California Journal: How to snuff out the grotesque epidemic of sexual harassment? Start early
When Harvey Weinstein tried to explain away his decades-long habit of sexual harassment and assault, he was mocked — deservedly — for claiming that he was a product of the zeitgeist.
“I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” he wrote. “That was the culture then.”
This was a transparent attempt to cast blame for his own pathologies. And yet, it’s such a convenient excuse that it makes you wonder how future generations of badly behaving men might rationalize their misdeeds. Maybe like this:
I came of age in the 1990s, when the internet normalized pornography, so I thought that’s how you treat women.
I came of age in the 2000s, when everyone was sending naked selfies.
I came of age in 2016, when a reality-show star talked about grabbing women’s genitals, and still got elected president.
Sexual harassment is eternal. As long as men and women have long-standing power imbalances, it will be with us. The question, at least for those of us hoping our daughters inherit a better world, is what we are planning to do about it.
“We have to stop making it OK,” said Julia Horak, a Silicon Valley middle-school science teacher who chatted with me Wednesday about her hopes for changing the harassment culture. “Harvey Weinstein had a whole institution working for him. There was an infrastructure that somehow enabled him.”
Each semester, Horak spends a couple weeks teaching her seventh-graders a fact-based sex-education curriculum, Teen Talk, developed by the Northern California educational group Health Connected.
The lessons conform with a new California law, the Healthy Youth Act, which requires schools to teach about adolescent relationship abuse and also focus on healthy attitudes, behaviors and relationships.
“Education will help us get beyond this sex harassment and discrimination stuff,” said Horak, 58, who has taught for five years. Previously, she was in sales and marketing for a biotech tools company. During that career, she said, she had wonderful bosses. But as a young scientist, she worked in a research lab where “the professor came in and gave me a booby-snatching hug.”
She wants to instill sexual respect as early as possible. “Once someone is a manager — 30, 40, 50 years old — forget it,” she said. “That cake has baked.”
I asked her if she thought Weinstein would have turned out differently if he’d been exposed to the kind of lessons her students are getting now.
“I would hope he’d think twice about it,” Horak said. “The reason I come to school every day is to hopefully influence that somehow.”
On Tuesday evening, I sat in an auditorium on Fairfax Avenue and watched three high school students — Rachel Tokofsky, Alexa Hirsch, Lily Spar — give a 90-minute presentation on sexual violence awareness that they deliver to Los Angeles-area middle-school and high school students. The program was created under the aegis of the National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles, whose dedication to social-justice causes is admirable and unflagging.
“The Talk Project” was created by high school students in 2015, and attempts to raise awareness of sexual violence. So far, said Maya Paley, the NCJW’s director of advocacy and community engagement, 2,200 students in 15 schools have participated.
The program incorporates role playing, audience participation and clips from the Kirby Dick/Amy Ziering documentary on campus sexual assault, “The Hunting Ground.” (The documentarians have just announced their next project will focus on sexual assault in Hollywood.)
Their talk was developed before the Weinstein story broke, yet is perfectly attuned to this moment. (Educators: You can invite them to your school.)
Students are introduced (always by peers) to concepts like “rape culture,” and how to turn it into “consent culture.” They learn about the numbers of students who report being assaulted in college, how colleges often mishandle the complaints, and about the importance of bystander intervention.
Which reminds me of something Horak said: “I don’t mean to sound like Homeland Security,” she told me, “but I teach kids, ‘See something, say something.’ ”
My colleague Glenn Whipp reported that 38 women accused the director James Toback of sexual harassment, then heard from 272 others after publication.
Two women accused the wheelchair-bound former President George H.W. Bush of groping their rear ends while they posed with him for photos. (He apologized.)
The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier has been accused of inappropriate workplace behavior, as has political journalist Mark Halperin. After CNN reported that several women accused him of rubbing his erection on them through his pants, which he denied, NBC and MSNBC severed their relationship with him.
The self-flagellating essays by men who witnessed bad behavior and said nothing are becoming a journalistic genre unto themselves. “There was nothing secret about this voracious rapacity; like a gluttonous ogre out of the Brothers Grimm,” the screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, a Weinstein mentee, wrote on his Facebook page. “But everybody was just having too good a time. And doing remarkable work.”
Maybe so, but I’m pretty sure every woman I know would trade any transcendent Weinstein movie — any “Shakespeare in Love,” any “Pulp Fiction” — for a world where disgusting behavior like his ceases to exist.