Editor’s Note: The following article appears in the December 31, 2017, issue of National Review.
Think back: Do you remember your first boy–girl party? “Perhaps we all have the same memory,” New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen wrote in 1988. “The boys stood on one side of the room and the girls on the other. . . . None of us would consciously know it then, but what we were seeing, that great empty space in the center of the floor as fearful as a trapdoor, was the great division between the sexes.”
If you grew up the way I did, deep in middle America, it takes just a moment to bring it all back: the drafty gym or basement, the fidgeting feet, the weapons-grade awkwardness clouding the air like Aqua Net. It would take a few brave souls to cut the tension, cross the floor, choose a partner, and edge out to the dance floor. (The “dancing,” at least at my early boy–girl events, usually involved extending two arms in a ramrod-straight line, placing them upon the shoulders of your dance partner, fixing your gaze into middle distance, and swaying like a slightly terrified robot Frankenstein until “The Lady in Red” wound to a close.)
“It was wonderful to think of the time when it would no longer be there,” Quindlen continued, referring to the giant invisible chasm between the boys and the girls, “when the school gym would be a great meeting ground in which we would mingle freely, girl and boy, boy and girl, person to person, all alike.” Then comes the kicker: “And maybe that’s going to happen sometime in my lifetime, but I can’t say I know when.”
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Here we are, almost 30 years later, and it sure hasn’t happened yet. When it comes to the tangled mess that is 2017, Quindlen’s symbolic dance-floor chasm seems to have morphed into a minefield — or, perhaps more accurately, a churning, stormy medieval sea vaguely labeled Here be various monsters.
Imagine a run-down haunted house. Next, imagine its rickety doors suddenly blown open, revealing a pack of groping, grinning, Stephen King–style clowns spilling down the steps. The clowns, while terrifying and larger than life, are almost comically socially inept, haphazardly lunging at women here and there, as if they were born in a barn full of savages (or, for that matter, in a rickety haunted house). Here’s the real mind blower of the whole spectacle: Many of these lurching clowns somehow also manage to earn millions of dollars making widely acclaimed movies, opening fancy restaurants, and gracing the screens of respectable nationally televised talk shows.
For media-consuming Americans, this is the sordid story dominating the daily news.
For media-consuming Americans, this is the sordid story dominating the daily news. Allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent men spool out, sad and predictable, seemingly every day. They are so frequent, in fact, that it is difficult to keep track. The stories are beginning to blur.
We could go back into the painful details, but hundreds of articles, essays, and think pieces have done just that. The alleged serial sex abuser and high-profile producer Harvey Weinstein is largely credited as the tipping point of 2017’s sexual-assault “reckoning,” as some like to call it. Since then, men ranging from Charlie Rose to Matt Lauer to Mario Batali have toppled like dominoes, with sometimes jaw-dropping accounts of sexual misconduct trailing them out the door.
Even now, the post-Weinstein cascade continues. On social media, the “Me Too” movement has celebrated women for publicly airing their experiences with everything from catcalls to rape. Over private email, a group of female journalists swapped an Excel database detailing anonymous accusations against supposedly sexually shady — they used a different word from “shady,” but it’s not fit for print — “media men.”
* * *
Are we indeed witnessing a massive reckoning when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, bound to change life — and certain unspoken social mores — forever? Has the tail end of 2017 brought about, as Anita Hill declared in a recent New York Times Magazine roundtable discussion, “a great consciousness-raising moment”? That, I would argue, is still up for debate, but we’re certainly in the midst of a very weird time to be alive.
It’s a time that’s been labeled “The Perv Apocalypse,” “The Perv-a-thon,” and “The Pervalanche.” It’s a time when big-name television anchors can reportedly terrorize staffers with secret under-the-desk “lock the door” buttons in their cushy suites at NBC. It’s a time when, at least according to the latest YouGov polls, close to a third of Americans aged 18–30 think compliments on personal appearance equal sexual harassment. Most bizarrely, it’s a time when the Police Service of Northern Ireland found it a good idea to earnestly tweet — then delete! — the following holiday message: “If you bump into that special someone under the mistletoe tonight, remember that without consent it is rape. #SeasonsGreetings.”
Ho ho ho! Heaven help us all! The “reckoning,” if it is one, is laced with significant confusion.
