Sexual harassment in so many different industries — from media to car manufacturing; from housekeeping to waitressing and higher education — has made headlines over the past few months in ways it hasn’t since Anita Hill bravely spoke out against Clarence Thomas back in 1991. Unfortunately, the broader cultural response to these charges has remained largely unchanged: those who have been accused are being denied due process in what amounts to witch hunts (curious phrase that) in which men’s reputations are being frivolously and capriciously ruined by vengeful, unhappy women (and the occasional man).
The due process argument is mystifying to me. Last time I checked, we were still living in a capitalist system. If your boss thinks that you’re doing a shitty job or that what you’re doing is bad for business, he can fire you. I’m not saying that that’s good or bad (it’s mostly been bad for people who complain about harassment or retaliation). It just is. Plus, the cases where people are being fired (Roger Ailes, Matt Lauer, and many others) are not one-off “he said/she said” incidents. They are cases where multiple women — sometimes hundreds! — have complained about terrible behaviors, sometimes for decades, and courts, universities, media industries, and other businesses have failed to take any action. Fearful of lawsuits and negative publicity, institutions and industries are finally taking action against the secrets everyone knows: men with long histories of abusing power.
Institutions colluded in protecting these forms of power. Feminists know that the legal system — despite the best efforts of feminist lawyers — has protected perpetrators far more than it has allowed women to have recourse against harassment and hostile climates, to take one point on the spectrum of gender-based violence. In the past, when women turned to media when the legal system failed them, journalists typically treated them with similar forms of suspicion and disbelief, choosing to focus on what women had done rather than what had been done to them. Institutions spoke in one voice, with all the old questions tumbling out of the mouths of their representatives: “What were you wearing?” “Why didn’t you speak up then?” “Why are you speaking up now?” “That’s not what he meant.” All of which boils down to she must have done something wrong, or there must be something in it for her (maybe she loves the media spotlight and being re-victimized and humiliated) or she must be after something, as if preventing other people from being abused and harassed isn’t a logical motivation.
In the old days, the combined power of law and media to silence women — to make it clear that those who came forward or complained would be punished — made it all but impossible for these stories to be shared, compared, and understood in all their commonality. In courts and the pages of newspapers, women got what they were forced to settle for. Mostly that meant silence.
The online movements against sexual violence are a great collective shout — a direct response to the widespread institutional silencing and erasure of the stories of all those who dared to raise their voices against discrimination and bigotry. These movements are only possible insofar as those long excluded from having the power to tell their stories to a national audience have gained the ability to tweet and post about their experiences, to share them and to identify patterns of abuse the old gatekeepers did their damndest to suppress.