We Are All Implicated In The Post Weinstein Reckoning

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Then there are the men who are looking at the world with fresh eyes, who are startled by the unseemly parade of sexual molesters and manipulators — the cascading allegations against Louis C.K., the conservative former judge and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and so many more. These men have begun to understand my journalistic beat for the first time: They didn’t know it was this bad. They didn’t see how systemic, architectural, it was — how they were part of it even if they didn’t paw anyone, didn’t rape anyone. This faction includes my husband, a criminal-defense attorney who’s definitely not ignorant of the pervasiveness of sexual assault, yet reads the endless stream of reports with furrowed brow. “Who does this?” he asks. “Who does this?” Then one night, with genuine feeling: “How can you even want to have sex with me at this point?”

At elementary-school drop-off, a friend who’s a theater director tells me he’s been sorting through his own memories. “There’s this one woman, and I did ask her out, but only after she’d auditioned and hadn’t gotten the part. I wrote her, like I write to all actors who I don’t cast, to explain why. And then in that email, I asked if she wanted to go to a Holocaust puppet show with me. She said yes, and we went out a few times. This was probably 2004. Do you think that was bad?”

I laugh, put my hand on his arm, and tell him no, it doesn’t sound bad, but in fact I don’t know: Maybe it was bad or maybe it was human and they really liked each other. We are turning over incidents that don’t fall into the categories that have been established — a spectrum that runs from Weinstein-level brutality to non-rapey but creepy massages to lurid-but-risible pickup lines — and wondering whether or how any of it relates to actual desire for another person.

Still, I’m half-frustrated by men who can’t differentiate between harmless flirtation and harassment, because I believe that most women can. The other half of me is glad that these guys are doing this accounting, reflecting on the instances in which they wielded power. Maybe some didn’t realize at the time that they were putting the objects of their attention at a disadvantage, but I must acknowledge that some, even my friends, surely did.

Women, of course, are doing our own accounting, attempting to classify moments from our pasts to gauge how they fit into the larger picture. Sure, he DM-ed me late at night asking me what my sexual fantasies were, but he didn’t masturbate against my leg and then threaten to kill me, as James Toback allegedly did; he didn’t hire ex–Mossad agents to dig up dirt about my exes and my sex life, like Weinstein did. Okay, but why can’t we stop thinking about it? Why does it feel so closely related?

Which, again, isn’t to suggest that we don’t know the differences. We are not dumb. We knew, when we looked at the Shitty Media Men list circulated in October — an anonymously compiled Google document of unattributed and varied claims about some 78 men in our business — that there were legal distinctions, and moral ones. There are the cheating dogs who proposition us, the artless boy-men who make fumbling passes over work lunches, the bosses who touch us against our will, the men who retaliate professionally if we dare reject them.

And yet the rage that many of us are feeling doesn’t necessarily correspond with the severity of the trespass: Lots of us are on some level as incensed about the guy who looked down our shirt at a company retreat as we are about Weinstein, even if we can acknowledge that there’s something nuts about that, a weird overreaction. Part of it is the decades we’ve spent being pressured to underreact, our objections to the small stuff (and also to the big stuff!) bantered away, ignored, or attributed to our own lily-livered inability to cut it in the real world. Resentments accrete, mature into rage.

“I stuffed all my harassment memories in an emotional trash compactor because there are just so many,” says my friend Amina Sow. “Now the trash compactor is broken, and everything is coming up.” Sow said that among the things she’s recalled over the past few weeks are an old boss in Washington “who definitely jerked off in the office and would make sure to let me see the porn on his computer. He has a bigger job now. And the man who pinned me to the wall in the copy room and told me I should be grateful he’s paying attention to me because I’m a fat pig. I reported both those incidents, by the way, and nothing happened.”

And that’s before we get to the real mind-fuck: the recognition of how we’ve participated in this system.

Starting when she was 28, Deanna Zandt, an artist and activist, had a secret, consensual relationship with a boss in his mid-50s who was a widely known sexual harasser of her co-workers. “It sounds so fucking stupid now,” says 42-year-old Zandt, unspooling the mix of fear, self-doubt, and self-interest that kept her in the relationship. “I didn’t know how to get away from him, because if he were just a complete douchebag, I wouldn’t be with someone like that. But he was also very charming and publicly very feminist, and he introduced me to people and did all these other things that were supportive.” At the same time, “he was this known abuser, and I even defended him: ‘Oh, he’s just an old stoner hippie; he doesn’t mean anything by it.’ So I participated — and I saw other women get targeted by him.”

