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.
Weinstein may be the biggest casualty of the sexual misconduct backlash so far. But now powerful men from several industries — from Hollywood and British politics, to the 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.
According to CNN, the #MeToo hashtag was used more than 825,000 times on Twitter and 4.7 million Facebook users engaged with “Me Too” as women – and a few men – adopted the label to share that they too had faced sexual harassment in the workplace.
But awareness doesn’t necessarily bring change, according to women’s rights advocates and professors spoken to by WikiTribune. 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.
Power and patriarchy
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 fifteen 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.”
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 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.
“He’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,” he 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). This week, The Financial Times, in a story headlined in the newspaper (maybe behind a paywall) as “Weinstein effect hits Washington” made some of the same points the 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 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.”
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.”
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 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.”
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.'”
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