were rumors of Weinstein’s behavior that it has been joked about on national television.
So what else is new?
Men in powerful positions have been treating women in such ways since time began and getting away with it for two reasons. The women involved are often too fearful of losing their jobs, whether movie star or housekeeper, to speak up, and others who are aware of the abuse turn blind eyes. Shameful as such conduct is, no one should be surprised by the accusations against such a powerful figure.
Maybe the surprise here is Weinstein’s acknowledgment of “mistakes” and his plea for a “second chance.” Perhaps he meant an umpteenth chance.
Sexual misconduct occurs in all sorts of circumstances.
My mother introduced several of my girlfriends and me to the concept when we were in middle school. She took us aside one day and suggested that we not get close to a then-powerful educator in Fayetteville with whom we had contact in school. Why was that, we asked. She explained that, while the man was a fine educator, he had “HF.” I thought she meant he had the flu or some other contagious illness, but when we asked, she explained that HF meant Hand Fever. He had the odd and unwelcome predilection of massaging girl students and women teachers up and down their backs. We got the point and gave the man wide berth in school hallways until we moved on to high school.
My mother did not know it, but she was participating in what is now known as a “whisper network,” which The New Yorker defined earlier this month as “the unofficial information channel that women use to warn each other about men whose sexual behavior falls on the spectrum from creepy to criminal.”
If you are a woman, you know exactly what I am talking about because you have likely advised other women or been advised yourself with something along the lines of, “Make sure someone else is in the room if you meet with John Smith.”
If you are a man, you have very likely been discussed on the network, either as safe and delightful company or as a jerk to be avoided if possible, and, if you cannot avoid him, take a friend with you.
Technology has turned whisper networks into more concrete entities, for better or for worse; yet they still serve the same function – to save women from experiences that can range from unpleasant to actual trauma. After the Weinstein story broke, a spreadsheet entitled “S****y Media Men” began circulating on the internet among women in media, with the disclaimer that it was a collection of “allegations and rumors.” It will not be the last of such modern whispering.
Virtually every woman alive has some experience with sexual misconduct, and it is difficult in all circumstances whether she keeps it to herself or speaks about it, setting up a “he said, she said” exchange.
Such misconduct is tricky to prove because it almost always occurs in a private setting, which is why so many women keep quiet about it, either enduring it or simply moving on.
World-famous actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie have said that Weinstein made unwanted advances toward them, but it took them years and the accusations of other women to make this statement publicly.
Allegations of Weinstein’s misconduct continue rolling in. He is the latest in a string of powerful men accused of taking advantage of less powerful women in their workplaces. Think Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump, all variations on the same sick theme. Right now, with headlines still screaming, it feels like we may be reaching critical mass on this issue – the point at which society will say “enough.”
Cynics, however, argue that shining the spotlight on the issue may create another workplace issue for women – exclusion from power and responsibility. The risk, they say, is that women will be excluded from the halls of power because men fear finding themselves accused of sexual misconduct. Cynics predict a return to golf course decision-making and power exercised in places women are less likely to be.
The cynics have a point, but I believe that making bad behavior public and the massive humiliation that follows will give pause to other men who think they are entitled to do anything they please.
To think anything else is simply too scary and thoroughly revolting.