It’s been nearly two months, and a geologic age, since The New York Times ran its initial report on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation.
It’s difficult to think of any piece of journalism that has ever wrought such an instant change in American life. First, more allegations against Weinstein flooded in, and then against other Hollywood, media and political figures, many of them rapidly defenestrated upon credible allegations of sexual misconduct.
A heightened awareness around sexual harassment is roiling multiple industries in what is a low-grade cultural revolution.
Any revolution has its pitfalls. There will be false allegations that will be believed. There will be a conflation of relatively minor infractions with criminal acts. And, in all likelihood, there will be an over-correction that will create its own wrongs. But a model of predation practiced by unscrupulous powerful men is getting destroyed before our eyes, and it’s a very good thing.
The model worked like this: Men with a certain prestige would make gross, aggressive or even coercive advances on lower-status women, usually young and making their starts in their careers. The men probably considered it a percentage play. Sometimes, their advances might work for their purposes. If not, they assumed that the women would stay silent out of embarrassment or fear. Failing that, the women could be discredited or bought off.
The model was then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton inviting Paula Jones, a low-level state employee, to his hotel room at a conference and lewdly propositioning her. It was Harvey Weinstein asking young actresses to give him a massage or watch him take a shower. It was Roy Moore groping a 16-year-old waitress he’d offered to give a ride home in his car.
None of this was courtship or romance, but a crude substitute for it. Intimidation was an inherent part of the model.
It was Weinstein telling actress Rosanna Arquette when she refused to touch him sexually, “You’re making a big mistake.” It was Moore, according to one of his accusers, saying “you are a child, I am the district attorney of Etiwah County. If you tell anyone about this, no one will believe you.”
The model depended on enablers.
It was Democratic strategist James Carville proclaiming that the Paula Jones accusation was what you get when “you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park.” It was Charlie Rose’s producer, Yvette Vega, sloughing off the complaints of young women about the TV personality’s bizarrely inappropriate behavior. It was Louis C.K.’s manager, Dave Becky, doing nothing after women told him the comedian performed a sex act in front of them.
Even when rebuffed, these men must’ve taken perverse satisfaction in humiliating the women who had to watch them expose themselves. What could be a more graphic demonstration of their power than women having to endure their displays with no real recourse?
The model never would have worked if women felt they could complain without potentially destroying their careers or reputations to no effect, since nothing would ever happen to predators cosseted by enough power, riches and influential friends.
This is what has changed so quickly over the last two months. An accuser no longer has to worry about not getting a hearing or suffering consequences for coming forward. The best journalistic outlets in the country are seeking them out and trying to confirm their stories.
Now, it is the predators — no matter how entrenched and successful — who are in a precarious position. They can fall from grace within hours of credible accounts of wrongdoing. It doesn’t matter how abjectly they apologize or promise to get therapy and engage in self-reflection. They are powerless before their accusers.
This dynamic can go too far. It’s important that accusations always are evaluated for credibility, and the accused get their hearing. But the model, a disgraceful abuse of power too long tolerated, is ending. Good riddance.