When Woody Allen—a wealthy, powerful, successful film industry figure with a history of sexual misconduct—describes the allegations against Harvey Weinstein as a “witch hunt,” he seeks to make two interlocking claims: that the facts of sexual predation are questionable and that the rising number of allegations demonstrate a mob mentality, encouraging bogus victims without real grievances to come forward. Both suggestions are rooted in our understanding of actual witch hunts, especially that in Salem and elsewhere in Massachusetts in 1692. The use of the term shows the ways in which we misconstrue history. What better demonstration of how powerful, predator males expect access to the bodies they desire and support each other in gaining that access or in avoiding the consequences of their actions?
Witchcraft, modern commentators (mostly) assume, does not exist. Hence invoking a “witch hunt” implies that no crime has occurred—the logical implication that follows if witchcraft is not a real possibility. This idea of a specious witch hunt intends to discredit accusers and to dismiss their claims. Its use is overtly political, meant to besmirch one’s opponents and dismiss their cause. Indeed, in mainstream modern usage, the very phrase “specious witch hunt” appears redundant, as what other kind of witch hunts exist?
There are of course two subsets of the American population that believe in the existence of witches. Wiccans follow a faith that they believe is rooted in an ancient goddess and nature religion, and that the accused witches of yore were their predecessors in that faith. A minority of American Christians believe in the evil variety of witches of the sort that were being hunted in Salem. For both groups the idea of a witch hunt resonates differently than that of the dominant understanding: the first sees witchcraft scares in which accused practitioners were executed as persecution of an alternate faith, whereas the second believe hunts may have represented legitimate efforts to uncover a real threat to the local community.
In Salem itself, the participants in the witchcraft scare agreed with the last position. Witches could exist and threaten a community. Colonial Americans felt compelled to find witches and root them out. To their way of thinking, witch hunting was important work that, when pursued properly, would keep the community safe from predators. In their minds, witches (both male and female) were people who gained inordinate power over others through a deal with the devil. They could exercise this power secretly to do harm to others, and they could use fear of retaliation to prevent their victims from speaking out.
In this regard, the powerful men who abuse their positions to force themselves on people who have no recourse to fight back are in fact just like witches. They embrace evil and harm others, all the while trying to avoid detection. A witch hunt against them—to continue the parallel—is not only entirely justified: it is essential to protecting the community.
The idea that a cascade of accusers invariably involves people without legitimate accusations, who simply pile on once their mob mentality has been set in motion by the claims of others, also has an historical parallel. In early America (or any society with a belief in witches), people who suspected witchcraft also feared retribution. No one wanted to be the first to accuse a witch. After all, these spiritual powerful beings were capable of inflicting great harm—along the lines of what a film mogul could easily do to quash an aspiring actors’ career should she speak out against his abuse. Frequently accusers would quietly connect with each other and decide whether to risk confronting the witch. Recourse to safety in numbers at a moment of potential peril applied to those cases, as it does to the current crop of accusations.
To dismiss women who come forward with accusations of past abuse by implying their claims are false and their decision to act in concert with others reveals their dishonesty is a strategy designed to protect the powerful. It relies on a widespread confidence that sexual predators—like the alleged witches of long ago—do not exist. As much as we wish for a world in which that were the case, abuse occurs, abusers take advantage of their power to silence their victims, and victims who join together to fight back represent our best hope for achieving a future free of sexual predators.