Sexual Power Dynamics: Examining the Missing Part of the Story

Harvey Weinstein in 2007 (Reuters photo: Steve Crisp)
To resolve the wave of sexual-assault allegations, it will be necessary to have a discussion that is capable of raising inconvenient, even unpleasant, facets of this whole business.

My essay last week on the worrying elision of the criminal and the minimal in the current wave of sexual-assault allegations seems to have stirred some colleagues. So at the risk of being accused of never taking “no” for an answer, let me jump straight back on in. For as Jonah Goldberg mentioned in his recent column, this whole realm is in flux, and debate is going to be needed if this panic is going to be resolved in a sensible manner.

In a column yesterday, Christina Hoff Sommers brilliantly dissected as well as lampooned some recent heights of the present frenzy, such as Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times who recently asked: “I seriously, sincerely wonder how all women don’t regard all men as monsters to be constantly feared.”

To which Sommers rightly responded by asking: “Does Manjoo include himself? Are his female colleagues at the Times suddenly in constant fear of him?”

Of course not. Manjoo is simply engaging in male posturing of the most prostrate and supplicant variety. If we are going to get beyond such posturing, it will also be necessary to have a discussion that is capable of raising inconvenient, even unpleasant, facets of this whole business.

To that end, there is still one aspect of all this that seems cordoned off. That is the whole issue of “power”: Who has it, who gives it, and who wields it. Given that it is almost impossible for a man to write about a woman’s experience in this area without being flayed alive, let me relay the story of somebody I once met some years ago.

The man was an acquaintance of a friend, was fairly attractive, and as such had decided to become an actor. Since acting is not, alas, an art in which talent will always out, a degree of networking is usually necessary for someone to succeed. Though heterosexual himself, this young man had come within the circle of an actor who was known to be gay. And since acting, like sport, is one of the few areas left where being gay is still thought to be a vast career drawback, the celebrated actor had kept the whole gay thing an open-ish secret.

Anyhow — the straight, aspiring actor mentioned in passing that he had been out on a couple of dates with this actor, though added that things had ended cooly. The cause was that a couple of dates in, the aspirant actor guessed that it might be time to drop into the conversation the fact that he happened to have a girlfriend. I recall that he explained the need to make this admission with a certain regret, for relations with the gay actor had, understandably, wound down after that. The older actor had not been back in touch, and the younger actor seemed slightly resentful that he had spoilt what could have been an ongoing bit of career-furthering by not continuing to play along with the whole gay-date thing.

Now, so far as I know nothing untoward happened in these encounters. Though if the older actor had placed a hand on a knee or even made a pass one evening, you could not entirely blame him, nor heap overmuch sympathy upon the younger man. One might even feel a degree of contempt if, many years later, that young actor complained about such a result from a situation he had knowingly got himself into.

The point is that there is a question here about who wields the “power” in such a situation. The emerging consensus would be that the older, more successful person does. But the younger, aspiring person was also wielding power — a power which allowed him to get himself into a situation, with potentially far more to gain, and on which he was able to pull the rip-cord whenever he chose to do so. In such a situation, I would say that it is at the very least hard to say who manipulated (or “used”) who, or who could be said to have wielded the power.

Of course, a very great many of the stories that have come to light recently (both in the realm of the criminal and in the realm of manners) are stories in which the older men in question are the sole predators and the only appalling bearers of blame. But it does not follow that they can only ever be the only bearers of blame. Concern about not victim-blaming in some cases means that moral onus in all such situations is at risk of being simplified.

Power is not in fact only a top-down thing.

That is why I mention the case above (while studiously avoiding the suggestion that any women could ever get themselves into any such situation with a man they were not deeply physically attracted to). It is suggestive of an aspect of life — as well as show-business — that cannot be entirely ignored. Power is not in fact only a top-down thing. The belief that power lies only — or only meaningfully — with older, richer, more “powerful” men and that these prey on younger, prettier, more vulnerable people is not just wrong because it is a construct of the modern, misandrist Left. It is wrong because it entirely ignores the form of (for want of a better term) bottom-up power that also exists. That is the form of power that attractive young women as well as men are capable of deploying in order to make some people do almost anything to gain their approval. As well as being observable in everyday life, it is also the subject of a great deal of art, as well as many novels and operas (both comic and tragic).

None of this excuses sexual predation, let alone sexual crimes. But we are rewriting the rules of a very wide range of human interaction at the moment, and if we are to reach any kind of sane balance at the end of this panic, we should not pretend that older, richer men are the only people able to wield sexual power. I suppose that we won’t hear very much from the people it worked for. But there is a missing piece in the story we are currently telling ourselves about the non-criminal part in all of this, and we should at least acknowledge that.


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