Magazine | October 30, 2017, Issue

Harvey Weinstein’s Sexual Semiotics

The alleged abuses reveal a man who had to be looked at

We all know that one awful guy who likes wine and is knowledgeable about it but really enjoys the being-knowledgeable part more than the wine. His oenophilia is oriented toward performance rather than consumption: surveying the wine list, making a few well-informed observations about the offerings, enjoying the deference offered him by the other, less confident drinkers at the table, the little ritual of the probationary pour and the cork. What he is imbibing is not the 1982 Lynch-Bages so much as the ceremony — and, most important, what it says about him. The grape juice is mostly beside the point.

There’s a lot of that in the social-media age, though if you were paying attention you’d have noticed that there was a good deal of it before then, too. New York City is full of people who do not like plays but who are very fond of having gone to the theater. They may not actually get very much out of sitting through two hours of Geoffrey Rush at the Brooklyn Academy of Music doing artistic penance for his role in those dopey pirate movies with Johnny Depp, but they very much enjoy being the sort of person who goes to see famous Hollywood actors in Gogol plays, and talking about it, advertising their status. They may or may not know which wine to order, but they know that Wicked is for (sniff!) tourists. One of the by-products of this is the bizarre modern need to photograph evidence of prestige moments and share them over social media. Go to any museum from New York to Amsterdam and you’ll see people taking pictures of . . . pictures. Art, sports, travel, food — all have been reduced to objects of consumption that are almost entirely semiotic, treasures in a quest for the signs and symbols of a desirable life.

Of sex, too. Hence the peculiar erotic careers of Harvey Weinstein, Anthony Weiner, Bill O’Reilly and his “falafel thing,” Donald Trump and his “grab ’em by the p***y” antics, and a host of others in the recent parade of creeps and weirdos whose sexual shenanigans have one thing in common: a curious absence of sex.

The Eliot Spitzer case was an old-fashioned sex scandal that you could get your head around: He paid prostitutes for sex. Without condoning Spitzer’s actions, one can understand them on a purely instrumental basis: Spitzer wants to have sex with an attractive 22-year-old woman who is not his wife, he has lots of money, she is willing to exchange sex for money and doesn’t care that he likes keeping his socks on while getting his rocks off. That’s a reasonable sex scandal. It makes sense.

What in hell was Anthony Weiner up to?

Weiner, once an up-and-coming Democratic striver, is being sent to prison as the result of a sex scandal in which there was no actual sex. Weiner is the textbook case of semiotic sexuality, tweeting semi-nude photos of himself, adopting the Internet persona “Carlos Danger,” and, in the end, sending graphic communications to a minor. He is going to do 21 months in a federal lockup and spend the rest of his life as a registered sex offender for a series of events that — horrible as they were — involved no more than words and images and communiqués.

Bill O’Reilly was accused of sharing lurid fantasies with producer Andrea Mackris while masturbating during a telephone call with her, telling her that he wanted to work her over with a loofah, a word he hilariously conflated with “falafel.” O’Reilly paid Mackris $9 million to settle the case, which, as with Weiner, involved no actual sex and no real evidence of anything more than the most half-hearted of efforts to get her into bed for real. Nine million bucks: surely the world’s most expensive phone sex.

Harvey Weinstein probably has had a lot of sex over the course of his career as a Hollywood mogul, but there wasn’t a lot of sex in the charges that led to his ouster from the company that bears his name. Later allegations, published in The New Yorker, included crimes well beyond harassment — including rape. But for years, the open secret of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses included a lot of gross and horrible behavior, but not much sex as such. A few subordinates complained that they were being used to arrange assignations for Weinstein, which surely is a demeaning use of the valuable time of cinema professionals or Arkansas state troopers. According to Lauren Sivan’s now-infamous account, Weinstein attempted once to kiss her and, when she rebuffed him, asked her, “Can you just stand there and shut up?” and then proceeded to masturbate into a nearby potted plant. This happened at a Cuba-themed Manhattan club called “Socialista.”

Weinstein’s other abuses (tales of which were shared by many women unknown to one another but offering remarkably similar accounts) were mainly things such as asking for massages or giving them uninvited and asking Ashley Judd whether she wanted to watch him shower. Again, no sex. A man with Harvey Weinstein’s resources and standing could, if he so desired, spend all of his days and nights engaged in the most rococo acts of sexual theater the human imagination could dream up. Watching someone shower is the stuff of schoolboys.

President Donald Trump, who was a largely obscure New York City real-estate developer before a tabloid sex scandal (his affair with Marla Maples, precipitating his divorce from Ivana), has been trying for years to get himself into another good sex scandal. His imaginary friend, John Barron, would call New York reporters with updates on Trump’s sexual adventures, at least some of which were as fictitious as John Barron. Carla Bruni, who would later become France’s first lady, was obliged to make a public denial that she had been sexually involved with Trump. Trump pursued Brooke Shields, Candice Bergen, Salma Hayek, Emma Thompson — and failed in each case. Consider his own account, in his vulgar boasting to Billy Bush, of how he tried to seduce — that’s not quite the word — Nancy O’Dell of Entertainment Tonight.

I moved on her, actually. You know, she was down on Palm Beach. I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it. . . . I did try and f*** her. She was married. I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture-shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, “I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.” I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married.

No sex: furniture-shopping. Presumably there are beds and sofas and things in furniture stores, but one wonders what his plan was there. One also must wonder what “moved on her like a bitch” actually entails.

It is an irony probably not lost on sometime Trump chum Hillary Rodham Clinton that the recent president he most resembles, at least in this respect, is Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was famously needy, always feeling the obligation to prove himself and to be bathed in admiration. Winning an election or getting a new girl into bed served the same purpose in Bill Clinton’s unhappy interior life: personal affirmation. And while Clinton’s sexuality was not entirely semiotic, he was, if we are to believe Monica Lewinsky, averse to intercourse. Like Weinstein masturbating in a darkened restaurant, Clinton desired an audience as much as he desired sexual release. In that regard, it is notable that the current president has had cameos in two pornographic films: His instincts are pornographic in the sense that his great desire is not to win the attention of beautiful women but to be observed with them, to be understood, socially, as the kind of man — “an alpha male,” his admirers would say — who attracts what he likes to call “top women.” He is, whether he knows it or not, a follower of Bishop Berkeley, in that he believes that “to be is to be perceived,” especially when it comes to sexual matters. That isn’t a love life: That’s conspicuous consumption, like his gold-plated toilets. He is amusingly plain about this, describing Melania’s purpose in his life as inspiring erotic awe in others, using her to “watch grown men weep,” as he put it.

Trump and his imaginary paramours, Weiner and his tweets, Weinstein and his lonely (but not lonely enough) masturbation. All men have their appetites and their insecurities, and one might expect men living epic lives to have similarly epic sexual careers. But, as anyone who has ever visited Washington or run into a movie star on the street knows, in real life everything is a little smaller than you expect, and a little sadder. We all had a good laugh at Anthony Weiner, at first, but his compulsions are on a continuum that leads to a very dark and violent place. Harvey Weinstein is accused of rape. Bill Clinton was, too. So was Donald Trump, though Ivana later recanted that accusation. What is it with these masters of the universe?

Perhaps the feminists had it right that what’s going on here isn’t about sex after all.

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