Messages from the President
October 18, 2017: Power Imbalance & Misogyny: Why Women Are Victimized
Posted on October 18, 2017 at 12:00 AM
With dozens of women leveling allegations of sexual assault and harassment against film executive Harvey Weinstein, this issue has suddenly moved center-stage. The virility of power is no longer in question. The fact that Donald Trump was elected president after bragging about sexually assaulting women also suggests that powerful men still routinely get forgiven for serious transgressions, including serial sexual assault, harassment, and other predatory behavior. While this morally bankrupt candidate now sits in the White House playing fast and loose with our lives, a brilliant, highly qualified, experienced woman became the ultimate victim of misogyny.
This abhorrent behavior of Weinstein and Trump is not new of course. Media outlets along the spectrum from newspapers to cable television have long been preoccupied with the sordid sex lives of wealthy, influential men. Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Julian Assange, Dennis Hastert, Bill Clinton, John Travolta, Mark Foley, Mike Tyson, Rob Lowe, Woody Allen, to name only a few, and professional athletes too numerous to mention. Our fascination with scandal and sleaze hides the seriousness of corruption and crimes of rape and other sexual abuse, most often perpetrated on younger women by older men.
The policy of see no evil, hear no evil, and, especially, report no evil, combined with denial and often disbelief, ensures that powerful men are reflexively believed when they profess innocence. Or, at the very least, they are given a pass. Famous and successful men also have extra protection. They have favors to bestow, leading to acquiescence – most often unhappy acquiescence — by their victims. Those aware of these attacks by bosses and colleagues are often reluctant to speak out because of fear, self-interest, and, in many cases, hypocrisy. In addition, for many victims of sexual harassment and assault, fear of retribution leads to their silence.
We know abuse of women is not the prerogative of the rich and famous. Thousands of women are abused each day by a wide range of perpetrators, including taxi drivers, office workers, family members, and friends. However, the economic power imbalance contributes disproportionately to this phenomenon we see manifested in these high profile cases.
If we want to live in a world where women are respected and workers are protected, we need to get past the titillation of each unfolding scandal. We need to pursue a serious solution.
Getting more women into politics and into the corporate sector at the highest level should help make sexual harassment and assault more rare in these workplace settings. But we need formal policies as well. The private sector appears to be attempting to change this exploitative culture more readily than politicians or those involved with media, show-biz, or the mega sports industries.
We have precedents on how we can change cultural norms and abhorrent practices. Overtly racist remarks, once commonplace, have become much more rare, as fewer such remarks go unchallenged. Similarly, homophobic remarks seem to be on the wane. (One caveat here: It appears that both racist and homophobic remarks have become more widespread since the November election.) For misogynist remarks to become déclassé, the many men who have publicly declared themselves disgusted by Mr. Trump’s words and actions need to make a serious break with the norm. “Boys will be boys” should no longer cut it as a rationale.
This new attention to the sexual victimization of women is a welcome step towards ultimate redress but we should question why we’re having the same conversation in 2017 that we had back in the 1970s. We are talking about sheer male privilege, as it intersects with privilege of other kinds, e.g., class, economic status, color, culture, etc. Whether we focus on specific offenders, or the banality of the misogyny perpetrated by “good guys,” and the culture of complicity that sustains them, our silence is key to maintaining powerful men’s reputation and power.
Let us break this silence. Let us exercise some agency and acquire an essential sense of entitlement to say ENOUGH. To say NO, even though we are afraid of the consequences. Courage and a justified sense of outrage are essential to reporting crimes and demanding retribution and justice.