Because I used to work at The New Republic, though not with Leon Wieseltier, who recently lost his post at a new magazine after the exposure of his decades as a harasser, I’ve heard from many friends and former colleagues who are pained about the situation. “He was, really, my champion,” one woman told me. “All these things about him are true, but it is simultaneously true that if you were on his good side, you felt special — protected, cared for, like he believed in you and wanted you to succeed.” In a profession where far too few women find that kind of support from powerful men, Wieseltier’s mentorship felt like a prize.

But many of even his most conflicted former admirers admit that the stories about him — reportedly thanking women for wearing short skirts, kissing colleagues against their will, threatening to tell the rest of the company he was fucking a subordinate if she displeased him — have convinced them that sacking Wieseltier was the correct choice. They’re sad for him, for his family, but he should not be in charge of women. It has left some of them reexamining how they excused his conduct, worked around it: how they were, in the parlance of Michelle Cottle, who wrote with nuance about Wieseltier, “game girls,” and thus reaped the professional rewards. “I got so much from him intellectually and emotionally, but I wonder if part of it was because I was game,” says one woman, “and what’s the cost of that?”

Other women who played along with their bosses expressed a degree of shame, as well as pride. “Men have their fraternities and golf games to get ahead. Why shouldn’t I have used the advantage of my sexuality to my benefit? God, what else was I supposed to do?” says one woman in her early 50s. Her attitude suggests something of a generational divide. On one side are women who came of age before Anita Hill’s groundbreaking testimony against Clarence Thomas, who were perhaps raised to assume they’d encounter harassment and resolved to tough it out. To this contingent, younger women’s complaints can sound hand-wringingly excessive: What did those girls expect? What they expected was the world they’d been assured had arrived: a postfeminist one, in which they were something close to equal, in which their career paths were no longer supposed to be determined by big, swinging dicks — real ones.

Then there are those who were never directly targeted, perhaps for reasons relating to aesthetic preferences, or perhaps because they resisted. Several women have spoken to me with curiosity and concern about these colleagues, more than a few left to wither on the professional vine: What ever happened to them? Were their careers, their ambitions, irreparably damaged?

One woman, discussing a print journalist who harassed her in her early 20s, tells of an inverse dynamic: “Other female writers weren’t getting harassed, as far as we knew, which meant that they were the serious writers. We were silly little girls, not deserving of being thought of as real journalists if we were singled out for this treatment.” The slow-drip degradation, she says, led her to quit the profession. “He didn’t grope me, and he didn’t succeed in fucking me. But the way it made me feel — these insidious sexual advances you barely understand at that age, plus the constant professional undermining — it felt like you were never going to win, like you had no value.”

The reason that handsy colleagues exist on the same plane as violent predators is that the harm done to women doesn’t end with the original offense. It’s also how we’re evaluated based on our reactions to it. Do we smile or remain stone-faced, reciprocate or retreat, ignore or complain? What becomes of us hangs on what we choose.

Considering all of these angles, it’s easy to conclude that this moment actually isn’t radical enough, because it’s limited to sexual grievances. One 60-year-old friend, who is single and in a precarious professional situation, says, “I’m burning with rage watching some assholes pose as good guys just because they never put their hands on a colleague’s thigh, when I know for a fact they’ve run capable women out of workplaces in deeply gendered ways. I’m very frustrated, because I’m not in a position right now to spill some beans.”

When I thought about my #metoo moments, I first recalled the restaurant manager who instructed me to keep my blouse unbuttoned as I served pizzas with fried eggs on top, about the manager at Bruegger’s Bagels who’d rub his dick against my ass as he passed me setting out the cream cheeses in the morning. I’ve never had a job in which there wasn’t a resident harasser, but in my post-college life, I believed I’d stayed out of his crosshairs.

Perhaps, in the story I’ve told myself, it was because I was never wowed by powerful men, sensing on some visceral level that they were mostly full of shit. I gravitated toward female mentors instead. But even given my wariness of Important Men, as a young woman I could never truly believe that members of the opposite sex could be as cartoonishly grotesque as they sometimes were.

