Me, too, Harvey Weinstein, me, too: Undoing the Normality of Rape Culture

October 24, 2017

Women in Manhattan seem immune to the world’s noise. I’m back in New York, parked at Patti Smith’s haunt, Dante’s on Macdougal Street in the Village. I’ve been trying to shake the weight of daily news but I just happen to be here to do an interview for CBS News. Seeing New York women, badass in black, feels like an opposite reality from the exploitation capital of Los Angeles, but I don’t doubt that most of these women (Is it okay to use the term “broads” in NYC?) have plenty of #metoo stories, as well. Isn’t this the birthplace of the catcall? Or was that Mainstreet USA?

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, one thing is clear. Okay, two things are clear if you count how right-wingers have used Weinstein mess as a sociopathic attempt to go after Hillary Clinton while pretending to care about the victims. Where were these faux feminists when the similar charges were being levied at Donald Trump and half the male personalities and leadership at Fox News? Liberals in Hollywood ran Weinstein out on a rail and the National Organization of Women is demanding his arrest. Bill O’Reilly paid out millions in settlements and is still a conservative hero. And Trump. Oh, all those women (going back at least to 1992) must all be lying.

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But the other thing that is clear is that, once “Me, too” started popping up on people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds last week, this issue was not just a Hollywood casting couch story. It was an American story. I don’t think I have a woman in my life that doesn’t have a sexual harassment horror story, including my own mother. Nearly as many have rape and sexual abuse stories. If anything, thanks to social media and a hashtag, the lid has been blown off the worst kept secret in America. The disempowerment of women and girls by men and boys might be systemic, but it plays out daily on a personal and personally devastating way with no systems involved.

I have no way of knowing how much of a sea change this is. It feels huge. Just hearing conservative women say, “Me, too” is significant. My hope is all those anecdotes are being read, heard, and processed by the boys and men whose eyeballs they pop up in front of. It’s certainly impacted me. There is the anger, of course. My wife posted a story of a male friend who tried to take sexual liberty with her in Seattle. We had just started getting to know each other, but I hopped in the car and drove three hours so she didn’t have to ride back with the creep. Not a rescuer, more like a dude who doesn’t mind three hours on I-5 to help a friend. I’m far from a heroic knight. My armor is tarnished.

That’s because the other emotion has been shame. In the Weinstein stories and the “Me, too” posts I’ve heard echoes of my former self. Nothing as extreme as Harvey whipping out his schmeckel and masturbating into a potted plant or O’Reilly offering to give a sexual massage with a falafel, but there might have been a moment here and there when I assumed consent, reading the subtle signs in the dance of intimacy. There were certainly things I shouldn’t have said, that, upon reflection, were probably a bit creepy or suggestive in the wrong context. And no doubt there was the minimizing of women’s concerns and a few “Don’t be so crazy”s. The fact that I can’t remember any reflects more about the normality of that kind of behavior. Weinstein tried to frame his abuses by writing, “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” He got a lot of shit for that (as he should), but if you were there (or even if you just watched the first season of Mad Men), you know he’s sorta right. That was the (rape) culture then, and that’s it now. But the times they are a changin’.

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My late teens until about 30 when I began dating my first wife, I was pretty much a heat seeking missile. As a kid who grew up learning that sex was the end goal, once it became available, it seemed like there were few limitations. My freshman dorm was the center of a lot of young men and women unchecking their libido. There was a sense of liberation from parents and the sexually repressed Southern culture on the skids. Then the punk rock scene, then going on tour with a band who, once a video became a hit on MTV, had groupies. I’ll never forget kicking a young woman out of our hotel room in Minneapolis who screamed, “You can’t kick me out, I’ve been with Winger!” That was a more clear-headed act in a world with a lot of the opposite.

I’d like to think I was the sober, respectful guy through all that, but was I? What if there was a woman who posted “Me, too” last week and her story is about an asshole she met at a show in Asbury Park, New Jersey who was relentless until she gave in? Again, I don’t think so, but maybe.

