Earlier this month, stories about Hollywood mega-director Harvey Weinstein’s decades’ long sexual assaults on young women involved in the film industry hit the mainstream media.
I found myself asking this question: Why are we still, apparently, surprised, when we hear about a(nother) man who has abused his power to sexually assault women?
The list of such men is not short. Here are just a few from the recent past: Gilbert Rozon. Jian Ghomeshi. Bill Cosby. Roger Ailes. Bill O’Reilly. Donald Trump. Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Reach farther back, and we find the likes of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen.
At some point – and I think we have long since reached that point – we have to stop being surprised.
It’s almost not news
It is pretty simple: As long as we continue to be surprised by each revelation that one more man with power (whether that man and his power are visible, as with the men listed above, or invisible, as with the athletic coach, the bank manager, the male leader of an activist organization, the __________ (you fill in the blank)) has subjected women to sexual or other forms of violence, those revelations are going to keep on coming.
It is time to stop interpreting each news story as an individual incident. No more: What? How could this man do this?
It is time to stop calling out an individual man, strip him of some honour or other and think we have done all that needs to be done.
Instead, we need to understand each news story as part of a much bigger systemic story: the misogyny and patriarchy that lie at the root of all violence against women. It is misogyny and patriarchy that create a culture in which boys become men who think they are entitled to do as they please, including as they please with girls and women.
Doubting women’s stories
And yet, time and time again, when women – famous or not – speak out about sexual violence they have been subjected to by a man – famous or not – their truthfulness and credibility are questioned.
If a woman tells a trusted friend or family member, who also knows and likes the man, she may well hear the suggestion that perhaps she misinterpreted what happened or perhaps in some way was responsible for the man’s actions.
I recently spoke with a girl in her mid-teens who was sexually assaulted by a boy she knew while they were in her family home. The reaction of her parents? “You should not have had a boy come over when you were at home alone.”
If she reports sexual harassment or violence by a coworker or fellow student to her employer or school or to a colleague, there is a good chance sides will be taken, with some people opting to believe whatever lies the assailant cooks up to make it appear as though he has no responsibility for what he has done.
If she makes a report to the police, she will confront at least some officers who continue to hold onto rape lies and myths: that women ask for it by how we dress or where we go; that it is our fault if we become intoxicated; that if we are certain kinds of women, we are unrape-able; that we make up stories of sexual assault to be malicious and vindictive to men.
If she tells the media, her entire life will be put on public display in an attempt to question her credibility.
If she testifies in court, she will be asked why she did not call for help; why she texted the assailant later; why she did not end the relationship.
It’s all about misogyny
Until we dismantle patriarchy and end misogyny, women will be blamed regardless of what we do. We are responsible somehow for the violence perpetrated on us by men, and what we do after the violence will be criticized too. As Jia Tolentino wrote recently for The New Yorker:
“If you have ever experienced sexual assault or harassment, . . . you are rarely presented with even a single good option. Stay silent and you have acquiesced to whatever happened. Tell a friend and nothing much will be done. Come forward to an authority figure and you’ll face unfair consequences: people will be uncomfortable around you, perceiving ulterior motives; people will look for reasons that this happened to you, specifically; maybe you simply won’t be believed.”
Of course, I think it is a good thing that some of the women who were victimized by Harvey Weinstein have felt strong enough to speak out, that he has fallen from grace, and that other media celebrities who have sexually harassed and assaulted women have suffered similar fates.
But this is not enough, because these stories will fade from our collective cultural memory to be replaced by stories that are a little more upbeat, a little happier, a little less critical of male behaviour.
And, for every Harvey Weinstein we hear about, there are plenty more we never hear about, who continue their rapacious ways because the women they are harassing and assaulting do not have the power to speak out.
“And, now, what will we do about it?”