Almost 80, I’ve been stunned and bewildered by the ever-expanding list of sexually predatory males, from movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier to comedian Louis C.K. And it’s triggered a list of questions for me: Who raised these louts? How did they give themselves permission to harass and assault women the way they did? Why did they think they could get away with it? And above all, who enabled them to advance along this vicious spectrum from creepy remarks to groping to rape?
Slowly, I’ve come to a realization I probably should have had long ago. It’s men like me, the bystanders, who enabled them. However righteous we may feel as they’re exposed and punished, the truth is we’re the problem, too.
But we’re at least part of the solution as well. One lesson from Donald Trump’s boasts to a sycophantic TV broadcaster, revealed during his run for president, about grabbing “’em by the pussy”: Sexual harassment—or even claiming to have done it—is just another way of preening for the pack. Trump obviously saw the female objects of his faux-macho lust as props. He might as well have put his hands on Billy Bush or me for that matter (as Kevin Spacey evidently did to young men on his movie sets). Alpha dogs like them have always been able to do more or less what they wanted—until, that is, people started listening to the women speaking up. And that reality reinforces who the cowards were: we bystander bros.
I learned that 70 years ago in my elementary-school playground in Queens, New York. At recess, Crazy Ronnie pinned girls against the chain-link fence and cackled as he felt them up. We boys, maybe 9, 10, 11 years old, were afraid of Ronnie. No one of us could “take” him, so we just watched. Of course, three or four of us could have pulled him off and stopped it all. Even at that age, what were we thinking? Didn’t we read books and see movies about heroic male saviors of women and children? Could we have been getting our own secondhand thrills from his acts?
Eventually, a teacher would notice and drag him away, ending the show. Nothing would be said and life would go on, except that the young girl probably wouldn’t forget the assault (and, as it turns out, neither would I).
When I started working at The New York Times in 1957 as a 19-year-old copyboy, there were few more approachable older guys in the newsroom than the motion-picture editor and third-string movie critic known as Doc. The culture departments were next to sports, where I worked, and Doc was friendly, loud, and inclusive, especially when he lurched back from lunch, waving to the guys and squeezing the women.
Even then, though everyone seemed officially amused, it was discomfiting to watch. When I first arrived at the paper, he was 50-ish, short, with curly dark hair and a push-broom moustache. He played cute, acted puppyish as he stood on his toes to kiss cheeks or encircle a woman from behind. Mostly, he pawed young news assistants and secretaries. The few female editors and reporters at the Times in those days wouldn’t have been likely to tolerate his advances. He wasn’t that important.