As the wave of outrage at sexual harassment and assault peaks, how can we channel anger into action? Kristine Ziwica takes a look.
More than a week since the New York Times published explosive allegations of sexual harassment and assault going back decades against film producer Harvey Weinstein, much ink has been spilled on the subject.
The allegations came in a year when sexual harassment and assault claims have felled more than one alleged high profile serial offender, from Hollywood, the Fox newsroom to Silicon Valley: Cosby, Ailes, O’Reilly, Kalanick.
And the allegations came nearly a year to the day after Donald Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” video leaked; it was not enough to derail his presidential ambitions, but it inspired a million women to march.
The protective cladding of power and privilege that silenced victims and shielded powerful perpetrators has been pierced. You can hear the alarm bells in Hollywood and around the world. Beep, beep – rape culture systems are down.
We may have reached peak outrage.
But now that the wave of outrage is cresting, what lessons can we draw from these scandals? How can we usefully channel all that outrage into solutions to ensure we deliver a future free from violence for the next generation of women and girls?
In the last week alone, many “solutions” have been put forward, including the downright comical suggestions that men either envision women as “the Rock” or take a page out of Mike Pence’s book and refuse to be alone in the company of women. (Before you laugh off the latter, it seems a growing number of men are taking this advice seriously – which I’m sure will do wonders for women’s careers.)
Indeed, some of these “solutions” tell us more about the culture and myths that allowed all this to happen in the first place. Others have a snowball’s chance of working. Let’s have a look.
Myths not solutions
Before we turn our attention to more viable ways forward, let’s dispel a bit of claptrap, lest anyone be tempted to venture down a cul de sac. Or perhaps you require some handy arguments to combat the usual attempts to derail.
The Hollywood “monster” myth: Society has long preferred to write off the actions of the Weinstein’s of the world as those of a rogue “monster”, rather than look at the underlying causes of their actions or the motives of their enablers.
It’s just easier than admitting we live in a society that affords men power over women, some of whom choose (and that is an import word here, choose) to use that power in a variety of monstrous ways. Tom Meagher, Jill’s husband, warned us of the dangers of writing off events like these as the acts of an “evil individual”.
Lara Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project, has written that Weinstein has been described as the “monster of tinseltown”, turning him into the stuff of myth and fairy tale, a “beast” whose actions are incomprehensible.
We know Weinstein’s alleged actions are not incomprehensible. And we know Weinstein is not a rogue monster unique to the micro environment of Hollywood — he is the high-profile tip of an iceberg.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, 1 in 5 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. This is an issue affecting many women from all walks of life perpetrated by men from all walks of life – all right here in Australia.
The men can’t help themselves myth: Weinstein was quick to blame his sex addiction and wing his way to a posh treatment facility, hoping that once he wrestled with his “demons”, he would be given a second chance.
This might sound silly, but Weinstein had good reason to believe he might actually get away with this excuse. According to the VicHealth Community Attitudes Survey, nearly half of Australians (43 percent) believe men rape because they can’t control their need for sex.
But we only need to look at the nature of the allegations against Weinstein to realise how wrong-headed this line of thinking is. This is about power, not sex. It’s about a man who seemed to derive pleasure from his ability to overpower and intimidate women — what Lena Dunham described as the “use of power to possess and silence”.
Writing in the Atlantic, James Hamblin described them as “problems of power and status that manifest as a violent disregard for others…a failure to acknowledge the autonomy of women or a problem accepting it and a compulsion to revoke it by force”.
Women are not and should not be asks to play “gatekeeper” to men’s perceived uncontrollable sexual desire, nor should they be blamed for their failure to do so, as Donna Karan seemed to suggest.
The “dinosaur” myth: Then there’s the argument that these are the acts of a few “dinosaurs”, who should be excused based on the misguided belief we’ve only recently established a “new standard” around consent and harassment, and it is, therefore, unfair to hold men of a bygone era to this “new” criteria. I have previously described this as appeals for “vintage leniency”.
Adopting this line of thinking might lull us into complacency, assuming a generational shift alone will simply sort things out. But is it really the case that, until recently, the alleged actions of the likes of Weinstein and co. have had a different meaning, or have they always had the same meaning (and been illegal). What’s changed is we’ve chipped away at the protective layer of privilege that prevented powerful perpetrators, in particular, from being held to account.
What works to prevent violence against women
So what does actually work to prevent violence against women, including rape and sexual harassment? In Australia, we’re pretty lucky. Many individual experts and a variety of organisations are leading the world in finding an answer to that question, and we are well placed to draw upon their advice.
A lot of the recent commentary on the Weinstein events has rightly centred on the role of bystanders and asked the question: Why did no one speak out against Harvey Weinstein?
In an excellent article for the Guardian, writer Zoe Williams noted that this line of thinking has fallen into roughly four categories: should institutions, such as the Weinstein board, have spoken out; should male bystanders who can raise these issues without the risks women face have spoken out; should powerful women in Hollywood have said something in defence of the sisterhood; or should the victims themselves have gone public for the sake of others?
Williams writes that, “there’s a relatively simple two-grid matrix we could use when it comes to ascertaining the ethics of all this: how much power do you have yourself, and how easily can you be discredited by exactly the same cultural contempt for women that spurred the harassment in the first place?”.
Williams is spot on. And on that basis, I think we can rule out (and hopefully stop blaming) the victims themselves. That said, bystander action is an important part of the solution, particularly men’s bystander action.
There is a growing body of research looking at the role of bystanders in preventing violence against women, including some excellent work from VicHealth here in Australia. And Our Watch, the national foundation established to prevent violence against women is developing resources to help employers develop effective bystander programs as part its Workplace Equality and Respect initiative. The Australian Human Rights Commission also developed a useful resource, Encourage. Support. Act!, in 2012.
But bystander action alone is of limited value without wider cultural change with deep roots. In the Guardian article written by Zoe Williams, the US-based violence prevention expert Jackson Katz likened it to the “nightclub bouncer model”. “If we don’t talk about gender dynamics, about masculinity, if we only talk about specific moments of intervention, it’s like if you were to talk about incidents of racism without talking about race.”
Now there’s a challenge, and it’s not something a single initiative can address – and certainly not overnight. To set us on this path, Our Watch has produced Change the Story, a world first framework outlining a consistent and national approach to preventing violence against women. The framework makes clear that gender inequality is at the core of the problem and provides “a roadmap for collective action to prevent violence against women and their children in Australia”.
We’re all going to have to commit to the long haul and somehow keep going, long after the outrage fueled adrenaline rush currently filling our tanks has dwindled. That will be the measure of just how angry and fed up we are “this time around”. Whose ready to embark on a road trip to a better future?