If the cascade of #MeToo posts across social media has clarified one thing, it’s that sexual-assault and -harassment victims have no profile. Those speaking out have been young and old, representing all gender expressions, those dressed modestly and those whose clothes are more risqué. Sometimes victims are as conventionally stunning as the actresses who stepped forward recently to talk about Harvey Weinstein—but more often, they’re not. Nothing unites survivors except their vulnerability to their assailants.
But what we have also started to see is that too many perpetrators do have something in common: They’ve been given power, and they have a tendency to abuse it.
In particular, this year we’ve seen dozens of allegations against people with a particular kind of power: Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, and Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly, and Bill Cosby and other, less world-famous people who were demigods in smaller music, media, activist, and tech scenes. These people have all reached a position where they hold other people’s careers and reputations in the palm of their hands, and they are surrounded by enablers who worship their status. We go to the movies to watch Meryl Streep’s fashion-editor and Jeremy Piven’s movie-agent characters scream at and harass their assistants—and think it’s funny. Yet we now know that plenty of real-life fashion moguls and Hollywood big shots appeared to have enabled Weinstein.
To push back against a culture that fosters harassment and abuse, we ought to be suspicious of such lopsided power hierarchies, on larger scales and also on smaller interpersonal ones—like a local clergyperson who is deferred to by the congregants, the charismatic acquaintance who gets pushy when drunk and doesn’t catch flak, or a co-worker who makes racist comments with impunity.
In many of these cases, it’s crucial to use our voices if we safely can, whether loudly or in whisper networks to warn others of bad behavior: This tips the power balance, just a little bit. But real change starts further up the chain. It’s time to think about the qualities that are valorized in our own communities, living spaces, and workplaces, and to push back on the ingrained idea that domination and aggression are “winning” traits worthy of promotion and support. We have to grapple with the fact that the qualities that accompany harassment and abuse often overlap with qualities that are widely admired—or at least tolerated—in the name of success.