Harvey Weinstein

Sex and power - a turning point?

  1. Power disparities and gender inequality are at the root of systemic sexual harassment across multiple industries
  2. Change in Hollywood practices dominated Academy Awards and Golden Globes
  3. Hundreds of Hollywood women launched Time's Up, a group to fight inequality, sexual harassment and assault
  4. Media figures, politicians all caught up in what some see as a tectonic shift in attitudes

We started this story in November to try to put the sensationalism around the Weinstein and similar disclosures into a political and social context. Over time we’ve added reporting and background. We closed the story in January but are now reopening it to include latest developments such as the 2018 Oscars.

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What started as a trickle of accusations about leading Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein, Fox television pundit Bill O’Reilly and actor Kevin Spacey, has become a flood of allegations of sexual misconduct from millions of women and men around the world.

The ceremony for the 2018 Oscars capped a difficult year for Hollywood. But “open secrets” were overshadowed by battlecries for action, as the 90th Academy Awards ceremony was dominated by calls for more inclusion and female empowerment in the movie industry (The Guardian) from award winners and presenter Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue.

Actor Frances McDormand made one of the biggest marks on the audience and social media by asking all the women who had been nominated for an award to stand up in a rallying cry for more work for female-led projects. The veteran actor ended her speech with the two words “inclusion rider”, referencing the obscure clause in a contract that lets actors demand diversity on their productions. The term was not well known before, but on early Monday morning, the #inclusionrider hashtag on Twitter and a Google search of the term gathered more than 10 million hits.

‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s Up’ dominate Golden Globes

The 75th Golden Globe awards were dominated by an organized attempt by the Hollywood elite to demonstrate a shift in attitudes as well as demand more efforts to reduce assault in the workplace.

The first major Hollywood awards ceremony since outrage at sexual harassment gained worldwide momentum, celebrities walked up the red carpet arm in arm with activists and wore black to support “Time’s Up”, a group launched by Hollywood women to turn the #MeToo hashtag into action.

Media mogul and talkshow host Oprah Winfrey used her acceptance speech as the first black woman to win the honorary Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award to declare: “a new day is on the horizon when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.”

Apart from gestures on the night, women dominated the ceremony and “collectively and defiantly, ruled” (New Yorker). Industry figures also noted that the three biggest grossing films of 2017 had female leads (The Guardian) – highlighting the potential power of women in the male-dominated industry.

Looking for evidence of change

Weinstein may be the biggest scalp of the sexual misconduct backlash so far. The New York police department said on March 7 it was “ready” to make an arrest in the Weinstein case after gathering considerable evidence, the Daily Beast reported. But it was waiting for the district attorney to decide whether, and when, the producer would be charged.

The Weinstein Company, the film studio co-founded by Weinstein, was set to file for bankruptcy after talks to sell it failed, according to several media outlets. It eventually agreed to a $500 million deal with an investor group (FT) led by women but it later collapsed after the firm was found to be in $280 million debt rather than the $225 million previously disclosed.

Powerful men from several industries – from Hollywood, the comedy world and British politics, to the armed forcesthe theater and Silicon Valley, are joining President Donald J. Trump, Bill Clinton, O’Reilly, and the deceased head of Fox News, Roger Ailes, in a growing group of figures with tarnished reputations.

The #MeToo hashtag was used in over 1.7 million tweets, Twitter confirmed to CBS News, and 12 million posts and comments engaging with “Me Too” went up on Facebook in less than 24 hours, as women – and a few men – adopted the label to share that they too had faced sexual harassment in the workplace. The “Me Too” movement finally reached China on New Year’s Day, when academic Luo Xixi said she was sexually harassed by one of her professors when studying at Beihang University in Beijing on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

But awareness doesn’t necessarily bring change, according to women’s rights advocates and professors spoken to by WikiTribune late last year as the Weinstein scandal dominated Hollywood news but sexual predators in other industries were exposed. In order to foster a revolution to change behavior toward women at work, they say this outpouring of anger, revelations, and allegations will require something more fundamental than a hashtag.

Our earlier reporting on power and sexual misconduct

Reducing systemic sexual assault requires a rebalancing of the whole concept of power between men and women, women’s rights advocate and lawyer Charlotte Proudman told WikiTribune.

“Until we change male dominance, I don’t think we’re going to see a real transformation in the way in which women are treated in the workplace. It [the focus on harassment is] a good step forward, but I don’t think it’s enough.”

Proudman was herself at the center of a workplace misconduct case in 2015, when a senior partner at a law firm commented on her appearance in her LinkedIn profile photo. According to a Guardian report at the time, Proudman said that the comment on her appearance sought to eroticize her, which was an act of men “exercising power over women.”

Professor Lisa Blackman, Director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London, said sexual harassment wasn’t new, but now there was a possibility for “genuine cultural change” in light of the deluge of recent accusations.

“There’s still often impunity for perpetrators,” author Natasha Walter told WikiTribune, warning against complacency. “There’s still a lot more work to be done,” she said.

Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor who has studied power for 20 years and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, believes society has reached a turning point.

“The fact that women have so much voice in this latest effort to curtail male abuses of power vis-a-vis women is really important,” he told WikiTribune.

As well as the need for perpetrators to be punished, Keltner said that if more women were in powerful positions in Hollywood and politics, fewer young women would be abused.

“If you have more women run the show, men aren’t going to act like such animals,” he said. “They’re going to have women reminding them to be better behaved.”

Cut from the same roll

Weinstein is no anomaly. Sexual harassment is one of the most regular abuses of power, Keltner said.

“For 20 years I’ve been watching Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, and all down the line you hear these stories.”

The spotlight on powerful men abusing power didn’t start with Weinstein and the potential of power is most clear when considering President Trump.

At least 15 women have accused the president of sexual assault, misconduct or unwanted physical advances. But the allegations failed to damage his campaign for the White House.

American journalist Albert Scardino, in a strongly-worded commentary in the New European, went so far as to say that Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein “were cut from the same roll of toilet paper”.

“Both Trump and Weinstein operate within the triangle of corruption created by money, sex and power,” wrote Scardino.

Berkeley’s Keltner also sees a connection in the way Weinstein and Trump represent the “pervasive attitude of control over women.”

Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein “cut from the same roll of toilet paper” journalist Albert Scardino wrote. (Gage Skidmore/Paul Hudson/US Department of Labor/Thomas Hawk)

The women who accused Trump said they felt dismissed and forgotten after unveiling the allegations during the 2016 presidential race, according to the New York Times. But if a defamation lawsuit being brought by former contestant of The Apprentice, Summer Zervos against Trump is accepted in New York State Supreme Court, the other accusers could testify.

Keltner said that while Trump has been in positions in business and media that allegedly gave him the power to abuse, his mistreatment of women — acknowledged in the so-called “Access Hollywood tape” — has and will come back to haunt him. [December 4, update: The then-presenter of Access Hollywood, Billy Bush, wrote in the New York Times that Trump couldn’t deny or diminish his responsibility for his words — or his behaviour.]

“He’s (Trump’s) not as influential as he could’ve been with the pro-Republican majority … His grotesque treatment of women is why he doesn’t have a lot of respect,” Keltner said.

But sexual harassment is still common and easily explained in relationship with power, Keltner said.

“When you’re powerful you don’t think about what other people think, you are insensitive to the feelings of other people and you think the expression of your desire is justified.”

The political dimensions of the upwelling of harassment allegations are becoming more evident (some time after the original publication date of this story). On November 17 2017, the Financial Times, in a story headlined in the newspaper (paywall) as “Weinstein effect hits Washington” made some of the same points this WikiTribune story did about the issue not being confined to one party or the other and the linkage between the current president’s behavior and that of Clinton. Naturally, it referred to allegations against Democrat Al Franken and would-be Alabama senator Roy Moore.

The paper’s Washington correspondent reported that Washington was asking: “what forms of sexual harassment or bullying are deemed acceptable by a U.S. lawmaker or even president.” Going on to address Moore, Franken, Clinton and Trump.

The presence of power in the framework of sexual harassment has become so clear-cut over the past weeks that Louis C.K. even addressed the disparity between him and five women who accused him of sexual misconduct. As reported by The Washington Post, the comedian accepted that the stories were true, and that he “wielded” his power over the women “irresponsibly.”

Online headline from the Financial Times, Nov 19

The entitlement of power

Those in positions of power were more likely to commit sexual abuses because of a sense of entitlement, according to Mary Evans, the Emeritus Leverhulme Professor for London School of Economics’ department of gender studies.

“[Entitlement] is the kind of behaviour that says, ‘I have a right to having my voice heard, I have a right to express my views more openly than anybody else. I have a right to get my own way’,” Evans told WikiTribune. “Sometimes it expresses itself in forms of unacceptable sexual behavior, but it’s also part of a much larger pattern, which is about the entitlement of privilege.”

Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen’s adopted daughter with Mia Farrow, said in an opinion editorial for the LA Times that for decades, “Allen has used the same defense-through-intimidation techniques that Weinstein allegedly did.” But Farrow said that Allen’s public relations team has kept stories of sexual assault by the prominent director out of the public eye, and maintained that Allen assaulted her when she was seven years old. Despite Allen’s “pattern of inappropriate behavior” being witnessed by friends and family members, he has never been charged with a crime of sexual assault and denies Farrow’s claims to this day, The director’s career is still intact – his latest movie “Wonder Wheel” was released on December 1.

Charlotte Proudman said non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) should be restricted in order to protect people from harassment. Also known as confidentiality agreements, an NDA is a legal contract that sees victims in sexual harassment cases receive a sum of money in exchange for silence about information regarding the abuse. Commonly used between employers and employees, NDAs require both parties who sign the agreement to keep information private.

It’s particularly an issue in the U.S., according to Proudman.

