Every day for the past couple of months another Hollywood celebrity or corporate mogul has been accused of sexual misconduct, or worse. And it’s typically not one or two accusers but scores of them, both women and men. I think Academy Award-nominated filmmaker James Toback might be the reluctant record-holder, with more than 300 women who have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment that occurred over four decades, including uninvited dry-humping, masturbation and ejaculation into his pants or onto their bodies. If this were a contest, he might finally win a prize.
Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Ben Affleck, Al Franken, Brett Ratner, Oliver Stone, . . . the list goes on. Some contested the accusations and some slunk off to rehab with barely a whimper. But in many cases these alleged “former” predators issued remarkably similar statements, acknowledging some misbehavior but claiming that they were acting under the misguided belief that there was mutual interest between them and their victims. Some even proclaimed their newfound (as in just after accusations went viral) respect for women.
I feel nauseous. Actors, journalists, directors, comedians, even 93-year-old former President George H.W. Bush, now confined to a wheelchair and looking somewhat addled, stands – or sits – accused of groping women and making sexual innuendos.
I don’t feel nauseous because I’m surprised. On the contrary, it’s because what looks like a sudden feeding frenzy in the media is just tip of the iceberg. Women in every walk of life have been dealing with or trying to avoid sexual harassment or assault for generations, but particularly since entering the workforce en masse in the 1970s.
As I reflect on so many victim accounts about their feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability in the work environment, I realize that, as women, we become reflexive risk analysts: If I walk down this street alone to get to my car will I be in danger? If I agree to meet with my boss in his hotel room on a business trip will I be sending the wrong message? If I wear my formfitting, black V-neck top on a first date will the guy think I’m ready to sleep with him?
From the time we become teenagers, women weigh our actions and their possible consequences without even being fully conscious of it. But these decision-making patterns reflect our sense of risk.
At 61, I’ve been compelled to look back on my own life and career in light of the recent spate of sexual harassment news stories. I remember three narrowly avoided sexual assaults and at least eight workplace sexual harassment incidents without digging too deeply into my memory bank. I came up in the ad agency business in the 1980s and ‘90s – not exactly “Mad Men” material but not far enough away to evade its old-boy traditions.
We would be naïve to look at the Charlie Roses and Harvey Weinsteins as examples of aberrance in our culture. Weinstein tried to blame his incessant predatory behavior on coming of age in the 60s and 70s. Louis C.K. is fifteen years younger but still thought it was okay to pull out his penis and masturbate in front of stunned women as long as he asked permission first. Thank God his parents taught him manners!
I worry for my stepdaughter who, at 24, is just starting out in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. She’s smart and beautiful. Will she have to endure deplorable behavior from the men she works for and with? Has she already? Or have enough of us paid the price in a world populated by too many men who justify their unwanted advances by labeling them miscalculations? Have enough of us spoken up to begin a new paradigm in the way men in power work with their subordinates and peers?
I don’t predict a seismic shift overnight. But I’m hoping that sometime in the not-so-distant future we will be able to speak the truth without fear of recrimination. And, even more, I’m hoping that men who wield authority through relentless sexual abuses will become pariahs and, ultimately, dinosaurs. Men who feign ignorance about their predatory behavior aren’t fooling any of us. They never were.