And so, the monster that is Harvey Weinstein has been banished, and soon, perhaps, he will be incarcerated. Troops of celebrities have rushed to condemn him, some claiming ignorance about his m.o. and nearly all expressing horror. It’s been a long time since the word disgusting was used by so many men who, if the tropes of pornography are to be believed, harbor fantasies very close to what Weinstein acted upon. I suspect that the conflict between what men and women feel sexually (which isn’t a single thing) and what we feel politically (which is) reflects a climate of anxiety amplified by social media and by newspapers and TV shows that have everything to gain from scandalizing. The result has been a two-edged sword. There’s a real struggle against sexual oppression and a more ambiguous fostering of uneasiness about sex that is potentially as oppressive as the situation it is meant to address.
Weinstein is an icon of the new sexual villain, a category that has morphed from child abusers to men who use their power to procure unwanted sexual attention from adults. I don’t mean to suggest that these men aren’t villains, or that their victims aren’t traumatized, but it’s important to understand that the range of forbidden behavior is growing exponentially. I applaud the aim of this process, which is to create a safe workplace, but I want to express some qualms about it. After all, when it comes to sex scandals, the unintended consequences can be more enduring than the intended ones.
These accusations are an extra-legal proceeding. The behavior they condemn occurs beneath or beyond the law. The safeguards accorded criminal defendants don’t exist in the court of innuendo. There is no presumption of innocence when the press is the judge. Criminal definitions of rape and assault, with their evidentiary standards, don’t apply to many of the acts under scrutiny. There’s no due process to deal with rumors. Once a vortex of accusation forms, no denial or apology makes a difference in the judgement rendered. And there’s no statute of limitations in an exposé. Activities that are decades old can be admissible. Arrangements made with the police that guarantee confidentially can be voided. Evidence never entered into trial can be leaked. Settlements which specify that they don’t constitute an admission of guilt are regarded as proof of guilt. Only the scrupulousness of reporters and editors decides whether a ruinous charge is worth publicizing—a standard that, let’s face it, is often honored in the breach.
Was this the case with Weinstein? Not at first. The New York Times, which broke the story, and The New Yorker, which expanded it in blunter terms, both followed proper journalistic procedure—every accusation was backed up by evidence, and the accused was given ample opportunity to respond. But the scandal rippled like blood in water, and soon we were sailing in a sea of allegations, unmoored by proof. CBS News blithely referred to an “epidemic” of sexual abuse in Hollywood. The head of Amazon Studios resigned after a woman accused him of making “obscene suggestions” in a taxicab. Steven Seagal was charged with holding a story meeting at his home and answering the door in a silk bathrobe. James Van Der Beek said that several powerful men have subjected him to butt pats and “inappropriate conversations.” Each of these stories may be true—I’d say they probably are—but taken together they produce a belief that the film industry is pervaded by abuse. A more likely explanation is that sexual advances and displays have long been considered acceptable in a field where erotic assets are central to what sells. This permissive ethic exists to one degree or another in every creative industry, and it may well be part of what makes pop culture so dynamic. If exploring eros is the name of the game, it’s not so easy to be chaste in life.
Let’s look at the Hollywood bashing that lies at the heart of this story. At the Times, there was a frenzy of such coverage, some of it insightful—I recommend the piercing essay by film critic Manohla Dargis on systematic sexism in the film industry—but much of it was speculative, or worse. A piece recalling child-abuse allegations against Woody Allen failed to mention that the state attorney decided not to prosecute the case. And there was finger pointing of the most self-serving sort. The paper’s media critic, Jim Rutenberg, sniffed at the connections between good press and the advertising dollars of major studios, but he concluded by assuring his readers that the Times isn’t influenced by that sort of quid pro quo. (Readers of the paper’s real-estate pages may beg to differ.) Reporter Brooks Barnes weighed in on the omerta of liberals: “Welcome to Hollywood, where people love to wag self-righteous fingers…but run for cover whenever the topic casts show business in an unflattering light.” In fact, every industry closely guards the suspect aspects of its past. Go back in time and you’ll find a history of failing to promote women at the Times, not to mention antigay purges. The victims put up with it until they realized that they didn’t have to. But why look in the mirror when you can snark at the casting couch?
