This Thanksgiving I find myself thankful for something that is roiling our country. I am glad at what has happened with the recent, much-discussed and continuing sexual-harassment revelations and responses. To repeat the obvious, it is a watershed event, which is something you can lose sight of when you’re in the middle of it. To repeat the obvious again, journalists broke the back of the scandal when they broke the code on how to report it. For a quarter century we had been stuck in the He Said/She Said. Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas gave their testimonies, each offered witnesses, and the fair minded did their best with the evidence at hand while sorting through all the swirling political agendas. In the end I believed Mr. Thomas. But nobody knows, or rather only two people do.
What happened during the past two years, and very much in the past few months, is that reporters and news organizations committed serious resources to unearthing numbers and patterns. Deep reporting found not one or two victims of an abuser but, in one case, that of Bill Cosby, at least 35. So that was the numbers. The testimony of the women who went on the record, named and unnamed, revealed patterns: the open bathrobe, the running shower, the “Let’s change our meeting from the restaurant to my room/your apartment/my guesthouse.” Once you, as a fair-minded reader, saw the numbers and patterns, and once you saw them in a lengthy, judicious, careful narrative, you knew who was telling the truth. You knew what was true. Knowing was appalling and sometimes shocking, but it also came as a kind of relief.
Once predators, who are almost always repeat offenders, understood the new way of reporting such stories, they understood something else: They weren’t going to get away with it anymore. They’d never known that. And they were going to pay a price, probably in their careers. They’d never known that, either.
Why did this happen now? It was going to happen at some point: Sexual harassment is fairly endemic. Quinnipiac University released a poll this week showing 60% of American women voters say they’ve experienced it. Maybe the difference now is that the Clintons are gone—more on that in a moment. And maybe there’s something in this: Sexual harassment, at least judging by the testimony of recent accusers, has gotten weirder, stranger, more brutish. The political director of a network news organization invites you to his office, trains his eyes on you and masturbates as you tell him about your ambitions? The Hollywood producer hires an army of foreign goons to spy on you and shut you up? It has gotten weird out there. These stories were going to blow up at some point.
Sexual harassment is not over because sin is not over. “The devil has been busy!” a journalist friend said this week as another story broke. But as a racket it will never be the same.
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Some great journalism, some great writing and thinking, has come of this moment. Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker pieces have been credible and gutsy on all levels. Masha Gessen’s piece in the same magazine last week warned of moral panic, of a blurring of the lines between different behaviors and a confusion as to the boundaries between normal, messy human actions and heinous ones. Rebecca Traister of New York magazine has argued that it is a mistake to focus now on the question of punishments, that maybe the helpful thing is to focus on what’s going on in our society that predators think they can get away with this.
Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic wrote the most important political piece in “ Bill Clinton : A Reckoning.” What is striking about this moment, she argued, is not the number of women who’ve come forward with serious allegations. “What’s remarkable is that these women are being believed.” Most didn’t have police reports or witnesses, and many were speaking of things that had happened years ago. “We have finally come to some kind of national consensus about the workplace; it naturally fosters a level of romance and flirtation, but the line between those impulses and the sexual predation of a boss is clear.”
What had impeded the ability of victims to be believed in the past? The Bill Clinton experience. He was “very credibly” accused, as Ms. Flanagan wrote, of sex crimes at different points throughout the 1990s— Juanita Broaddrick said he violently raped her; Paula Jones said he exposed himself to her; Kathleen Willey said she went to him for advice and that he groped and assaulted her. These women “had far more credible evidence” than many recent accusers. “But Clinton was not left to the swift and pitiless justice that today’s accused men have experienced.” He was rescued instead by “a surprising force: machine feminism.”
That movement had by the ’90s devolved into a “partisan operation.” Gloria Steinem in March 1998 wrote a famous New York Times op-ed that, in Ms. Flanagan’s words, “slut-shamed, victim-blamed, and age-shamed” the victims and “urged compassion for and gratitude to the man the women accused.” This revealed contemporary feminism as “a weaponized auxiliary of the Democratic Party.” Ms. Steinem characterized the assaults as “passes,” writing: “Even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment.”
Ms. Steinem operated with the same logic as the skeeviest apologist for Roy Moore : Don’t credit any charges. Gotta stick with our team.
Ms. Flanagan: “The widespread liberal response to the sex-crime accusations against Bill Clinton found their natural consequence 20 years later in the behavior of Harvey Weinstein : Stay loudly and publicly and extravagantly on the side of signal leftist causes and you can do what you want in the privacy of your offices and hotel rooms.”
The article called for a Democratic Party “reckoning” on the way it protected Bill Clinton.
It was a great piece.
I close with three thoughts.
The first springs from an observation Tucker Carlson made on his show about 10 days ago. He marveled, briefly, at this oddity: Most of the accused were famous media personalities, influential journalists, entertainers. He noted that all these people one way or another make their living in front of a camera.
It stayed with me. What is it about men and modern fame that makes them think they can take whatever they want when they want it, and they’ll always get away with it, even as word, each year, spreads. Watch out for that guy.
Second, if the harassment is, as it seems to me, weirder and more over the top now than, say, 40 years ago, why might that be?
Third, a hard and deep question put quickly: An aging Catholic priest suggested to a friend that all this was inevitable. “Contraception degenerates men,” he said, as does abortion. Once you separate sex from its seriousness, once you separate it from its life-changing, life-giving potential, men will come to see it as just another want, a desire like any other. Once they think that, then they’ll see sexual violations as less serious, less charged, less full of weight. They’ll be more able to rationalize. It’s only petty theft, a pack of chewing gum on the counter, and I took it.
In time this will seem true not only to men, but to women.
This is part of the reason I’m thankful for what I’m seeing. I experience it, even if most women don’t, or don’t consciously, as a form of saying no, this is important. It is serious.