I once heard that a choking person reflexively leaves the room, embarrassed for others to see her gasping for breath. I have no idea if that’s true, but it’s how I’ve dealt with harassment. One time on the subway, the man next to me wound his hand under my thigh and between my legs, as I sat there debating whether or not to stand up or scream because I didn’t want to embarrass him on a full train. That’s why, when an important writer took me to coffee, offering to help me find a new job, and asked if I’d ever fantasized about fucking a married man, I simply laughed maniacally, as if he’d just made a joke about a 65-year-old man who suggests to a 25-year-old woman that she fuck him during a professional coffee.

At one of my early and formative workplaces, there was a textbook harasser: a high-on-the-food-chain, late-night direct-messager, a guy who stuck his hand down the dress of a colleague at a Christmas party, who propositioned and sometimes slept with female subordinates, who could be vindictive if turned down, and who’d undertake elaborate, misogynistic pranks, including sending provocative emails under another staffer’s name. One of the preyed-upon women was older than I: talented, glamorous, and definitely not game. She recently recalled to me how she’d initially believed that she could ride it out but instead was undone by her bewilderment and humiliation at being played for a fool, for a girl. She quit after about a year at the company. I remember watching her treatment, appalled, almost disbelieving that something this outrageous could happen; yet I also remember not wanting to get too close to her, as if her status as quarry was catching. I also remember hearing company honchos say that they were well aware that we had a “walking lawsuit” in our midst. Even then, it struck me that the concern was for the potential tarring of the institution, not for the women who were suffering within it.

That harasser didn’t sexually pursue me, but he did endeavor to undermine me. When I began dating a slightly older colleague, my direct supervisor (a married man on whom I had a fierce and never-requited crush, in part because it was safe; he was a model mentor) pulled me aside and confided that some other people at the office — i.e., the Harasser — were spreading rumors about how all of my work ideas were being fed to me by my boyfriend. In short, I was trying to sleep my way to the top.

Just a few years ago, I was working at another job. A new boss had been installed and wanted to hire the Harasser from my old workplace; I told him I would not work in the same office as that man. I was on maternity leave; he promised that the hire was only temporary, that the Harasser would be gone by the time I returned. And he was. But soon after I got back, the office’s youngest women began to come to me confessing that in the few months the Harasser had been in place, he’d creeped them out and sent them off-color, middle-of-the-night DMs. I had made my stand on my own behalf — I would not work with that man! — but had failed to protect my less powerful colleagues.

So, no, I was never serially sexually harassed. But the stink got on me anyway. I was implicated. We all are, our professional contributions weighed on scales of fuckability and willingness to go along, to be good sports, to not be humorless scolds or office gorgons; our achievements chalked up to male affiliation — the boyfriend who supposedly supplies you with ideas or the manager who took you under his wing because he wanted to get inside your pants. We can rebuff the harasser; we can choose not to fuck the boss. But in a world where men hold inordinate power, we’re still in bed with the guy.

There is another realm of anger here, arising from our knowledge that even the long-delayed chance to tell these repugnant truths is built on several kinds of privilege. As others have observed, it matters that the most public complaints so far have come from relatively affluent white women in elite professions, women who’ve worked closely enough with powerful white men to be available for harassment. Racism and class discrimination determine whose stories get picked up and which women are readily believed.

That reality fogs some of the satisfaction we feel in watching monstrous men lose their influence; we know that it’s a drop in a bottomless bucket. “Maybe we can get another two horrible people to have to step down or say they’re sorry,” one Democratic lawmaker told me, “but that helps only 20 people, and it’s 20 million who need things to change. Plus, you’re a farmworker? A lady who cleans offices? You’re a prostitute or an immigrant? You’re not going to tell your story.”

My sister-in-law has taught sexual-harassment prevention at a national retail chain for nine years, and she notes that not only do media and entertainment figures “have a bigger rooftop to shout from,” but many are freelancers, independent professionals with multiple employment options. The question she gets more than any other, she says, is: “ ‘What’s going to happen to me if I speak up? Because at my last job, nothing happened and I got kind of punished.’ Even if I tell them this place is different and they should feel safe in lodging complaints, I don’t think they believe me.”

Heather McLaughlin, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State University, recently described in an interview with “Marketplace” radio her study showing that about half of women in their late 20s who’ve experienced harassment start looking for a new job within two years of the incident. For those who’ve endured more serious harassment, the figure is around 80 percent — and many opt to leave their chosen professions altogether: to start over, often in less male-dominated fields, which of course tend to be lower-paying. Ina Howard-Parker, a former book publicist who told me she was harassed at several progressive publishing houses, did just that. “I ended up deciding I’d rather work at Trader Joe’s, where at least there’s an HR department and rules of engagement at work.” She now renovates houses in rural Pennsylvania.

