Over the past several weeks, we have been inundated with an unheard-of number of allegations about behaviour directed mostly at women by well-known and/or powerful men. This behaviour ranges from inappropriate to criminal. It feels a bit mind-boggling, to tell you the truth.
This is an important time for the many women and some men who have found the courage to go public about the harassment, abuse, rape and sexual predation to which they have been subjected.
A veritable Pandora’s Box has been opened, and now we must figure out what to do with everything spilling out of it so we don’t just jam it all back inside and seal up the box.
Some of what is emerging is the inevitable misogynist backlash that imposes its own agenda on what is happening, and we need to be aware of and cautious about where that could take us. And some of what is spilling out is nuanced and thoughtful discussion about the important issues related to male violence against women.
Looking for some guidance
Much has been written and said, a small bit of which I share below in the hope that it can guide each of us in our own contemplations.
“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office.”
“Feminism is now being weaponized for right-wing agendas. . . . We are now at the point where people are being canned for jokes, by people who don’t get the jokes, don’t get feminism, don’t get that maybe there should be some proportion in this thing, and don’t get that right-wing men with a public record of misogyny might not be [our] best guides through all this . . . if we’re going to fire everyone who has made a non-feminist remark we’re pretty much going to clear all the offices everywhere of almost every man and quite a few women.”
“We’re nervous about categories being collapsed – for example, inappropriate sexual innuendo isn’t the same as rape. . . We want some conservative abusers outed, too; it can’t just be the liberals.”
Out of the frying pan . . .
Because I am a past cookbook writer and former restaurant owner and because my son has worked in that industry for more than 20 years, I have been drawn to the commentary about recent allegations against a number of well-known chefs and restaurateurs.
Jen Agg, well-known Canadian restaurateur, has talked and written for years about the impact of the male-dominated culture found in professional kitchens:
“The “bro” culture in kitchens is so deeply entrenched that it has become second nature for many of the people who work there . . . When kitchen bros use words like “pussy” or engage in vulgar banter or make rape jokes, their female colleagues can either be “cool girls” and laugh along or act offended and be ostracized.”
Anthony Bourdain, himself a bad-boy of the restaurant world:
“In these current circumstances, one must pick a side. I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women. . . . Right now, nothing matters but women’s stories of what it’s like in the industry I have loved and celebrated for nearly 30 years. . . To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we are hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.”
Whose stories are missing?
We also need to consider just whose stories we get to hear.
“Hollywood white royalty was prioritized. Unless society deems you a perfect victim, your pain is quite tolerable.”
The need for nuance
I agree with Solnit and Schneller. It is a mistake to conflate these stories as though they are all the same in terms of their impact and what should be done in response to them. There is a quantifiable, not to mention legal, difference between a sexist joke and sexual predation. Yes, the sexist joke is both harmful itself and part of what creates the culture in which sexual predation can thrive. Both need to be responded to, but do they warrant identical responses? Do we want to punish for the sake of punishment or do we want to create opportunities for learning and for people to change their behaviour? The former is easier in many ways and can leave us feeling virtuous for having “dealt with the problem,” but only the latter will lead to long-term and systemic change.
We need to understand the slogan “Believe women” not as a means to sidestep due process but so we stop dismissing women who speak up about male violence as crazed, vindictive bitches out to destroy all men. “Believe women” means we start from assuming these stories are worthy of investigation.
We need to be sure we do not fall prey to misogynist agendas that will twist this important moment in which (some) male violence against (some) women is finally seeing the light of day into false responses that only further entrench that violence.