By now, social-media users have mastered a bleak ritual when it comes to reckoning-related firings. First comes the lightning-quick breaking of the news, followed by occasionally grisly details. Next comes a short burst of barely concealed chortling, schadenfreude, and glee. Occasionally, there’s the blasé brushoff: “Everybody knew.” Finally, inevitably, comes the jaded question: “Who’s next?”
The recent firing of The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, however, took a different twist. Unlike the cringeworthy reports surrounding Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Mario Batali, Lizza’s axing announcement was strangely vague. “The New Yorker recently learned that Ryan Lizza engaged in what we believe was improper sexual conduct,” a magazine spokesperson said. “We have reviewed the matter and, as a result, have severed ties with Lizza. Due to a request for privacy, we are not commenting further.”
The ‘reckoning’ may be strong, and it may be fierce, and it may be just beginning, but it is anything but clear-cut.
Lizza, for his part, fired back: “I am dismayed that The New Yorker has decided to characterize a respectful relationship with a woman I dated as somehow inappropriate. The New Yorker was unable to cite a company policy that was violated. . . . This decision, which was made hastily and without a full investigation of the relevant facts, was a terrible mistake.”
Perhaps it was; perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps, in the coming days, the door to the proverbial haunted house will fly open, exposing Lizza-related allegations that would make Charlie Rose, he of open-robe fame, blush. Perhaps it won’t. Either way, it won’t matter, at least not when it comes to the most worrisome part of the story: When the news of the firing broke, few seemed to care about actual details. There goes another one! Who’s next?
Similar vagueness soaks the now-infamous “‘Shady’ Media Men” list, exposed on the Internet in the late months of 2017. Edited anonymously, the list accuses various men in the publishing, journalism, and television worlds of serious sexual crimes such as rape. But it also includes accusations of “inappropriate communication,” “those weird lunch ‘dates’ that aren’t about work,” and “flirting.” Lunch dates? Flirting? It’s akin to the problems that haunt the hashtag “#MeToo,” which sweeps between heinous crimes and socially awkward comments. It appears we’ve got some rough sledding ahead.
The “reckoning” may be strong, and it may be fierce, and it may be just beginning, but it is anything but clear-cut. It is not simply the horrors of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, who may end up facing criminal charges for his alleged sexual assaults. In certain corners, it seems to sprout from a genuine bafflement as to how the sexes can work together as functional adults in the real world.
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When a young person reaches maturity, he or she often stumbles upon a startling realization: In this wild, wild world, there is no proverbial man behind the curtain. Adults, once seemingly confident, omnipotent, and in charge — at least in the eyes of a child — are revealed to be as clueless and confused as anyone else. Strangely, however, many reckoning-related discussions seem to yearn for that invisible score-settling adult in the room.
In the New York Times Magazine roundtable, television veteran Soledad O’Brien related a story from early in her career — “I was probably 28” — when a “very famous anchorperson” gave her an unwanted shoulder massage at an awards dinner. If she had said something, she argued, it could have hurt her career. “The answer is change the culture,” she said. “Imagine if . . . two men at the table who were equal hierarchically said right then and there: ‘Hey, hey, you can’t do that. Do not touch the young women without their permission.’”
How about encouraging young women to speak up or otherwise directly and effectively deal with weird or inappropriate behavior?
Perhaps it’s just me, but this approach does not seem aligned with feminist empowerment or the concept of female agency. Certainly, good men should call out inappropriate behavior where they see it. But waiting for a man to save you — a man who is likely self-interested in his career, with little to no interest in calling out a powerful news anchor, either — seems a bit patriarchal, no? How about encouraging young women to speak up or otherwise directly and effectively deal with weird or inappropriate behavior? With all eyes on sexual assault, now is certainly the time. In the end, what is the point of “the reckoning” — a time in which we are finally hearing women, or at least so we are told — if it doesn’t eventually evolve into hearing women in real time?
In a distressing number of the stories surrounding the “Me Too” movement, speaking up doesn’t factor into the equation. Sometimes, as in the Weinstein case, the silence stems from threats, or fear, or intimidation. But other times, it’s a distressing refrain: “I froze.” “I didn’t move his hand.” “I pretended it wasn’t happening.” Sometimes, the silence stems from what one writer described in the New York Times: “I was so surprised and naïve, I guess, that I didn’t say anything.”
These are all natural responses to shocking behavior. But they also might help explain just how we got to the point where anonymous women complain about “flirting” on an online database ostensibly dedicated to harassment and assault. They also might help explain the sad and bizarre post-Weinstein catchphrase of our times: “Everyone knew.”
