If Sexual Harassment and Assault Were Treated Like Terrorism

In speaking with friends about sexism post-Weinstein—if we can really collectively pretend that Harvey Weinstein was somehow a unique threshold in the world of sexual predation—most every single woman with whom I have spoken is deeply concerned that this issue will just go away, covered by the rubble of newer news. Women know that sexism is neither new, nor is it going away. Heaping layers upon layers of other news items on top of this subject does not help the cultural debate and the necessary social healing which needs to take place over the dinner table, at the workplace coffee machine, on mass transit, with family, and through the media.

Instead of these dialogues being developed, however, the media just lobs on another edition of Weinstein in the form of a newer male figure. Then it was Ben Affleck, Oliver Stone, Bob Weinstein (brother of Harvey), Roy Price, and then Kevin Spacey. In fact, there is a growing list of men. The accusations range from inappropriate sexual advances to rape and there are ongoing police investigations into many of the accusations against Weinstein for which he will likely need legal representation and could perhaps face jail time.

Many editorials have surfaced discussing the dangers of the recent cascade of women (and some men) who are coming out with their own stories of sexual harassment and assault. One even refers to the Affleck scandal as being “inspired by” Weinstein’s accusers, as if somehow women did not autonomously think for themselves about the professional and personal consequences of coming forward. Certainly there is more public reassurance to now step forward given that the narrative of sexual predation is being embraced by a sympathetic public. But to what end? And how long will this media trend translate to actual social changes and deeper understanding of how we might better engage sexual harassment when it occurs and how analyze the deeper social structures that buttress the long accepted “tradition” of male sexual predation?

For instance, Brendan O’Neill questions the current force of “collective vengeance,” whereby women’s claims to sexual harassment and rape are resulting in the paradigm of the “holy accuser.” And as the media rolls out, almost on a daily basis, an actor, a major industry head, a film director, who had once upon predated upon someone, we must be reminded of the due course of justice before the law. Likewise, we now have Brian Cranston encouraging people to forgive Spacey and Weinstein, suggesting there is a place for them in Hollywood. The chutzpah is overwhelming from where I am standing in that there is now a micro-narrative being spun that we “need to” forgive these men. And that’s after the rehab narratives emerged for both Weinstein and Spacey. The latest actor to come out and have admitted that the stories are true, Louis C.K., likewise spun together a media statement which carefully wove together his coming of age story which involved his victimizing women as a pit stop to finding his humanity. Awe–so sweet!

One must wonder if the recovery from an addiction is not part of this mediatized spectacle for these men to rediscover themselves.

While the many critiques surrounding sexual predation are largely reasonable, all of them sidestep the central issue: male violence as a structural core to our society. And these structures are riddled with the problems of male violence—from top to bottom, and then back again, to include the media collaboration in Weinstein’s case being driven away by the The New York Times years ago. And then paradoxically, NPR ran a story this week about how the Times reporters, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, “broke” the Weinstein story. But this is the story that their very paper had driven underground thirteen years prior. It is almost comic how NPR gives The New York Times credit for “breaking the story” when this is a quaint reversal as to what actually occurred in 2004.

Where the media has played a role, as we now know, in covering up for Weinstein, the story was finally broken with several journalists having already spoken out about being threatened with lawsuits by Weinstein’s peeps. The more time that goes by with all these newly revealed cases, what is clear is that everyone knew what was going on and that there is a “culture of silence” in Hollywood that keeps this culture of predation in vigor. Skip to Kathy Griffin who recently famously eye-rolled when referring to a reporter’s statement that George Clooney “had no idea”. She goes on to say, “I can’t believe this guy didn’t know. I knew. And I’m not in the movie business.” Griffin goes on to say that every single studio head “behaves this way and everyone covers for them.” And uncomfortable silence fell over the soundstage. One of the journalists changed the subject to Kim and Kanye.

And this is where my mind starts to reel with the daily revelations of sexual abusers, the vast majority who unlike Kevin Spacey, predate upon women. How is it that violence against women has been given such a low priority by governments, the police, judicial systems, and so forth, that it means that women have to come together en masse to reveal some (not nearly most) of their sexual abuse stories in that brief window of time before they are called “whores” or “liars.” It really is as if women do not exist except as a chapter in men’s lives. That chapter where, like the prodigal son, these men come to the recognition of their own humanity with women as the playing ground for their youthful oat sowing.

While I am more than happy that the issue of sexual harassment is being highlighted, I worry that the structural reasons for sexual predation are being buried deeper beneath the stories of pedophilia. Certainly, pedophilia is a social issue to confront, but the predation of young children and women are simply not collapsable into one unit, as if structural sexism did not exist. And thus the many men who are pulling an #AllLivesMatter on women through the #MeToo social pile in recent weeks and the interviews with men like Hugh Grant to comment upon sexual predation of women. It is almost as if women should be grateful to pedophiles so that our issues might be highlighted. How little females actually matter, it would seem.

And then I remembered 9/11 and how the media coverage was non-stop–for months! And I wasn’t even in the western hemisphere during 9/11! Day in and day out, non-stop coverage of that horrific event continued for weeks, months. We were given story after story of what everyone saw, heard, and heard that someone else saw. If they were walking to the deli, standing on a subway platform, or sharing memories of a deceased colleague, for literally months the world was shown the full effect of terrorism on the lives of people in New York and beyond. Almost 3,000 people died that day and the news was absorbed in its coverage for months.

Skip over to females and the language of urgency is diminished. According to 2015 United Nations estimates, there are 101.8 men for every 100 women. That makes just under 50% of the planet, which is currently at 7.6 billion, which experiences sexual harassment to outright sexual violence. Given that all females experience sexual discrimination of one form or another throughout their lives and that conservative estimates calculate that 35% of females have been either physically or sexually assaulted, the urgency of tackling the grave structural problems of patriarchy need to be addressed more urgently than the Global War on Terror.

Hadley Freeman wrote this recently about the state of women’s rights today: “By the time harassment stories were emerging from journalism, politics, the arts, it felt like maybe this wasn’t about a single industry, a few bad apples here and there. This is about men.” She suggests that men stay at home and take a break from public life. While I chuckled reading Freeman’s piece, the reality is that not only is what Freeman jokingly suggests needs to happen to end the sort of work place harassment and rape of women, but sadly, because of the power of males in every industry on the planet, the confinement of men to the home would simply never happen. Sadly, for all the predictive policing that exists today, the resources we have to address male violence and structural patriarchy are not being being utilized to make a more just world for females.

Let’s face it, when Bernie Madoff fleeced billions of dollars from investors, reforms were quickly enacted to prevent future fraud and to amplify fraud reporting mechanisms. And the means of keeping business practices and the Securities Exchange ethical are no more difficult, in practical terms, than ensuring that women can go to work, ride public transport, or be tipsy at a party without being sexually aggressed. What would it take to end forever the sexual harassment, exploitation, and violence against women? Could such structural abuses be ended through a business model approach? For instance, what if marketing services paired together a team responsible for rethinking strategy, as if restructuring a company? Then a plan could be set for to re-educate males around issues of violence, rape, consent, economic equality, and education? Then, I wonder, is the business model effective and robust enough.

This led to me ponder if sexism, in all its cultural embodiments—from the street harassment, to the in-office sexual harassment, to the telling of girl children that their humanity matters less than their bodies, to the rapes, to the sexual trafficking, to the many who plaster over the inherently sexist structures in calling sexual enslavement “sex work”—were actually treated as a national emergency? And what if we addressed sexism as we had 9/11 when the entire country and media went into simultaneous lockdown and tunnel vision focussed upon the horrific act of terror? What would it look like if sexual assault were treated as terrorism?

I would say that the Global War on Patriarchy could take its inspiration from years of protracted, illegal military operations and the colonization of large tracts of the Middle East. I would call this phase of the operation what comedian and writer, Jena Friedman, refers to as “men control.” If violence and harassment of women were taken as seriously terrorism, we would see armed units marching up and down the streets, with men being regularly stopped to be frisked for date rape drugs, pornography, and the like. And that’s just the beginning.

We would see school curricula replete with lessons on sex equality, on sexuality that include the female subject who speaks, and lessons on consent that include the fact that a female who is sleeping or passed out does not mean “yes.” There might be special vision tests given to those men who have a penchant to walking up to groups of women to say, “What are you doing here all alone?” Perhaps have Special Registration for all men who must come into a Kafkaesque building to report their movements, or better yet, do what Hasan Elahi did and just auto-report their whereabouts.

And when men make excuses for this behavior or pull a “I never knew”, let’s bring them back to the Vaginaland Security offices to interrogate them, just to find out when they actually first knew.

Am I joking? Of course I am. I would much rather live in a world where females are not assumed to be sexual objects of males and where we are assumed to be exactly like men. You know, with subjective wills, ideas, creativity, and an inner life. Imagine that.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com