Sexual harassment: Will the ‘Weinstein effect’ last?
“Call it the Harvey Weinstein effect,” said Jessica Guynn and Marco della Cava in USA Today. In years past, powerful men could prey on women and suffer no serious consequences. Their assaults were ignored or downplayed as “indiscretions”; they could silence their accusers with legal settlements and carry on as before. “No longer.” In the weeks since Weinstein’s career was destroyed by an ongoing sexual assault scandal involving more than 80 women, male power players in a wide variety of industries have been brought low by their own flood of female accusers. They include Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, director James Toback, and NBC senior political analyst Mark Halperin. Actor Kevin Spacey was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old male actor; New Republic former literary editor Leon Wieseltier apologized to staffers who accused him of groping and kissing them, and funding for his new magazine was canceled. Even former president George H. W. Bush, 93, was accused of butt-grabbing three women from his wheelchair. Somehow, “we are suddenly in a moment of accountability,” said Rachel Sklar in Elle.com, with men across the country “issuing carefully worded apologies to express their regret and sorrow as they watch their empires crumble.” Other high-profile predators are no doubt quaking in their boots—waiting for their own bad behavior to finally “catch up to them.”
“There’s a reason for this flood of accusations,” said Mark Berman in The Washington Post. When people speak out about sexual harassment, “other victims see what happens next.” For years, female accusers were dismissed as delusional or as spurned lovers, or victim-shamed for not speaking out earlier. Then Weinstein happened. Women saw one of the most powerful men in Hollywood lose his job, family, and influence in a matter of days. Armed with social media accounts that gave them both a megaphone and safety in numbers, a critical mass of these female victims suddenly felt empowered to tell their harrowing stories under the hashtag #MeToo. “Women had this anger bottled up inside of them all this time,” says women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred. “Then suddenly, all that anger’s unleashed.”
Optimists think “the Weinstein revelations are going to change everything,” said Katha Pollitt in TheNation.com. But that’s exactly what people said after Anita Hill courageously spoke out against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas—“and that was over a quarter-century ago.” What happened after Hill’s blockbuster Senate testimony, during which she detailed Thomas’ campaign of sexual harassment? “Thomas got his seat on the Supreme Court; Hill was famously vilified as ‘a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty’”— and “harassment continued as before.” Just last year, Donald Trump made it to the White House after he was heard admitting on tape to groping women’s private parts and faced credible accusations from a dozen women.
Real change will only come if women get an equal share of power in the work world, said Marin Cogan in The New York Times. Right now, being a young woman at the bottom rung of a male-dominated industry such as film, media, tech, or banking “is a dizzying, terrifying thrill.” Female interns, fact-checkers, and aides feel “replaceable,” and learn that to advance in their careers, they have to put up with countless unwanted advances from their “utterly irreplaceable” male bosses—creepy guys who grill you about your love life, stand too close and peer down your shirt, and invite you for private chats in hotel rooms. It will take a critical mass of women in powerful positions for this culture to change.
Still, the current outpouring of harassment stories and outrage “looks like the beginning of what social scientists call a norm cascade,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Financial Times (U.K.). Not that long ago, “smoking used to be acceptable everywhere”; today, smokers “are confined to drafty stoops.” The Weinstein scandal will not be an instant turning point, but a major milestone in an evolution that was already underway. Sexual harassment has in recent years become “a legal category and a social taboo,” admittedly often not enforced; but now company management and human resource departments have been reminded “of the perils of ignoring reports of bad behavior.” The sudden downfall of so many famous, powerful men may educate younger men, while backward bosses must fear that if they continue to cross the line with their female colleagues, their names will be revealed on social media and they’ll lose their jobs. In the generational struggle for women to be treated as equals, “we still have a long fight ahead.” But it’s not safe to be a pig anymore. ■