I became single again in my late-30s and forties and still had that 20-something drive as I rejoined the world of dating, hooking up, and “Hey, do you want to stay over?” As an academic feminist, I was keenly aware of power dynamics and the unspoken reality that a lot of my fellow feminists won’t acknowledge – Every single relationship has a power dynamic at work. In patriarchal culture, there is always a power dynamic between males and females. Even two same-gender twins will have a power dynamic. Just ask the one who was born second. You cannot avoid power dynamics. Sorry HR people. The issue is how you respect those power dynamics. Do you leverage them to your advantage? Harvey Weinstein sure did. But did I? Ever? Just because there were broken hearts on both sides doesn’t mean I wasn’t a dick at some point. Often?

Founding sociologist Emile Durkheim argued in 1897 that is deviance is functional because it allows for the evolution of society. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience and criminality facilitated the national conversation about civil rights and allowed the country to evolve. We should thank him for breaking unjust laws. Weinstein is no King, but this national conversation he has caused will help us to evolve away from the normality of sexual harassment. “Hey, asshole, don’t be a Weinstein!” I can here it now (and I might have needed to hear it then).

The men who hear and read “Me, too” need to more than say, “That sucks,” or post a sad-face emoji. They need to reflect how they have participated in similar harassment and sexual aggression, perhaps without even recognizing it. And certainly how we excuse our male peers from the ease of sexual domination. A big part of (male) privilege is that the behaviors that reinforce it are often invisible to those who do it (but not to those whom it is being done to). But when the recipients of that aggression, backed by the weight of centuries of male power, are half of our species, it’s time to see it, acknowledge our part in it, and stop it. Just stop it.

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Should we care about Donald Trump’s marriage? (Or anybody else’s?)

May 25, 2017

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The only thing more sporting lately than trying to guess when Donald Trump’s house of cards will collapse has been trying to guess when his wife will dump him. The numerous swats and cold shoulders Melania gave Donald that were caught on camera during their recent trip abroad (leading one to believe there was something that wasn’t caught on camera) have tongues wagging. Even the Pope seemed reluctant to touch the “pussy grabber’s” hand. What had Trump done this time? Stories swirled that the divorce papers were already drawn up. Is Melania Trump the real life Claire Underwood.

Will Donald Trump be the first sitting president to be divorced?

Why should we care?

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It’s not like Donald Trump is the first philandering president. Some are legendary, like Thomas Jefferson and John Kennedy. Some forgotten. (Warren G. Harding made Charlie Sheen look like he wasn’t even trying.) I’m still not sure why Hillary Clinton stuck with cigar-screwing Bill. I guess some couples can just work through having one partner’s sexcipades splashed across the front page. Is oral sex “sex”? In the 1990s, every man, woman, and child in the country got to participate in that discussion. It was so much fun.

Donald J. Trump’s sexual boasts are nothing new. He’s bragged about his sexual adventures on Howard Stern and probably still does to any (Russian agent) person who will listen. His “locker room talk” about groping women is it’s own Wikipedia entry. It’s clear that he cheated on his first two wives, so why should it be any different for Melania Knavs? As the President has said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Who cares?

Obviously, when it comes to the Trump presidency, there are bigger carp to fry. (Do Russians fry carp?) He’s going down and the even more sexually freaky Mike Pence will be in the high chair by this time next year. Should we waste time on Trump’s doomed marriage? It’s private business. Maybe we should document this doomed presidency for future generations and leave his weird marriage to the highly-paid lawyers to sort out.

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On one hand, we know that Trump is impulsive, narcissistic, kinda dumb, and needs to tell the world that, despite his tiny hands, he has an at least average-sized penis. That’s a bit frightening for a guy who commander and chief of the American armed forces. You get the feeling that he’s just itching to nuke North Korea, or Iran, or California, just to prove he’s big boy. His personal insecurities play out daily in his mishandling of national security issues, his reverse-Robin Hood budget, and his dealings with our enemies (“I’m gonna win Vladimir’s love!”) and our allies. (Who can forget his refusing to shake Angela Merkel’s hand?). That fact that he tweets more about his ratings and portrayal on TV shows than issues Americans care about is a reflection of how emotionally deprived this guy is.

On the other hand, every marriage has its rough patches. When some silver-haired couple is celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, you better believe there were plenty of moments where they were close to killing each other. Those happy smiles might mask parallel dark thoughts. (“How is this asshole still alive? I need my freedom!”) Most of us suffer through it in anonymity, maybe sharing our woes with a bartender or on an instantly regretted Facebook post. The President’s life has become the People’s life. JFK is lucky there was no social media 55 years ago. #jackkkennedygavemecrabs You almost feel sorry for the first couple. What did those swats from Melania really mean? Let’s ask Rachel Maddow!

Trump and I have one thing in common, we’re both on our third marriages. I often have to pull back from immediate criticism because I know that loving marriages can fail and sometimes it takes a while to figure out how to actually “do” marriage. My wife is also younger and, like Melania, might have been an illegal immigrant at some point. But there are some serious differences after that. Unlike Trump, I’m a committed feminist who works to make marriage an equitable partnership. As a stay at home dad, I’m happy to take a back seat as Andrea builds her career in the legal world. As I told her this morning, I’m happy to be the guy riding on her coattails. And I have zero desire to be unfaithful to her. “So much winning” for me is to be with her at the end of the road. Also, I’m not the President of the United States.

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Feminists seem torn on how to frame Melania Trump’s situation. Some see her as a victim, trapped in a loveless marriage to a cad who collects sexual assaults the way Bill Cosby collects, well, sexual assaults. (Google: rape culture.) She likely signed some contract that said, if Donald won the White House, she wouldn’t legally divorce him but could stay away from his icky hands in their penthouse in NYC. The other narrative says she’s a smart cookie and knew exactly what she was getting into when she married America’s favorite rich pig and that any woman who props up a man while he rips away women’s health care and goes after reproductive rights around the globe deserves exactly what she gets.

Is Melania Trump a tragic figure or a villain? Should we send in Seal Team 6 to rescue her or ask Robert Mueller to investigate what links she has to Russian ambassadors?

The gossip part of my brain wants to hear all the sordid details. But I’ve been the victim of that type of gossip so why should I fuel the fire? Anyone reading this will more than likely outlive Donald J. Trump (What happened to that “stamina”?), and I’m sure they will outlive his presidency, so we can read all the books then. I don’t doubt that Bill O’Reilly already has a contract for Killing Trump. After eight years of the blissfully scandal-free marriage of Barrack and Michelle Obama, it’s tempting to go all TMZ on this circus sideshow. (If he’s not sleeping with his wife, where does that mighty Trump penis go at night?”) Let’s just focus on how he’s screwing the country.  Let’s let his marriage suffer in silence. Absolute, stone-faced silence.

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Men Who Just Don’t Get It: Sexual harassment and my falafel with Bill O’Reilly

April 20, 2017

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You’ve gotta think it was pretty bad for TV personality Bill O’Reilly to get kicked out the misogynistic cesspool over there at Fox News. Papa Bear was booted from the right-wing network this week after reports surfaced that Fox had payed out more that $13 million in settlements to women over sexual harassment allegations. The grab-ass environment created by serial predator and Fox CEO Roger Ailes sounded like something from the first season of Mad Men. Meanwhile Fox News stalwarts Sean Hannity and Donald Trump have gone out of their way to defend these two men and attack their accusers. Is this 2017? Oh, right, making America “great again” takes us back before the time of pesky sexual harassment laws. Before those humorless feminists brought an end to the office party fun-fest.

Fox News is not unique. I don’t doubt that there are similar versions of this dynamic in almost every workplace, including CNN and MSNBC. The difference at Fox is that the powerful men doing this were pretty much the most powerful men in the room. Most workplaces have at least one dumb-ass guy who doesn’t know how to interact with women as fully functioning humans deserving of the same professional respect the old boys club gives each other. Like a character on The Office, his offensiveness is a product of living inside a boys club bubble.

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On the most basic level it’s inappropriate comments that female employees get on a regular basis. “Sit up straight, honey.” “Don’t let that donut spoil your diet.” “You should smile more.” “Your husband is a lucky man.” On the surface, it might seem pretty harmless. But the sheer volume is a reminder of the subordination women are supposed to endure and a reinforcement of the sexist trope that women are supposed to be seen and not heard. And if she says anything to interrupt the comments, she’s a bitch. “I was just being friendly.” “It was just a joke.” “Don’t get uptight.” Just go back to work, asshole.