“I know from talking to my female students that they’re often at a loss about how to deal with the binds they find themselves in, especially in the context of hookup culture,” Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis told the roundtable. “What surprises me is that they often feel unable to say no to guys and just sort of yield instead, even when they don’t really want to. Somehow all the messages about assertiveness from the last few generations have gotten dissipated, and we’re back to Square 1.”
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In early December, Saturday Night Live debuted “Welcome to Hell,” a bubblegum-toned satirical music video exploring the post-Weinstein landscape. For women, the song notes, 2017’s wave of sexual harassment is nothing new — this mess has been rolling since the beginning of time. “Hell,” in short, is part and parcel of being a woman. Here are some sample lyrics, riffing off the firing of disgraced House of Cards star Kevin Spacey:
Now House of Cards is ruined,
And that really sucks.
Well, here’s a list of stuff that’s ruined for us:
(Nothing good happens in a van).
Welcome to hell.
This isn’t news.
Our situation’s been a nuisance since we got boobs.
Let’s admit it: Any woman can relate. On average, we’re smaller and weaker than men, and we sometimes have a tougher row to hoe in this world. About this, there’s not a whole lot we can do, aside from practicing basic safety measures, adopting situational awareness, and learning to use a gun. I’m a runner; so is my husband. He breezily jogs down woodsy trails I would never run on alone. That’s life in this imperfect world.
But is it “hell”? If you read enough about the “Me Too” movement, you can be forgiven for envisioning modern American life as a Hobbesian war of all against all. “Like most American women, I’ve learned — oftentimes through experience — that I am not safe,” Jessica Valenti wrote in the Guardian on December 12. “Women know that they’re at risk whether in the streets, at work, or at home.” Really? We do? Everywhere, all the time?
Meanwhile, according to Sally Kohn in the Washington Post, “most men hate women” whether we “realize it or not.” Sheesh. Thanks a lot, Harvey.
Certain feminists go further: Because life is a living hell for women, it’s only fair to make it a living hell for men. “Men are scared right now, which is good,” writer Amanda Hess said in the New York Times Magazine roundtable. “We spend our whole lives afraid,” wrote Valenti in the Guardian, “but a few months into men not being able to act with sexist impunity and it’s a ‘witch hunt.’” Speaking of witch hunts, according to Teen Vogue’s Emily Lindin, they’re not all that bad: “If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.”
* * *
As you might have surmised, we’re back to the “weird time to be alive” portion of the show. Who wants to live with that level of hostility towards 50 percent of the human race? Have we really moved that far beyond a basic shared humanity and common sense?
Hackneyed ‘harassment trainings’ — many that resemble ‘an episode of The Office,’ as the acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted to Time magazine — will undoubtedly mushroom.
Perhaps, in certain circles, we have. The panic is palpable, with offices ditching alcohol at Christmas parties and managers worrying about the propriety of inter-sex friendly hugs. Hackneyed “harassment trainings” — many that resemble “an episode of The Office,” as the acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted to Time magazine — will undoubtedly mushroom. For a sex-obsessed society, we sure seem to need a lot of very unsexy details spelled out. Perhaps we do need that adult in the room, but in our anything-goes culture, we’re not likely to get one soon.
Twenty seventeen has exposed many monsters, and that is a positive thing. Breathless reports of a looming monster epidemic, however, seem greatly exaggerated. In a recent op-ed in the New York Daily News, Christina Hoff Sommers pointed out some seemingly incongruous data from the General Social Survey: In 2014, 3.6 percent of women reported being sexually harassed at work in the previous twelve months. That’s not fantastic, but it’s certainly not “burn it all down” bad, either.
Supposedly, we’re all in this together — or, at least, we should be. Perhaps a step towards sanity would involve some introspection on all fronts. Not all women are fragile, hapless victims. Not all men are predators or predators-in-waiting. Both men and women can contribute to a healthier sexual ethic. We can expect more from both.
Or not. “There are three ways you could approach the problem of sexual harassment,” Anita Hill told The New York Times Magazine. “You can fix the women. You can fix the guys. Or you can change the culture. And I think that really, at this point, what we should be talking about is fixing the guys and fixing the culture.”
“Do we have to choose?” asked Laura Kipnis. “Can’t it be all three?”
“Well,” Hill replied, “I think if we fix the guys and change the culture, we don’t need to fix women.”
“Good luck,” Kipnis replied. Good luck indeed.
– Heather Wilhelm is a National Review Online columnist.