In my time covering the entertainment industry, I’m not sure I’ve see anything like the response to the New York Times and the New Yorker’s reporting on allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. The details of Weinstein’s alleged behavior are so disgusting, the news of his company’s complicity is so dismaying, and the stories of the brave women who spoke up have resonated with so many people, that the result has been a wave of testimony and rage that makes this feel like a seminal moment. But among the dark thoughts that have dogged me this week, one has stood out. If the revelation of Harvey Weinstein as a naked emperor — and not of the sort he liked to imagine himself — is to truly usher in major change in America’s sexual and workplace cultures, things are going to have to get a lot worse before they get any better.
I don’t say this to suggest that things are good now, of course. There are 22 women who have stepped forward to say that their lives were profoundly affected by their encounters with Weinstein. They have added their names to a roster that includes the 35 women who say they were sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby, and the women who said the late Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly harassed them or made their career advancement contingent on sex. If our problem was only that a few powerful men abuse their position to harass, assault and demean women, the cost would already be too high.
We should be so lucky, though.
Weinstein, Cosby, Ailes and O’Reilly make for a cast of stunning grotesques. But the idea that harassing and abusing women made them singular gets the whole thing backwards. Rather, they appear to have been unique because their predations spanned so many years and so many victims, because they were eventually exposed, and because they actually faced some consequences for their behaviors. Weinstein, Ailes and O’Reilly were fired, and both the Weinstein Company and Fox News have been exposed to widespread criticism and legal liability. Cosby will go on trial on sexual assault charges for a second time next year.
These high-profile incidents are an important start. I’m so glad that so many women have found the courage to come forward with their stories, and overjoyed that they have been widely believed.
They’re only a start, though. If these incidents are to spark a much more widespread conversation about sexual harassment and sexual assault, as well as widespread change in corporate cultures that would ensure the Weinsteins and Ailes of the world would be fired and charged the first time they harassed or assaulted a woman, we’re going to need to dive deeper into the muck.
More women, and men like Terry Crews, are going to have to speak out about their experiences. Men are going to have to join them in speaking up about behavior they’ve witnessed and reckon honestly with the times they failed to intervene in bad situations. More companies are going to have to suffer escalating and maybe even fatal costs to their bottom lines and reputations before they have the incentives that will make it essential that they take every allegation of wrongdoing seriously every single time. And law enforcement officials like Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who declined to prosecute Weinstein, will have to learn that it is fatal to their careers not to aggressively pursue sexual harassment and sexual assault cases. We actually have to vote against candidates who are on the record bragging about how they grab and assault women, rather than excusing their behavior as inevitable or their talk as hyperbolic.
This is going to feel awful as it’s happening. Hearing the details of what Weinstein is alleged to have done and listening to the recording of his conversation with Ambra Battilana Gutierrez after she accused him of groping her has been utterly sickening. I understand why you might want to turn away, to focus instead on the litany of other disasters that plague us right now, which while terrifying at least have the advantage of being less viscerally disgusting than the Weinstein scandal. The idea that many areas of American life might be infected with this sort of rot is so horrifying that it’s almost too difficult to acknowledge directly.
Surgery isn’t fun or pretty. When the infection is this bad, it’s the only way forward.