The comments can be a set-up for the next level. If she’ll let a dirty joke slide and not “freak out” over a possibly inappropriate non-work related text, maybe it’s time for the quid pro quo. The offer she can’t refuse. “If you do this for me, I can open doors for you.” Or the converse, “If you don’t do this for me, you’re out on your sweet ass.” That’s where O’Reilly got busted. He’s a star and, according to President Trump, “when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” One too many women said “no” to Old Bill, and without Ailes there to protect him, he’s now out on his blotchy keister.

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I’ve heard so many versions of this story from women, including my own mother who filed a complaint with the EEOC in the 1980s in a pretty egregious case. She was brave to say “no more,” but lost the case because the other victims were afraid to come out of the dark. Those women wanted to keep their jobs and my mother lost hers. But in this day of texts and emails and instant messages, there’s a lot more evidence to file successful claims. These days it’s more likely there will be a settlement or maybe the harasser will be removed. (Although both Ailes and O’Reilly leave with millions of dollars in severance.)

I know I have been guilty of making inappropriate comments, thinking I was just being funny. As a feminist sociologist, I’m on guard, but I’ve made my share of mistakes. The difference is, if a female colleague, student, or even Facebook friend were to say, “Hey, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” I would immediate stop and evaluate what I said or did. That’s because I respect women and don’t want them to think I’m a douchebag. I know my male privilege could dictate that I just blow it off. “Maybe it’s that time of the month.” But I’ve learned (often from mistakes) that if you don’t have women as your allies, you’re alone in Guyland. That might have been cool when you were a teenage “bro,” but it’s no place for an adult male.

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On September 26, 2005, I made my first (and now last) appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. I was brought on as a hate crime expert to discuss death threats that had been made against New York Yankee Derek Jeter for dating a white woman. This was when Bill was being sued by former producer Andrea Mackris for sexual harassment. She recorded him saying all kinds of a wack-a-doo things while using a vibrator on himself, including this gem:

So anyway I’d be rubbing your big boobs and getting your nipples really hard, kinda kissing your neck from behind… and then I would take the other hand with the falafel thing and I’d put it on your pussy but you’d have to do it really light, just kind of a tease business….

(No wonder Donald Trump loves this guy.) Now let me say this – consenting adults are allowed do and say all kinds of freaky-deaky things. If Bill O’Reilly wants to propose rubbing Mediterranean food on a female partner’s vagina while he’s got a Magic Wand up his butt, that’s their business. I don’t judge. (And I think he meant loofah, not falafel). But Mackris contends it was unwanted. ““Tyrannical and menacing” is how the suit describes the contact by O’Reilly, who was (of course) married at the time.

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O’Reilly didn’t propose any such shenanigans with me. (Although during the over-the-phone pre-interview I mentioned that I was just finishing my falafel and was almost disinvited from the no spin-zone.) But he did make the interview all about him. I tried to talk about lingering racist anger at inter-racial couples and he went off about how gets death threats all the time and it’s just the price of fame. (Al Franken later told me that this was a complete lie and there are no documented death threats against Bill.) The interview ended with O’Reilly saying, “OK Professor, you get the last word.” And then he cut me off mid-sentence to blather more about his persecution.

Bill O’Reilly is a 67-year-old narcissist who will probably never get it. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong and the current President of the United States of America doesn’t think he did anything wrong. But there are a lot of young guys who look up to these old men as role models. Their victims will suffer without the millions of dollars Fox News paid out in hush money. And now the low-level dickwads who are telling their female co-workers to “Sit up and smile more,” have some pretty powerful icons on their side.

But times are changing. The old guard is dying and a new band of brothers is going to defend their sisters. The banishment of Bill O’Reilly should encourage all victims of sexual harassment to speak out. No one is allowed to get away with this. Not the guy who works in the pizza shop, or the law firm, or even a guy who has his own TV show. And certainly not the guy who lives in the White House. So bros, grow up. If a woman tells you, “I don’t think that’s appropriate. Please stop.” – don’t blame it on her period. Check yourself.

To report a case of sexual harassment, please visit the EEOC website: 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

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