The dizzying downfall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexually harassing and assaulting numerous actresses and other women, has produced a rare moment of consensus in America’s fractured culture. Virtually all agree that the once-powerful producer, who has been fired from his company and is being scrubbed from film and television credits, is a loathsome predator getting his just deserts.
Even those of us who detest public shaming mobs and trial by accusation are inclined to make an exception here. The sheer number of independent claims against Weinstein over the years is compelling, and if he’s done even a fraction of what he’s accused of, it’s enough to make him odious.
But while Weinstein’s disgrace can be cheered as belated justice, the story is spinning into a moral panic that reinforces the worst tendencies of the gender wars of recent years.
It started with a leap from indicting Weinstein to a general indictment of all men. A couple ofconservatives on Twitter suggested that Vice President Mike Pence’s policy of avoiding one-on-one meals with women who are not his wife made sense in light of the Weinstein scandal, and they were instantly bombarded with livid responses. “Or men could just not grope or rape women,” was one representative’s take. Likewise, when Business Insider’s Josh Barro cited the Weinstein debacle to argue for more formal work cultures with less after-hours socializing and alcohol, the reaction was typified by a viral tweet from Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffrey: “Or men could just not be predatory dicks.”
It’s fair to say that both the Pence policy and Barro’s proposal would burden the innocent while doing little to curb true predators. But surely there are different ways to say this. One could point out that the vast majority of men manage to socialize with women, even one on one, and not commit sexual assault, for example.
But the mob was just getting started. People were rightly dismayed when Tablet magazine ran an essay suggesting there was something “specifically Jewy” about Weinstein’s “perviness” (the author later posted a brief apology). Yet there was no such condemnation of sweeping claims about men and male predation. Indeed, one critique of the Tablet piece argued that it scapegoated Jews “to let men in general off the hook.” One could argue that such statements are meant to apply only to men who behave badly. Not for Slate columnist Christina Cauterucci, who asserted on Twitter that “v[ery] few [are] totally innocent” since “harassment exists on a spectrum” — presumably, from rape to dirty jokes. Patton Oswalt seems to agree:
This is ONE GUY. If you see one cockroach, it means there’s a thousand. https://t.co/elEPQ8bmdo— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) October 16, 2017
Meanwhile, another viral tweet admonished men to stop speaking of their empathy for women “as a husband and/or a father of daughters,” with a follow-up suggesting instead this alternative: “I recognize my privilege. Sexual harassment and assault are epidemics and I will use my position of power to end it.”
One wonders to which men is this addressed, for while Weinstein did sexually harass and assault only women, his behavior toward men was also atrocious. Do they, too, have the privilege necessary to be condemned across the board? Does this include the journalist whom Weinstein physically assaulted and put in a headlock in 2000? The assistant he reportedly forced to repeat “I am a dildo, Harvey” as punishment for some mistake? The producer who says Weinstein pummeled him in a fit of anger, then bullied him into staying on the job? The man who, according to Kate Beckinsale, got blackballed from Miramax because he warned a young actress about Weinstein’s behavior around women — not knowing that she was already sleeping with Weinstein and would promptly tell him about the warning?
These incidents hint at the complexity of the gender dynamics in the sordid Weinstein saga. Many of the people he mistreated and abused — though not sexually — were men. And some of those complicit in his abuses were women.
No one could deny that women in Hollywood face special pressures, or that Hollywood’s power structures are still male dominated; but there is no oppressor/oppressed split along gender lines. There are plenty of powerless men, and quite a few powerful women. For what it’s worth, 24 women were on this year’s Hollywood Reporter list of the entertainment industry’s 100 most powerful, while Weinstein, long past his heyday, was not.
Women can bully and exploit; men can be bullied and exploited, includingsexually. Granted, it’s very difficult to imagine a female Harvey Weinstein (though sexually exploitative behavior by powerful women, today or in history, is hardly unknown). But the simplistic view that sexual exploitation in the film industry is condoned because of misogyny is undercut by the fact that abuse of boys is at least as likely to go under the radar.
Ironically, as one Twitter user pointed out, actress Rose McGowan, who says she was raped by Weinstein and has denounced his enablers, spoke warmly a few years ago of film director Victor Salva, a child molester convicted of sexually abusing a 12-year-old boy actor in 1988. When asked if working with Salva was awkward given his record, McGowan shrugged it off as “not really my business.”
The Weinstein story is a depressing reminder of how difficult it can be for victims, female or male — especially victims of high-status predators — to seek recourse. But the post-Weinstein backlash has revived the demand to “believe the women” and take virtually any accusation of sexual assault as fact, at least against a man; and there are risks in that, too, particularly in the digital age, when an accusation can cost nothing more than a few keystrokes.
Weinstein’s infuriating impunity will now be used to deride or dismiss concerns that men who don’t have his wealth, power or privilege — unless one regards all men as “privileged” — can get a raw deal when accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault. But the simple truth is that impunity for some can easily coexist with zealous, or overzealous, enforcement for others. In recent years, a number of men have suffered devastating consequences for conduct, proven or alleged, that doesn’t even come close to Weinstein’s reported offenses.
Thus, in 2014, video game journalist Josh Mattingly, founder and then-CEO of the gaming website IndieStatik, had to step down over a late-night Facebook chat with a female game developer that began with work-related questions but descended into sexual banter and innuendo, and finally a graphic offer of oral sex. (Mattingly, battling depression after his brother’s recent suicide, had been drinking heavily.) The woman, who had been on friendly terms with Mattingly — and who, at least at first, played along with the banter — showed the chat to a female colleague; that colleague posted a screenshot online, initially without names, as an example of the harassment faced by women in the industry. Mattingly was promptly outed, and his contrite apology did nothing to help. IndieStatik, which had gotten off to a highly successful start, folded several months after his resignation.
Mattingly’s comments were inappropriate, and drunkenness is no excuse; but one may also ask whether this single instance of bad behavior should have been a career-ending offense.
The feminist revival of the past few years, with its intense focus on male victimization of women, has helped bring down previously untouchable serial offenders like Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein, and that’s an undoubted good thing. But one can cheer their comeuppance and still realize that an all-out war on sexual misconduct framed in stark terms of male villains and female victims will not end well.
Such a war does not allow for murky situations that involve conflicting claims, misunderstandings, subjective perceptions and imperfect recall. Nor does it allow for women’s willing participation in sexual dynamics in work environments — from banter, flirting and sexual humor to consensual relationships.
Paradoxically, at the same time, modern feminism promotes assertive female sexuality; its icons are women like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer, who display their bodies and discuss their sex lives in the raunchiest of terms. Yet men can be vilified if their response crosses a subjective and shifting line.
This is a prescription for a toxic cultural climate.
Even Cauterucci expressed a “queasy mix of emotions” about the circulation of a “shitty media men” list tallying alleged, anonymously reported misdeeds by male journalists ranging from rape to “flirting.” And yet on Twitter, Cauterucci wrote that she had chosen not to reassure male friends and colleagues that they are not on “The List”: “Let them think back over every interaction they’ve had with a woman, sexual or not, at work or not, and examine whether each was f—ked up.” She added that “maybe the threat of a List is all we needed to keep men on their toes and not raping/harassing women.”
To call this mindset disturbing is an understatement. McCarthyism was not a good response to the real problem of communist espionage and infiltration. Sexual McCarthyism — to use a phrase coined by attorney Alan Dershowitz in the 1990s — is not a good response to the real problem of sexual predators.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and is the author of “Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces To Achieve True Equality”. Follow her on Twitter, @CathyYoung63