There’s no down side to pillorying morality in Hollywood. It’s a reliably tempting target during anxious times. Lewd movies, which were widely regarded as a threat to the nation, inspired the Production Code during the Great Depression. In the ‘50s, the Red Scare focused on the political sins of screenwriters and actors. The industry is, and always has been, a very convenient bash. And these assaults are usually symptomatic of a larger backlash. We have devised a system in which the pleasure we take in erotic power is periodically revealed to be demeaning and dangerous. But what happens in Hollywood isn’t just about Hollywood. It’s about the contradictions of living in a society that, as Nathaniel Hawthorne noted, is composed of “promiscuous Puritans.”
Loose language, the currency of scandal, abounded in this saga. Words like touching, groping, stroking, importuning, pawing, harassing, misconduct, misbehavior, assault, and rape were used interchangeably and sometimes to describe the same behavior. This ambiguity means that nearly any erotic act which results in bad feelings can fall under the rubric of abuse. It also suggests that the real story here is about confusion. We don’t know where to draw the line between proper and improper sexual behavior, and the fact that the line is shifting only adds to the uncertainty. At its best, the current outbreak of odium is an attempt to draw those boundaries. At worst, it’s evidence of a moral panic. Each story may be a genuine expression of pain, but taken together they reveal a failure to distinguish between misconduct and assault. They are all part of a media feast on an evolving, expansive, and in some ways ominous concept of sexual crime.
Inevitably, these stories morphed into another front in the culture wars, with conservatives lighting into Hollywood progs who went ballistic over Donald Trump’s groping tape. At some point, the coverage took on the shape of our hypocrisies, including lushly detailed descriptions of sexual acts dutifully proceeded by the ultimate empty word in scandal journalism, alleged. The Times and The New Yorker had the goods—it’s important to reiterate that. Still, it’s worth noting that both publications are struggling to survive in an era when only 20 percent of Americans get their news from print. Might the urgent need for internet hits dispose a paper to perform the endlessly entertaining task of disparaging the rich and famous? We’re not talking about tabloids here, but bear in mind that the intersection between a paper’s self-interest and the truth is where much of its coverage resides.
Are my reservations informed by a masculine, arguably masculinist, perspective? No doubt. But I’m gay, and as a gay man I know what it’s like to suffer harassment, to have your boss degrade your body and your sexuality, to see your company fail to do right by your complaint, to watch your colleagues who have experienced similar behavior deny it. I understand the toll that such behavior takes and why professional women are determined to address it. But I also worry about creating a climate of fear for anyone who makes an erotic connection in the workplace. I’m concerned about the loss of creative energy if any sexual move can result in punishment, even decades later. This is precisely what happened in the 50s, when the specter of Communism became a way to repress all sorts of deviance, political and otherwise. The result was a stultified, saccharine culture—and the rise of a youth rebellion in the form of rock ’n’ roll. Who knows how the generation now entering high school will react to the emerging climate of sexual restraint? One thing is clear: Trump and the alt-right have benefited from this backlash. Our side has a withering critique of showing thin women in ads. Their side has Pepe the Frog.
My greatest qualm about this agenda is its tendency to expand, as the underlying reason for the anxiety—the pervasiveness of sexism—persists, creating a need for even more binding restraint. That’s what happened with the moral panic over drugs. Existing laws were stiffened, resulting in a race-based gulag. Drug testing, which initially applied only to athletes and people in dangerous jobs, was extended to high school students and those getting public assistance or housing. (The poor are aways suspect). By now, many corporations test the urine of their employees—and there’s a lesson in that sequence. Repression has a way of spreading.
We may be heading for an era when laws regarding sexual assault are rewritten to be more restrictive. The standard that now applies to universities could soon include the workplace. I’m sure that would make sense to many people, and I suspect that both the left and the right would agree. But it would be a classic extension of control from college students to virtually everyone. And in the end, sex—along with identity—may be the only protected area, leaving your boss free to degrade and belittle you as long as he doesn’t grab your butt. Is one kind of humiliation less traumatic than the other? Consider that, as women gain greater control of male sexuality, they are losing their access to birth control and abortion. This is a deal the fundamentalists are all too willing to make.
Before we accept their model as the price of safety and dignity, we need to have a full-throated dialogue on sexual etiquette, with women and men free to speak their minds. Can we depend on the media to sponsor such a conversation? Good luck with that.