I say daring to because to express even the slightest hint of perceived opposition to #metoo is so politically incorrect as to incite a barrage of verbal chastisement. Yes, there is intimidation in the air. But I’m going to don my big-boy pants and proffer what I think is a more comprehensive and reflective analysis of #metoo.
In a recent PopcornABC interview, Matt Damon dared to opine that not all acts of sexual misconduct are equal but, rather, fall into a spectrum. He also made the very distinct point that any and all acts of sexual misbehavior should be confronted and eradicated. To his point, an unwanted pat on the but should not be conflated with, let’s say, the horrific acts of sexual misconduct perpetrated by a Harvey Weinstein. I see no reason to go all Judge Roy Bean (the legendary ‘hanging judge’ of 19th century southwest Texas) on Damon’s statements in this regard. At the risk of being a Weinstein apologist, Damon’s underlying premise that there are many layers — my words, not his — to the issue of sexual harassment and how to effectively address it cannot be lost in the feeding frenzy of wholesale accusations and punishment.
Rather than take the time to carefully listen to Damon’s comments, there was an immediate and outraged criticism of his ‘mansplaining,’ with an emphasis on his use of the word ‘spectrum’ in attempting to qualify acts of sexual aggression against women. Maybe the use of the word ‘spectrum’ was ill-advised — some have, in retrospect, suggested that the word ‘continuum’ would have been more suitable, which he did use later in the interview — but I didn’t deem use of the term to be any less appropriate.
Frankly speaking, there are gradations of sexual misconduct, and each one must be well-defined and understood. Rape is at the top of the sexual misconduct food chain. Sexual harassment, the official misbehavior of the #metoo movement, may be the most prevalent form of sexual misconduct and the most problematic, especially that of the quid pro quo variety (which was right in Weinstein’s wheelhouse). Another brand of sexual harassment — hostile work environment, with maybe a little quid pro quo sprinkled in — was exercised by (the late) Roger Ailes and erstwhile Spin Zone-ist Bill O’Reilly, both of Fox News, and NBC News anchor Matt Lauer. Then there is something called inappropriate consensual sexual behavior, which has led to PBS severing ties with talk show host and author Tavis Smiley. Oh, and by the way, PBS also banished the highly respected and consummate interviewer, Charlie Rose, whose sins also may fall into the category of hostile work environment. The tentacles of sexual predation are many. And the pain men have wrought upon their female coworkers has been suffered in silence, and in many cases, shamefully accepted and endured as the cost of doing business. Until now.
However, should all of these unconscionable behaviors — which fall under the general and relatively benign label of sexual misconduct — be considered equally abhorrent? I think Damon’s ‘spectrum’ comment was meant to bring delineation to the various ways men prey upon women, and that while no act of unwanted sexual aggression towards women is acceptable, there is a need to specify that some behaviors are more egregious than others, and that the repercussions of these acts should be ascribed accordingly.
No doubt the bigger problem with the uncovering of the mass acts of sexual harassment perpetrated by men towards women has to do with an intrinsic attitude among many men that they are entitled to behave in such a manner. Boorish behavior towards women has been looked on by men as something they just can’t control—’boys will be boys’—and by (not a few) women as one of many burdens women must endure in a male-dominated society. Many men, particularly those in positions of power, feel free to entreat upon women with little or no sense of propriety.
But it behooves us to get all the facts before trial, conviction and execution. Is it a crime to entertain the prospect that in some cases, even a tiny fraction of them, may share some culpability? Not to say that culpability is always on both sides. In many of the cases publicized, it is not. But the possibility may exist and should not be rejected out of hand, especially in the case of quid pro quo sexual harassment, which Harvey Weinstein, as Hollywood’s preeminent star maker, wielded like the enchanted hammer of Thor. (I highly recommend the little publicized but remarkably enlightening audio interview of actor Erika Rosenbaum, a Weinstein victim.)
I would like to see an end to the inaccurate depictions of the various acts of sexual misconduct, all of which have specific definitions. They are not interchangeable. Sexual misconduct doesn’t always equal sexual harassment. Sexual assault may include, but is not limited to, rape. Inappropriate consensual sexual behavior can be defined both in a legal sense as well as subjectively, depending on jurisdiction, the circumstances of the relationship between the parties involved and other factors. Pedophilia is specifically defined as the sexual attraction of an adult for prepubescent children. Having a romantic/sexual relationship with subordinate coworkers may be ill-advised behavior but should not be automatically perceived as sexual predation.
Harvey Weinstein, music mogul Russell Simmons, screen writer-director James Toback, Matt Lauer and, oh yes, the president of the United States, to name just a few, are at one end of the ‘spectrum.’ On the extreme other end, Tavis Smiley and, possibly, Al Franken and Charlie Rose. As far I can gather, Mr. Smiley may be guilty of nothing more than having ill-advised but consensual sexual liaisons with women in the workplace. However, ‘consensual’ is held suspect because there is an assumption that when a boss romantically pursues a subordinate, the subordinate may feel obligated to succumb lest she place her job in jeopardy. This may not necessarily be the case—some of the women associated with Tavis Smiley could have been willing participants of a sexual relationship with him, possibly even the initiators — but it opens up the possibility of such an accusation being made. Regardless, one would be remiss to conflate this scenario with those of a Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer.
It would seem that not all acts of sexual misconduct are equal; nor are their emotional repercussions. For instance, the first woman who accused Al Franken of sexual misconduct didn’t appear to be an emotional casualty of his salaciousness; she even publicly accepted his open apology. From the looks of it, her public admission had more to do with buttressing the fact that sexual misconduct is much more prevalent than previously thought than it being a personally cathartic exercise.
The importance of qualifying sexual misconduct and accurately defining it should not be overlooked. As loathsome as Roy Moore’s behavior was reported to have been when he was in his 30s, there are two aspects to consider. One is the alleged sexual advances he made to a 14-year-old which, despite her consent — she admitted to initially being flattered by the romantic attention of an older man at the time — is nonetheless sexual assault because she was under age. The other is that his penchant for pursuing dates with teenage girls was not egregiously outside the social mores of Alabama given the fact that 16-year-olds are considered adults in Alabama. According to a Washington Post story, three of the four women who initially (and reluctantly) came forward were of consensual age at the time and their mothers were aware of Moore’s intentions. (One mother accused him of ‘robbing the cradle’ and would have none of it; the other two were more than accepting of it, with one declaring her daughter would be ‘the luckiest girl in the world’ if Moore dated her.) At no time has there been any allegations of Moore pursuing prepubescent girls, which is the definition of pedophilia. Regardless of your opinion of Roy Moore and his reported predilection for teenage girls in the past, the media (and others in the public sphere) have been irresponsible in referring to him as a pedophile. There is more than enough evidence of his despicable character without engaging in mischaracterization.
You cannot have a meaningful discourse of any subject, particularly one of this import, without first settling on the definition of terms. When discussing sexual predation, a glossary must be established so as to insure an honest and productive introspective. There is no need to inflate or conflate the various methods of how men in power have been able to sexually victimized women with impunity. We need only treat every instance of sexual misconduct that comes to light for what it is and respond accordingly. That means creating an environment that allows women to come forward whenever they are disrespected without fear of being discredited and negative work and career repercussions.
Jodie Foster, an acclaimed actor since her teens and now a respected film producer and director, was recently asked on The Stephen Colbert’s Show what she thought of the #metoo movement. She gracefully demurred, citing reluctance to speak in ‘sound bites.’ Colbert gently pushed for details but Foster held firm, only allowing that the issue is complex and that there is a need for comprehensive dialog. I got the impression that she was not willing to sacrifice her well-publicized penchant for privacy by expressing an opinion akin to that of Matt Damon and recognized the climate is a little too incendiary to incur a similar public outcry against her.
If there is to be any meaningful conversation in the public square about the #metoo movement and the behaviors that warrant it, we must be willing to confront every aspect of this problem and hold ourselves responsible for doing our part to help eradicate. And we must consider all points of view rather than suppress them with rabid outcries of derision. And let’s all educate ourselves and get the facts straight before rushing headlong into public pronouncements akin to a lynch mob.
#Metoo has been too long in coming. The day of reckoning is now here. Let’s not blow it by creating an environment where a circumspective public debate becomes impossible. This subject is too important and too complex to discourage all points of view. It is the digestion of these points of view that will yield the best solution.