As wild as the last few weeks of sexual harassment headlines have been, there are no surprises in any of this. None whatsoever. Roy Moore, Louis C.K., Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken — I think that’s at least 25% of the high profile cases in the last few weeks, right? — may have engaged in varying degrees of heinous behavior, but this reality is something that men and women have always known. No woman needs to be told that sexual violence is something that she must be careful of her entire life. Few, if any, men can hold a mirror up to their own conduct and walk away feeling like saints. We’re all in the shit together as victims, perpetrators, or bystanders.
The more telling revelations about us and our culture are in how we react to these accounts, depending on where we stand in relation to the woman and to the accused. In the media firestorm erupting over the recent surge in women coming forward, we see two prices that our culture, men and women together, have been willing to pay in defense of male privilege. For progressive this is the price of brilliance — the allowances liberals have made for those bright stars of politics, media, and business who support their causes. Think Harvey Weinstein. For conservatives this is the price of moral purity — the willingness to forgive a man’s excesses so long as in his work he advances the norms and values cherished by the religious right. An archetypical example here is Donald Trump.
These prices are paid at the expense of the integrity of individuals and institutions. Of the physical safety and emotional health of our women and girls. Of their freedom to excel in their chosen fields. Of healthy masculine identity for men and boys. Whether you hail from the right, left, or center, if you’ve willingly paid this price in exchange for the values and causes you cherish, you’re flying a hypocrite’s banner.
That this ends-justify-the-means paradigm is so deeply engrained in our society is an indictment of our lack of a genuine moral and ethical core. How can progressives expect to build a compassionate and inclusive future when so many of their icons exercise unchecked and uninvited sexual privilege? And what possible argument can religious conservatives make about the authenticity of their values if they knowingly elect predators to the nation’s highest offices? Regardless of the outcome in Alabama, the fact that the race is “too close to call” at this point is heartbreaking. A mean and small tribalism masquerades as a conversation about “Christian values” or “progressive causes” while thousands of women lie down every night broken inside wondering “can I say anything about what happened today?”
The usual litany of questions and accusations arise when the scandal first breaks: “Is she being paid off?” “Isn’t the timing a little funny here?” “This is a political hit job.” “She’s just bandwagoning in search of 15 minutes of fame.” These questions are nowhere near the most important question of all, which the defenders of the accused — those who pay the price— almost never ask: “Is this true?” Men who are accused of abuse are entitled to due process, and political “witch hunts” create space for opportunism and abuse. So yes, motives matter on some level. But at the end of the day what matters, what really counts when every stone has been unturned, is the truth. Coming forward as an abuse victim — to hear those courageous people who have been through this experience tell it — is an incredibly painful and often humiliating process. It’s soul-baring and harsh. Few, if any, women want to earn their fame or money this way. Starting with the presumption that she is telling the truth, regardless of whether the accused is a liberal or conservative, a star of media or industry, is the only sane approach.
A couple months ago I wrote about the importance of expressing empathy in public discourse and in our private lives. Lack of empathy, of failing to see one another, reduces politics to power and ultimately to violence. The same thing goes for the theatre of business. When we fail to see people for who they are, rather than in relation to our own private identities, we lose track of the questions that matter. We’re willing to pay for moral purity or brilliance with our indifference and apathy, because to look hard at what we believe and who we follow is just too uncomfortable.
Every morning another story hits. There seems to be a collective wave of women saying enough! and Americans seem to be taking notice. As bad as this is, it’s the truth, and it’s time to take a good, hard look at it. I am hoping that it humanizes us a little bit. That instead of sniping about which side has the worst predators we can see, in both our wounds and our trespasses, a higher calling to love each other that spans political and cultural divides. It’s just a hope. It comes down to you, me, and each of us.
Quick note: I’ve focused specifically on the dynamic between straight women who are victimized by straight men here. While this is where the majority of abuse has been reported, I recognize that sexual abuse happens between all genders, ages, and sexual orientations. It’s always violence, it’s always tragic, and the same arguments that I’ve made here apply broadly to every victim’s situation.