Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/File 2014
Where do we go from here?
It has been six weeks since the revelations about producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long trail of harassment and alleged sexual assaults. Every day it grows more obvious that harassment is a fact of life in every workplace. Men who had harassed and assaulted colleagues with impunity are finally being held accountable on a scale unimaginable just a couple of months ago, and certainly a year ago, when an admitted and accused predator was elected president by 63 million Americans.
It’s a moment that goes beyond partisanship, at least to a point. Some Republicans, though not nearly enough, have condemned Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, whom multiple women have accused of creeping on them, and assaulting them, when they were teens. Democrats have rightly condemned Senator Al Franken’s unspeakable behavior, and are finally reckoning with the predations of former president Bill Clinton.
This feels like a seismic moment. But has the ground truly shifted?
We have seen so many moments that seemed tectonic in recent years. Hurricane Katrina laid bare the powerlessness of poor, black Americans in ways, it appeared at the time, that we could never forget. The Occupy protests made the injustice of economic inequality real in a way that felt impossible to ignore. Ferguson and its aftermath laid bare deep-seated racism, and seemed like it would force this nation to confront the deadly oppressiveness of our criminal justice system.
But those moments of reckoning passed, and we went back. So far back.
And so, what of this one? Perhaps the drip-drip litany of abusive men exposed and shamed will change us. Or perhaps this moment, too, will evaporate once the public’s appetite for stories of prominent harassers wanes, the cry of “witch hunt!” grows, and the nihilist Bannonites draw blood with their continuing attacks on the victims and reporters bringing these dark secrets to light.
In politics, the problems seem especially intractable. There, where women are vastly underrepresented in legislatures, men pretty much everywhere set the tone. Politics is all about relationships. Deals are hashed out in late night sessions, and over drinks in bars. Harassment and assault are ignored, or excused, or invisible, because calling it out imperils victims’ careers, a hazard for them and the people they’re working for. Bystanders stay silent for the same reasons. Women and vulnerable men in politics, as everywhere, work around the dangers: They go in pairs to visit a certain office, or to meet with a particular lobbyist; they warn each other about whom to avoid altogether. Silence begets more harassment, which begets more silence. The system perpetuates itself.
Three weeks after I first wrote about the climate on Beacon Hill — and after the most powerful men in state politics said they were appalled by the reports and would protect those who came forward, victims are still afraid to reveal their names. In the wake of the stories of harassment, two veterans of Massachusetts politics tried to have other women sign a letter like the one more than 200 women in California politics signed last month calling for an end to the hostile climate in Sacramento. The Massachusetts women — who themselves are afraid to be named — haven’t yet been able to convince anybody here to sign it. The women they’ve approached remain convinced it would damage their careers.
How do you make a place safe for victims to come forward when women are too afraid to say what the problems are? That’s the question House Speaker Bob DeLeo must grapple with now, as he tries to make good on his promise to change the rules and the culture on Beacon Hill when it comes to sexual harassment. The speaker has vowed to make it easier for victims to come forward, and harder for harassers to be let off the hook. There are clear steps that can be taken towards that end: Better training for legislators, lobbyists and staffers, with clear guidelines on what is and is not acceptable behavior, backed up by consequences; bystander training, so that victims aren’t the only ones speaking out; and an anonymous climate survey, to gauge the size of the problem. House counsel Jim Kennedy, who is leading the effort, has brought in four independent attorneys to help, including former attorney general Martha Coakley, who has spent a career protecting victims’ rights.
On Wednesday morning, DeLeo held a meeting with women legislators which became emotional at times, as a couple of them shared their own stories of assault and harassment. One attendee said the speaker is “heartsick” about the revelations of the last few weeks.
These are all positive signs, but they will go only so far. At its heart, harassment in politics, and everywhere, is a function of fundamental problems rules can’t get at. It happens partly because so many men are trained from childhood to reject boundaries — to think of women as less powerful, as sexual objects. And because our culture has made too many women think of themselves the same way.
That’s what has to change for this moment to bring the revolution we need.
Will it? Early signs are mixed. The hopeful news out of Hollywood and elsewhere is offset by the grim updates from Alabama, where Moore remains defiant, and where even some who believe he has preyed on teenagers have nonetheless vowed to vote for him rather than risk handing the seat to a Democrat. If it turns out a majority of Alabama feels the same way, they should feel free to let loose the old rebel yell and secede. Good riddance.
We have yet another chance to remake ourselves here. But if we don’t take it, at least we’ll have this to fall back on: The world is a pretty hostile place for harassers right now. Every man who has been guilty of demeaning or assaulting women has to be worried they’ll be unmasked. And if they’re worried, they’re less likely to do it again. Fright works faster than revolution.
To a paraphrase a slogan from a time that seems very long ago: Keep fear alive.
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