“Effectively, the law is sanctioning the silencing of women because of the wealth and power that men have in contrast to those individuals bringing such claims.”

In a look at sexual harassment in Wall Street, the New Yorker revealed that firms resolve sexual misconduct cases by paying out large settlements that protect perpetrators and companies, while ensuring confidentiality agreements keep incidents under wraps. Women inside the industry, according to the New Yorker, said the system was “rigged” against them to hide Wall Street’s sexual harassment problem.

Stepping over the line

The flood of stories of harassment has prompted queries of whether harassment is a hand on a thigh, a sexual threat from employer to employee, or something more serious.

Men across the U.S. and UK may now be considering if they, too, have been perpetrators of sexual harassment, or inappropriate  behavior at work. But what are the signs of stepping over the line?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which affects an individual’s employment or working conditions.

“I don’t know about your career, but you’ll be fine.” – Lupita Nyong’o quoting Harvey Weinstein

But in order to prove sexual harassment, an accuser must show they were more than the victim of a grope. Victims often need to show that sexual favors were demanded or hinted at to keep or get a job.

Actress Lupita Nyong’o wrote in The New York Times that she was invited to Weinstein’s bedroom. When she rejected the offer, the producer warned: “I don’t know about your career, but you’ll be fine.” The New York Times updated its Weinstein coverage with a major new set of disclosures on December 6.

The latest person to disclose misconduct by Weinstein was actress Salma Hayek, who wrote in an editorial for The New York Times that Weinstein had harassed her and sexually propositioned her during the making of film “Frida”. Hayek says he even at one point threatened that he could kill her. “Until there is equality in our industry, with men and women having the same value in every aspect of it, our community will continue to be a fertile ground for predators,” Hayek wrote.

The promise of career advancement if a victim is complicit in sex acts is a feature of the recent string of claims of harassment and workplace abuse. It was a feature of other alleged abuses by Harvey Weinstein, as well as a “powerful” man who coerced theatre and film director Sean Mathias into a sex act into the early days of his career.

But other forms of harassment are less obvious.

Professor Lisa Blackman said the definitions of what is meant by sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexism were important. “Sometimes we use them interchangeably.”

But the definition of sexual harassment needed to modernize and include details about consent, Blackman said.

“We need to move on the definition and look at relationship between personal and institutional power.”

In industries like politics and the media, where socializing is often a part of the job, blurring the lines between public and private behavior, it is even more difficult to work out what is meant by sexual harassment, according to Blackman.

“There’s a line between ordinary joking around and harassment.”- Berkeley’s Keltner

Harassment is a person in a more powerful position coercing someone else who is subordinate to them into a sexual act, Keltner, who has carried out several studies on flirtation and teasing, said.

Flirtation that is aggressive or domineering is problematic, according to Keltner.

“There’s a line between ordinary joking around and harassment.”

A few months on from the original Weinstein affair, the publication of a story about comedian and actor Aziz Ansari provoked searching questions as to whether the pendulum had swung too far from conduct amounting to assault to what might be thought of as just a bad date.

Commentators who had backed the #MeToo movement of women determined to end silence over sexual assault, leapt on a report on Babe.net  — sourced to an anonymous 23-year-old woman identified as “Grace”, suggesting it had gone too far in connecting an unpleasant experience and misaligned sexual intentions with outright abuse.

A New York Times columnist described the storm over Ansari, who has apologized and said the encounter was “completely consensual” as  “arguably the worst thing that has happened to the #MeToo movement since it began in October.” 

The outpouring of claims of varying degrees of seriousness has pitfalls, according to journalist Cathy Young. In an opinion piece for the LA Times, Young, a frequent critic of feminism, expresses mixed feelings about “Weinsteining” – bringing down a man’s career after allegations of harassment and assault. She said “many people” fear careers will be destroyed over “minor misconduct and ambiguous transgressions.”

Professor Mary Evans said perpetrators need to take more responsibility for their actions. “For adults to say, ‘I didn’t think about my behaviour’ … I don’t think that’s really a defence.”

Power gives people a sense of entitlement that they use to justify their behaviors, she said. “It’s the kind of attitude, which says, ‘Well, actually, it doesn’t matter what these people think because I’m me and I’m so important that actually, I can behave however I want to.'”

We started this story in November to try to put the sensationalism around the Weinstein and similar disclosures into a political and social context and the movement against sexual assault. Over time we’ve added reporting and background. We think this particular article has now run its course and while we will cover the subject under GENDER we intend not to update the story ourselves unless you feel their are gaps which need adding – do so in EDIT or TALK.

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    For further thought on this topic I found New Yorker podcast “America After Weinstein” valuable to think about the social and political significance of the row about sexual harassment and how long it might last and how much change it might deliver. The podcast features Ronan Farrow who reported most of the original allegations against Harvey Weinstein and feminist writer bell hooks who looks at the psychopathy of sexual harassment. – Peter Bale

    Featured image: Paul Hudson via Flickr. Used under creative commons license CC BY 2.0

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