It all started, of course, with a handful of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, but in the days since then, there’s been nothing less than an uprising of women going public with stories of sexual harassment and assault. More than 50 women have now spoken out about their alleged experiences with Weinstein. After The Times reported Sunday that 38 women had accused writer-director James Toback of sexual harassment, more than 200 other women contacted the paper to describe similar unwanted advances he allegedly made. Others have complained about Amazon studio chief Roy Price (who subsequently resigned) and Nickelodeon’s “Loud House” creator, Chris Savino (who was fired).
And it goes well beyond Hollywood: Sacramento legislators and political operatives have been accused of sexual misbehavior; magazine editor Leon Wieseltier lost funding Monday for his new journalism project after he was accused of “inappropriate workplace conduct”; two senior executives at Fidelity Investments were fired for making sexually inappropriate comments. Can anyone doubt that we’ve only begun to recognize the scope of the problem?
Disturbed as we all should be by the enormity of the situation, an extremely important and positive message is being sent: that women should feel comfortable reporting unacceptable behavior, and that there will be consequences for the perpetrators. In recent days, we’ve heard abject (if, sometimes, pathetic) apologies from offenders; we’ve seen people fired and stripped of honors. Stories told by actresses about being harassed by Weinstein once elicited a dismissive “Oh, that’s Harvey” from colleagues. Now, however, he has been completely banished: His company fired him, his brother denounced him, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences kicked him out, his colleagues condemned him, his wife left him.
But naming and punishing individuals is only part of the solution. Sexual harassment is endemic in our society and our culture. For centuries, men have coerced less powerful women into accommodating their sexual wants. (Think, for example, of the sexual demands made on women who were slaves in the United States.) That won’t change overnight.
In the days ahead, we must think hard about what is and isn’t sexual harassment, re-examine the rules that govern it — and then make sure that they are enforced. A human resources office that takes a complaint from a woman about her boss and then does nothing more than pass it on to that same boss is not serious about investigating and adjudicating complaints.
Attitudes have to change. That starts with educating boys and girls about what behaviors are unacceptable or unacceptable. Obviously such lessons begin at home, but they should also be heavily reinforced in sex education classes everywhere. In California, some education is already required about “sexual harassment, sexual assault, adolescent relationship abuse, intimate partner violence, and sex trafficking.” Good. Kids need to learn what is consent and what is coercion.
It’s true that most businesses make supervisors and managers take some kind of training about sexual harassment, often in hopes of avoiding costly lawsuits. But tolerance of sexual harassment remains far too high, and real consequences too infrequent. A sexual harasser should be not be given a pass because he makes extraordinary amounts of money for his company. (In fact, you could extend that to other kinds of harassment in the workplace — like bosses who are bullies to everyone.)
Many women trying to succeed in brutally competitive businesses may agonize, even now, about whether they should submit to sexual harassment in order to push their careers forward. But if powerful men fear that their behavior will be reported and that the consequences will undo their own careers, that’s a powerful incentive to stop.
People who are harassed — it’s usually women but not always — must be encouraged to come forward. For all the hundreds who have spoken publicly about Toback and Weinstein, it’s distressing to think about how many may not have done so. For all those who’ve said they rejected the unwanted advances of bosses and supervisors, how many simply gave in to further their careers?
The Weinstein accusations started a public reckoning over sexual harassment and how to stop it. Let’s make sure we build on that in the days ahead so that we don’t look back 20 years from now at that time back in 2017 when crazy Harvey Weinstein stirred up outrage, but it passed.