Perhaps most galling, the current conflagration has laid bare a pattern of hiring, rewarding, and protecting men even after their transgressions have become known. That is the history, even the recent history, of America. As John Oliver has noted, the actor Casey Affleck — accused by two women of sexual harassment during filming (charges he denies) — will be giving out the Best Actress statue at the next Oscars. Bill Cosby received lifetime-achievement awards even after many of his alleged sexual assaults were made public. Reports suggest that members of the SEIU had formally complained about Fight for 15 architect and top labor organizer Scott Courtney for ages, but only now has he been ousted, along with a coterie of co-workers who covered for him.

In late October, as I wrote columns and tweeted about this wave of stories, I discovered that a male colleague had been hired here at New York despite documented claims of sexual harassment in a prior job. I’m angry not just because New York saw fit to bring him on. It’s also the impossibility of the situation now: Should the guy (who doesn’t supervise anyone) be let go, even though no one at New York has complained about him? Mostly I’m mad that he was chosen, at all, over at least two talented women who also were in the running.

The progressive journalist Matt Taibbi recently published a lengthy apology/explanation in which he despaired that the public reappraisal of the work that established him (in particular, a book about Russia that he now says is satirical and includes accounts of pushing women under the table for blow jobs, of telling them to lighten up when they object to such high jinks) is coinciding with the publication of his book about the death of Eric Garner. It’s the kind of important book that he’s been working toward writing for 30 years, he laments. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of all the women who’ve wanted to be writers for 30 years, who’ve yearned to make the world a better place by telling stories of injustice, but who haven’t had the opportunity in part because so much journalistic space is occupied by men like Taibbi: dudes who in some measure gained their professional footholds by objectifying women — and not just in big, bad Russia. Take the piece Taibbi wrote in 2009 about athletes’ wives. “The problem with the Smoking-Hot Skank as a permanent life choice,” he opined, “is that she eventually gets bored and starts calling up reporters to share her Important Political Opinions.” Taibbi may feel demoralized because the hilarious misogynistic stylings of his youth are now interfering with his grown-up career, but lots of women never even got their careers off the ground because the men in their fields saw them as Smoking-Hot Skanks whose claim to having a thought in their heads was no more than a punch line.

Men have not succeeded in spite of their noxious behavior or disregard for women; in many instances, they’ve succeeded because of it. They’ve been patted on the back and winked along — their retro-machismo hailed as funny or edgy — at the same places that are now dramatically jettisoning them. “The incredible hypocrisy of the boards, employers, institutions, publicists, brothers, friends who have been protecting powerful men/harassers/rapists for years and are now suddenly dropping them,” says one of my colleagues at New York, livid and depressed. “What changed? Certainly not their beliefs about the behavior, right? Only their self-interest. On the one hand, I’m so happy they’re finally being called out and facing consequences, but there’s something so craven and superficially moralizing about the piling on by the selfsame people who were the snickerers and protectors.”

Another woman, who works in politics, grimly observes, “Sure, good liberal thinkers will go to their sexual-harassment seminars and do all the things they should be doing. But ultimately, this is a cover-your-ass moment, not a change-the-rules moment.”

As cries of alarm for the ladies pour from the mouths of men we know through experience or plausible rumor to be culprits themselves, it’s easy to feel jaded and apprehensive: One day, my friends and I learn that a man who’s been bemoaning the prevalence of harassment also stuck his hand up a colleague’s skirt when he was her boss. “It feels like Allison Williams with the keys in Get Out,” says my friend Irin Carmon. “Trust no one.”

And yet, we are still the protectors on some level. Despite the talk of witch hunts, and the satisfaction of finally seeing a few men penalized in any way whatsoever for their wrongdoing, most women I know feel torn about both the vague prospect and the observed reality of these men losing their jobs. We think of their feelings and their families, fret that the disclosure of their misdeeds might cost them future employment, or even provoke them to harm themselves. But this is something else we’re now being compelled to notice: how we’re still conditioned to worry for the men, but somehow to not afford the same compassion for women — their families, their feelings, their future prospects — even in a reckoning that is supposed to be about them, about us.

The truth is, the risk of exposure that makes us feel anxious about the well-being of our male friends and colleagues — the risk of being named and never recovering — is one of the only things that could ever force change. Because without real, genuine penalties on the line, without generations of men fearing that if they abuse their power, if they treat women like shit, they’ll be out of jobs, shamed, their families devastated — without that actual, electric, dangerous possibility: Nothing. Will. Change. Companies will simply start investing more in sexual-harassment insurance (a real thing!) and make payouts a line item in the budget, and we’ll go back to talking about how men are just men.

Women I’ve spoken to already predict, drily, that even the men suffering the harshest consequences will be rehabilitated soon enough: that 18 months from now, some ambitious New York Times editor will assign Leon Wieseltier an essay on identity politics, pitching it as counterintuitive, knowing it will get zillions of clicks; someone a decade from now will ask an 82-year-old James Toback to direct an artsy realist movie about sexual assault, and it will be admired by some prominent person as trenchant and gutsy.

That’s because this world is stacked in favor of men, yes, in a way that is so widely understood as to be boring, invisible, just life. But more deeply, this will happen because we can see in men — even in the bad ones — talent. We manage to look past their flaws and sexual violations to what value they bring to the world. It is the direct opposite, in many ways, of how we view women, whose successes can still be blithely attributed to the fact that the boss wanted to fuck them.

I struggled a lot internally about whether to name the Harasser at my former job. I decided not to, largely because I understand something about how things have turned out. In a rare outcome, I — along with some of the women he pestered — now have more power than he does. He is, as far as I know, short on work, not in charge of any young women. And so I decided, in consultation with former colleagues, not to identify him.

But here’s a crucial reason he behaved so brazenly and badly for so long: He did not consider that the women he was torturing, much less the young woman who was mutely and nervously watching his performance (that would be me), might one day have greater power than he did. He didn’t consider this because in a basic way, he did not think of us as his equals.

That makes me angry, too.

Letting all this out is undeniably exciting. Its power, to some extent, comes from the fact that it is almost terrifyingly out of control. Anything is possible, good or bad. And yes, there is satisfaction that for a month or so, it’s like we’ve been living in the last ten minutes of an M. Night Shyamalan movie where the big twist is that women have been telling the truth all along.

Yet you can feel the backlash brewing. All it will take is one particularly lame allegation — and given the increasing depravity of the charges, the milder stuff looks lamer and lamer, no matter how awful the experience — to turn the tide from deep umbrage on behalf of women to pity for the poor, bullied men. Or one false accusation could do it. One man unfairly fired over a misinterpreted bump in the elevator could transform all of us women into the marauding aggressors, the men our hapless victims.

MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle, himself once having been returned to power after a plagiarism scandal, has mourned publicly for the injury done to his friend and former colleague Mark Halperin, who got canned after being accused of pushing his penis against younger female subordinates: “He deserves to have what he did deplored,” Barnicle declared. “But does he deserve to die? How many times can you kill a guy?”

A powerful white man losing a job is a death, and don’t be surprised if women wind up punished for the spate of killings.

Many men will absorb the lessons of late 2017 to be not about the threat they’ve posed to women but about the threat that women pose to them. So there will be more — perhaps unconscious — hesitancy about hiring women, less eagerness to invite them to lunch, or send them on work trips with men; men will be warier of mentoring women.

The only real solution may be one that is hardest to envision: equality. As Kristen Gwynne, who has worked for and with multiple harassers, says, “What bothers me is that this moment, as good as it is, prompts the question: What are women getting out of it? I lost time. It affected my self-esteem and my ability to produce work. So even if the people who did target me were punished, I still feel like I deserve some sort of compensation. I don’t want them to release a public apology — I want them to send me a check. I wish we could storm the offices of these men, kick them out, and change the locks. We should demand something different of men that’s not just them going to rehab. Put women in power.”

At the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, I felt a glimmer of hope on that front after the recent election. For the first time in 12 long, hard months, it seemed that women might be on the verge of substantially increasing their political numbers. As the results rolled in, a story line emerged: Women’s anger — at Trump and their own powerlessness — had been turned into electoral participation. A trans woman had prevailed over a white male lawmaker who authored a bathroom bill; a white man who insulted the Women’s March back in January lost at the polls to a woman of color who was incensed at his show of disrespect. This wasn’t just about retribution; it was about replacement.

I got a text from an old friend, a woman who’d worked on the Clinton campaign, who’d been there next to me on that shell-shocked night a year earlier. She said she was crying watching the latest results come in. “Maybe we’re the backlash,” she wrote.

*This article appears in the November 13, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

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