Just because something has become an oft-repeated slogan doesn’t mean that it is correct. Adolescents (of all ages) in the Sixties shouted, “Better Red than Dead,” in righteous ignorance that for millions of people living under it, Communism was a death sentence. Hillary Clinton chose not to reprise the chant of her generation, “Never trust anyone over thirty,” during her ill-fated presidential campaign. One assumes that even if she once wanted people to believe that motto, she had since changed her mind.
Just because the accusation, “You’re blaming the victim,” is wielded as a truncheon meant to quash discussion doesn’t mean that the concept should not be challenged. Let’s move away from the emotional issue of sexual abuse or harassment and question this idea in a different arena.
There is a reason that the legal system differentiates between manslaughter, 1st degree and 2nd degree murder. There is a reason that hospital personnel differentiate between 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns. The punishment or treatment needed for each category is nuanced.
Perhaps it is time for us to establish degrees of victimhood. Imagine a number of victims of theft. One woman was alighting from a bus when a figure on a skateboarder, who was waiting for such an opportunity, whooshed by and snatched the purse suspended from her arm. Another woman was pumping gas when a stealthy figure sidled up to her car and grabbed the camera that was sitting on the car seat. A third woman drives to a crime-ridden neighborhood and goes for a stroll, leaving her car window open with a transparent bag of cash sitting on the seat in full view. When she returns, the bag is missing.
All three women were victims of theft. No one who takes someone else’s property has the right to do so. However, in the real world there are a limited number of police with limited resources. I think most of us would prefer that the police focus on the first two crimes. We might sympathize with the third woman, but acknowledge that her foolish actions contributed to her loss. While no one had the right to take her money, she is not totally innocent. If fact, she violated the Biblical rule in Leviticus 19:14, “Do not place a stumbling block before a blind man.” God isn’t talking there to oafs who find it funny to trip a blind person. From this verse ancient Jewish wisdom derives a prohibition against taking advantage of private information and dangling temptation in front of those who will fall prey to it.
Not all sexism, rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment is equal. I spent a fair bit of time since the Harvey Weinstein scandal came to light, reading comments on blog posts from women talking about sexual harassment they endured. Many, many women said that harassment (and worse) is something that every woman faces. So, I spent a few days polling many women of different ages, professions and economic levels, from different geographic locations, asking them if they agreed with that idea.
The responses I got were enlightening.
Firstly, there was no agreement as to the definition of sexual harassment. The general feeling was that the accusation, like the words anti-Semitism or racism, had become a bludgeon to be used rather than a precise definition of a certain behavior. No one I spoke to thought it reasonable, and certainly not wise, that women who make accusations must be automatically believed. That would imply that women never lie, are never mercenary or spiteful or immature, and never misuse power. That type of belief puts you in company with those who believe that sprinkling fairy dust over the Tooth Fairy will enable you to spin hair into gold. Women in the real world know that is a fantasy. Certainly, it’s problematic when accusations boil down to, “He said; she said,” but granting women absolute power is not the answer.
The intelligent women with whom I spoke had too much respect for women to assume that numerous aspiring actresses would go up to a powerful man’s hotel room without being aware that they were placing themselves in a tricky situation. There was general derision for women who kept quiet even after they were famous (with accompanying public platforms) as well as general disbelief that anyone who wanted to make it in TV or movies was unaware that were choosing to step into a toxic, immoral atmosphere. They felt that many actresses made a calculated decision to advance their careers by compromising their bodies, whether by participating in their own victimization by powerful men or taking roles that promote a decayed morality. Getting publicity by joining in an accusation-fest years later, when there is no risk of adverse reaction, is not seen as courageous. The women Hollywood likes to champion in movies, like Erin Brockovich, speak up when it is dangerous and/or costly to do so, not when doing so wins you applause.
At the same time, none of my respondents belittled the idea that women too frequently do face harassment. About half the women spoke about incidents that everyone would agree met a bottom-line definition. These included being flashed by someone on the street and being groped on public transportation. A shocking number of women spoke about facing workplace sexual harassment from superiors and peers in industries far removed from Hollywood, describing incidents that any reasonable person would label as problematic. If anything, they were bitter that the Weinstein brouhaha minimized their own experiences. They don’t view Hollywood actresses as representing them.
What I heard most was resentment at women who made a great deal of money in an industry that praises itself for tearing down traditional cultural standards and where the idea of the casting couch has been well known for over a century, presenting themselves as innocent victims. They asked whether mothers who presented their under-age daughters to powerful men in Hollywood were as guilty as the men who mistreated those daughters. The women with whom I spoke had little pity for women earning fame and fortune who vocally march around in pussy hats yet elected to shield and cover-up sexual abuse while benefitting from the abuser’s talents and financial and political largesse.They had no patience for those who got rich by acquiescing in Harvey Weinstein’s immorality while participating in movies that coarsened the culture so that men and women increasingly view the world through smut-colored glasses. They bristled at pseudo-feminists whose penchant for law suits made it less likely that any sane man would choose to mentor a young woman. They felt sorry for men on college campuses who are fed lies about male/female relationships, told that they must treat women as equal and then end up on a sex-offender registry when a woman regrets her drunken actions the morning after. They saw that as worlds apart from a man, for example, putting knock-out drugs in a woman’s drink and then raping her.
The women with whom I spoke live in the real world, not in Tinseltown. They suffer when Hollywood elites blast the Mike Pences of the world for behaving like gentlemen and treasuring their marital bonds. Unlike the Hollywood glitterati whose bodyguards escort them to their chauffeured limousines, these women take public transportation and care if the culture encourages women to wrap themselves with vulgarity thereby eroding any hope that females will be treated like ladies. When the accusation of rape, harassment or sexism is deployed for political or financial gain it makes it harder for them to be taken seriously when faced with actual problems.
In the real world, you don’t get to walk around barely dressed while demanding that it is men’s problem if they get aroused. You don’t get to report a colleague to HR for mentioning that he likes your haircut and then call sexism when the men in the office prefer working with other men on projects. You don’t get to treat immature, immoral and boorish behavior as headline news. The actresses grabbing attention now may indeed be victims of something but perhaps many of them are 4th degree victims, complicit in their victimhood. Maybe, they actually do share some of the blame.