With the allegations against Harvey Weinstein of sexual coercion and violence, something seems to have cracked the Elizabethan collar of shame that has kept so many survivors from coming forward. I haven’t been keeping a careful record, but off the top of my head is Weinstein, Toback, Landesman, Bush the first, Ratner, Moore, Hoffman, Spacey, Oreskes, C.K. ... and I imagine we’re just a hot second from hearing about sexual harassment and assaults by athletes, judges, tenured faculty, and any other profession that people do around other people.
Even if we factor in the number of likely false reports, about 2-8 percent – which is basically the exact same percentage of false reports for any other felony, including car jacking and robbery and arson (except we tend not to assume those reports are made up, and we tend not to interrogate the folks who report those crimes as though they are the suspect, and we tend not to ask them what their car was wearing, how many people have ever driven the car, or whether the car had been taking birth control) – even if we take that percentage into account, it mean we are talking about something on the scale of an epidemic. At least a plague.
It means that 70 or more of the women who have come forward about Weinstein are telling God’s truth, and 276 or more of the women to come forward about Toback. Statistically it means every one of the eight or nine of the complainants against Knight Landesman and all six of those who have spoken out about Brett Ratner.
Victim blaming is insidious and fickle. Sometimes it sounds like “bitches be lyin’,” and sometimes it’s more like “she’s a ‘ho’.” Frankly, though, if we insist that what victims were wearing or how much they had to drink or how flirty they were acting is what led to their rape, then we pretend that rape is about sex rather than control. And we ignore the enormous numbers of very old folks and very young folks who are assaulted, and the huge numbers of people with disabilities and mental illness, and the many prisoners and male soldiers. Rape is about vulnerability and availability, and, because we are teaching each other not to believe her, lots of the time a drunk, flirty girl in a short skirt is the most vulnerable person in the room.
Sometimes the victim-blaming disorder takes the shade of “hairy-legged, humorless dykes.” Obviously I’m taking liberties with the former president Bush’s spokesman’s response. Still, the former president Bush’s spokesman’s response is a textbook example of the ways that women are simply expected to take groping in stride as good-natured and well-meaning and as an accommodation to men (who are sometimes in wheelchairs).
In this particular instance it would also be very appropriate to ask, if this were about disability and if it was all good-natured, why didn’t the elder Bush pat men’s rears, as well?
There tends to be a bit of an expiration date with the news cycle, and I worry that this issue is already on its way out. To some extent, we are consuming this news like the pre-Awards show on the red carpet. Here is the next famous perpetrator, wearing Armani. Here are the 14-and-counting survivors and disclosers. #AskHerMore. Here is Emma Thompson, summarizing beautifully. Here is Uma Thurmon, too angry to speak. But even our appetite for the red carpet has a shelf life. And our outrage has a tendency to be self-serving, especially if it starts to cost us too many popular television shows, or too many films being re-filmed and pulled and delayed. Especially if more significant and more beloved pop culture darlings are implicated.
We already require survivors to take on all the emotional (and financial) labor of exposing their abuse, at no cost to us, and after they have already been through the humiliating, dehumanizing, devastating experience of sexual violation. We already expect survivors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that something happened to them, something which is, by its nature and by ontological intent, private and hidden and assumed to be consensual. We already require survivors to deserve our sympathy by being especially and particularly innocent, or beloved, and not too angry (to borrow from the shrill Lindy West). And I worry that we need disclosure to be entertaining, that we need it to name Names, by Names, and to expose sexual assault in ways that can compete with the media we consume.
If this is to be more than the latest news fad, something is required of us. We must maintain our outrage, even after the media swell has waned. After it is no longer new or “news.” When the stories stop being tabloid intrigue and become the everyday unsavory and uncomfortable stories of sexual humiliation and abuse.
If this will be more than a reality TV show popularity contest, we must care about survivors when we don’t know them. When we don’t think we know them. When they are not famous. Even when their perpetrators are.
And, ultimately, if we are interested in really sustaining a movement that takes sexual violence seriously and demands change, we must believe survivors when they come forward alone, without corroboration by dozens or even handfuls of other victims. We must trust their stories, tell them it is not their fault, help them bring meaningful consequences to the ones whose fault it is, and do what we can return to them the dignity and confidence and power that was stolen.