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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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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