You’ve seen the hashtag: #MeToo, posted by women testifying that they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, just as Harvey Weinstein’s long list of victims were. And Donald Trump’s. This is my “me too.” And mea culpa.
The stories about Weinstein are particularly painful because they’re emerging almost exactly a year after Trump’s so-called Access Hollywood tape, on which he bragged about sexually assaulting women, which he could get away with because he was “a star.” Now he is our president—even after at least a dozen other women came forward and accused him of similar behavior, or worse. In the wake of the multiple complaints, a great many women shared their own stories of abuse, and even rape, by other men. Stories they had never told anyone before. Yet 53 percent of white women voted for a confessed sexual predator nonetheless.
The correspondences to a year ago are demoralizing. I remember absolutely knowing that the video, and the subsequent charges, would make Trump unelectable. I wrote that, repeatedly, here at The Nation and on social media. I was wrong. It remains bewildering, as if everything you know in life is wrong, and, to this day, heartbreaking.
Now we are trying to believe that the Harvey Weinstein stories, unlike the Trump stories a year ago, will lead to some genuine social change, perhaps even an end to such dangerous, predatory assault and harassment of women. I hope so, but I’m not sure this time around. Women have been so responsible for so long for policing so much bad male behavior, by male teachers, male coworkers, male bosses… that I’ve lost my capacity to be optimistic about change.
Instead, I have found myself thinking: Goddamn it, what if we women had been able to devote all of the time and energy that we spend fending off all of this shit to ourselves? To our writing, our organizing, our art, our health, our children, partners, families, friends, and communities; to climate change, criminal-justice reform, reproductive rights, economic justice, racial justice, immigration justice? I know I’m leaving so much out. What would the world look like?
Reclaiming our time, indeed.
I have had too few jobs to have the liberty to write candidly about the way I have been degraded sexually, in some loose or specific way, by men over the years, and still effectively disguise the players. Let’s just say it happened, in some fashion, at every place I worked.
Is there any woman who can’t say that? Not a single woman I know.
The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino has written about how it feels, early in your career, when men ask you to drinks, or lunch—or drinking lunches—to talk about your work. And then it turns out they’re not interested in your work. There is a part of you that blames yourself when you realize that’s going on: for being such a dumb fuck that you could think he, of all people, would want to hire you, publish you, promote your work. Of course your work isn’t that good. Tolentino quotes actress Asia Argento, who concluded after her own bait-and-switch abuse by Harvey Weinstein: “I am a fucking fool.” But the writer recognized the same reaction in herself, thinking about her own relationships with potential male mentors turned harassers. And so do I: I am a fucking fool. Your talent and competence are subtly eroded. You may not stand quite so tall anymore, literally or figuratively.
Then I think about a couple of consensual experiences with men hugely my superiors. The come-ons took me by surprise, and flattered me, and seemed real. Like, of course I deserve this attention! I’m great! Or at least pretty great, right? In none of these instances was I chasing a job, or an affair either. I was flattered by the unexpected attention of a powerful man I respected. I knew I could learn from them; I enjoyed spending time with them. Also, by the way, they were married, so it was safe, right? I confidently spent time alone with them, believing they were interested in my mind and my work. Who wouldn’t be?
They weren’t. I would eventually learn that there was no actual relationship offer on the table, and no professional benefit either. And again I felt like: I am a fucking fool.
Do those experiences count? They don’t compare to the stories of rape we’ve heard from Weinstein’s accusers, or Bill Cosby’s accusers. But they count as ways you’ve had to learn your lesson, as a woman, painfully; how to keep your guard up and always wonder if an admiring man is really just trying to get you in bed. It continues as old as you get, ladies! At least so far. I’m fifty-fucking-nine, and creepy old men with wives and daughters and granddaughters and a lot of power, and even the occasional younger powerful man, still try to get me in bed, for the wrong reasons (from my point of view, if it matters). It’s a little surprising. And exhausting.
Mostly, though, I recognize those threats rarely face me anymore. And sometimes I feel invisible. I like invisible—even though fat, ugly, bald, badly dressed men my age with terrible breath and dandruff run the world, while I’ve opted for self-employment and working at home. Self-employment feels like God’s reward for all that women have suffered in offices, if you’re lucky enough to swing it. I know I’m incredibly lucky.
Honestly, it hasn’t been that bad for me, compared with so many other women. For one thing, I have been blessed to have a lot of female bosses and mentors, as well as male mentors who acknowledged my talent and left me alone (even if they didn’t extend the same respect to other women).
My worst fear, in fact, is that I didn’t sufficiently protect the many amazing women I hired along the way, who I now know wound up being insulted and/or harassed by various men above and below me. I recall a younger manager I helped hire, who was making young women in a remote office uncomfortable—mostly women I didn’t know, and exclusively behavior I didn’t see. We probed; he denied it. I failed those women. Later, we completed the due diligence we’d cut short, and learned this was his MO with women at other companies. Duh.
And what do we say about the male bosses who treated us, and most of the women in our workplaces, with great respect, but flagrantly cheated on their wives and hired or promoted their not-terribly-competent mistresses to work alongside of us? Are we harmed by those (multiple) experiences, personally or professionally? In what basket of deplorable male behavior does that belong? Or is it all good?
At the height of my Weinstein angst I e-mailed a younger woman I hired a long, long time ago, who’s gone on to a great career at top media companies, asking her whether back then she thought she had to navigate, for the lack of better words, a hostile work environment.
She texted me early the next morning, on a Sunday: “I’ve been thinking so much about what you asked.” Her answer, obviously, was not “no.” I haven’t heard back from her since.
I don’t believe in essentialism, the notion that there are basic, essential, biological and inalterable differences between men and women. And yet, I can’t relate in any way to the way these men—from Harvey Weinstein to Donald Trump to countless others—handled their power, and their sexual compulsions.
Back when I was an actual somewhat-powerful person (as in, I could hire and fire people), I can’t say that there were no men attracted to that power. There were, though no one I’d ever want to spend time with. But it never occurred to me to use my power in that way. It’s repellent. There’s nothing remotely alluring about it. Imagine an older woman (and I wasn’t old back then) asking a young man to watch her masturbate. You almost can’t (unless you have an excellent imagination, which I guess I lack). Raping someone who came to me for career advancement? I have no imagination there at all.
I know most men don’t prey on women like that. But so many do that it makes me feel incredibly alienated, and, frankly, depressed. Are we different species? Different tribes? Irreconcilably different? Are things changing, inshallah, as younger men, raised by a lot of empowered, feminist women, come into positions of power?
I’m not sure. Last week, I saw two of the stars of Chapo Trap House, young men who have become lions of the (mostly male) left, posing next to Bill Cosby’s Hollywood Boulevard star, with the Twitter caption, “hey libs try taking this down.” They say they were trying to make a joke about Hollywood, but instead they managed to mock the movements that have been speaking up about sexual harassment and working to tear down Confederate statues—that is, the movements challenging power structures that have left people who don’t look like them vulnerable.
I don’t have any answers. I just keep coming back to the question: What would women be doing if we hadn’t had to spend our collective lives in a defensive crouch to ward off all of this thuggish behavior? Or bending deeper down still, curling into a self-hating spiral, if we failed to ward it off?
I think we’d be running the world, if all of that energy went to ourselves and our dreams and visions, instead of fending off creepy men. Maybe that’s the whole point.