When, if ever, do men accused of sexual harassment deserve a “second chance”? As numerous disgraced men plot their return, Kristine Ziwica asks if it’s too soon.
Wondering where all the men, particularly the high-profile men, accused of sexual harassment or assault have gone?
Well, many have been in the spin cycle — and that doesn’t mean the personal cleansing facilitated by the healing waters of an expensive spa (sorry, treatment facility), though some have opted for this form of treatment for their “addictions”.
They have been in the PR spin cycle, preparing for a comeback.
Last week saw a proliferation of headlines suggesting we are reaching the redemption arc in the #MeToo story line, just a mere six months after the explosive allegations against Harvey Weinstein helped launch a movement.
The Hollywood Reporter ran a story proclaiming, “Louis C.K.’s Path to a Comeback Likely Runs Through Comedy Clubs”. Vanity Fair ran another piece suggesting “Matt Lauer is Planning a Comeback”. And the New York Times suggested celebrity chef Mario Batali is “eyeing his second act”.
A few months ago, the precocious Jack Shafer of Politico got out ahead of the story, offering “The Sex Pariah’s 6 Step Guide to Rehabilitation”.
Too soon? Yes.
It’s no longer business as usual
Firstly, the kinds of comebacks these men and their PR handlers have in mind would suggest it’s business as usual, and we’ve moved beyond that now.
These men and their supporters expect a second chance on pretty light terms as part of their sense of male entitlement.
And why wouldn’t they, when that has always been the case. Think Clarence Thomas, Mel Gibson, Floyd Mayweather. The list goes on. In fact, I understand Clementine Ford’s new book, Boys Will Be Boys, will include an entire chapter charting the long history of men whose behaviour was easily excused so they could resume their successful careers.
Just days after the allegations surfaced against Weinstein, he invoked this long, dubious, tradition, pleading, “Allow me to resurrect myself with a second act.”
But for many women fed up after watching generations of men too easily excused, including, most recently, Donald Trump, who went on to win the election despite the now infamous “grab them by the pussy” video and numerous allegations of harassment, enough was enough.
Women’s collective response to the wave-upon-wave of allegations to emerge post Weinstein was: allow me not to extend you, once again, the largely male privilege of a second act. Allow me to ensure that this time you pay the price for your behaviour with your job and your prestige.
And remarkably, for what seemed like the first time ever, many did.
If we yield too quickly to an entirely predictable redemption, what has really changed? The extent to which we judge the success of #MeToo will be the extent to which we succeed in raising the bar to be granted a second chance.
The PR handlers advising the likes of Weinstein, Lauer and Batali to take lessons from the pre Weinstein playbook — offer a “sincere apology” on a “serious” program like 60 Minutes, get yourself a “credible sponsor” like Jodi Foster (sexism’s version of a “beard”), tour the country to warn other young men of the dangers of “bro-culture”, recast yourself as a women’s champion by hiring a female CEO or creating a mentoring program to promote women in leadership, or burnish your progressive credentials by starting a program to help displaced Rwandans (seriously, all have been suggested) – would be wise to note this fundamental shift.
Having finally ensured perpetrators face consequences, when for too long it has been women who paid the price for men’s behaviour, we can’t easily go back.
The focus is on individual change, not structural change
What’s more, in this new #MeToo era, we are at last realising that these were not just the acts of individual men with impulse control problems that can be sorted via costly hypnosis at a swanky spa (sorry again, I meant to say treatment facility… sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference).
These men were protected and enabled by a system that afforded them enormous power, and the numerous individuals who acted in deference to that power.
Change is not going to be as simple as extracting a heart-felt apology and restitution from some of the more high-profile offenders so we can all forgive — and presumably forget. We need more than that.
The focus on individual perpetrator’s change and their second chance (and pretty superficial change at that), as opposed to the systemic change needed to tackle the power differentials and normalisation of men’s behaviour that enabled and protected perpetrators for too long, is not only another display of the extreme narcissism of the men in question, it also has the potential to derail us from effectively tackling and preventing what we now know is pervasive sexual harassment.
Yes, we need individuals to change, but we also need to change systems.
There’s a cliché that once you see some things, you can’t unsee them. Many had this response to hearing former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty talk about gender inequality as the underling driver of violence against women.
If we don’t make good on the need to tackle the systemic problems that drive sexual harassment, instead focusing exclusively on the individual offenders and their personal need for redemption, can really claim to have seen sexual harassment for what it is?
Some of these men’s behaviour will be examined in the criminal or civil justice system, and justice may be meted out (though it’s worth noting sexual assault conviction rates are appallingly low).
Many, however, will never face a judge or jury — only the court of public opinion.
Yes, that may well lead to cries of natural justice, or the lack thereof. But for those of us in that court of public opinion, it’s time to think carefully about the standard we have –for far too long –walked past.
Everyone loves a comeback, right – or do they?
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica