In the past several weeks there has emerged an overdue (and yet likely still inadequate) national conversation about sexual assault and the abuse of (male) power in the US. The long-excused habitual sexual predator, and Hollywood film producer, Harvey Weinstein has been fired from the company he founded. He has been expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for repeatedly sexually assaulting, harassing, and even raping young women hoping to work, or successfully working, on one of his films. We have seen too many famous and not-so famous actresses and models come forward and tell their stories about their horrific experiences with this man. The outrage against Weinstein has been pervasive and completely justified.
More recently, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted that if all the women who have faced unwanted advances or assaults at the hands of the men in their lives tweeted or posted “#MeToo” on social media, maybe men would realize the ubiquity of this heinous problem that women face on a daily basis and things could change. This slogan, “Me Too” was actually started by Tarana Burke in 2007 as the basis for an organization to help victims of sexual abuse continue on with their lives by helping them understand the pervasiveness of the problem, that their experience was not their fault and that there are millions of others just like them. #MeToo is only the start of a solution though.
Before I move on to my argument, I want to say one thing that is perhaps more important than it. The response to Milano’s tweet has been incredible (though for those of us aware of the statistics about sexual assault against women in the US, not completely surprising), inspiring, and troubling. It has been inspiring because it takes untold courage to openly acknowledge one’s victimization in our society, and it has been troubling because for every person who felt confident and comfortable enough to acknowledge their experience, there are countless others who have decided, for any number of completely understandable reasons, to keep their experiences to themselves. I want to state that nothing that follows should be in any way interpreted to question or challenge that courage, my sympathy for those women (many of whom in my own life who had never felt ready to discuss their experiences with me or anyone else), or my own failures in not acting or intervening in situations that I should have. This is not a mere caveat to my point, but a foundational dimension of it — without it I would not be able to make my argument.
In a recent article for Current Affairs Oren Nimni and Nathan Robinson argued against the cathartic reaction that many people had to the punishments doled out to two loathsome men: Anthony Weiner and “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli. The authors argue that if we believe that American society is overly punitive already, if we really want to end mass incarceration and the carceral state, we should oppose the punishments handed down and the public discourse about these two men in a similar way that we oppose the unjust and unequal treatment of the poor and people of color by the police and courts in the US. Just as we must oppose the behaviors of people like President Trump and Weinstein, we must also oppose the kind of society that produces and enables these men to do what they did (and all those who are doing those very same things this very moment!). This includes, as The OA creator and star Brit Marling has powerfully described in her Atlantic article, opposition to both the cultural products that normalize and reproduce patriarchal structures, and the socioeconomic system that empowers them.
Building on my recent essay on Disney’s live-action reboot of Beauty and the Beast — which explores the relationship between individual responsibility, social and community responsibility, and the radical potential of social and individual change — I want to briefly comment on the problem of locating sexual abuse in our society and culture as opposed to in the individuals who perpetrate these grotesque acts of inhumanity. This should not be interpreted as taking anything from the experiences of the victims of these crimes nor excuse or in any way justify the behaviors of the assailants; rather, my goal is to present a more productive way to think about this problem that, I hope, increases the likelihood that it will be solved.
Whether we are talking about Harvey Weinstein or President Trump, these kinds of sexual predators are a social creation. These men, for all we can reasonably guess, did not wake up some morning and decide to become the horrible people we have heard them on tape admitting to be. Putting aside the issue of individual pathology, these men are simply acting in accordance with the norms and expectations of those granted unjustified and unchecked social, cultural, and economic power in our society. The “Me Too” hashtag has shown us that, if nothing else, millions of women around the country (though this problem is not restricted to the US) have been subjected to unwanted attention, propositions, and violent contact by the men in their lives. Unless we assume that they were all just born evil — an assumption that, if true, leaves very little hope for change — we should be looking at why they did what they did. Again, and this is important to repeat, this exploration does not excuse or justify anything these individuals did. There is no reason to think that we cannot explore social culpability without removing all aspects of individual responsibility.
Books like Jackson Katz’s The Macho Paradox (2006), Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (2014) and The Mother of All Questions (2017), and other recent work on rape culture and toxic masculinity, explore the connection between individual and social responsibility. The key to any analysis of the structural aspects of sexual assault and the like is to isolate the norms in our politics, economics, and cultural products that reproduce chauvinistic ideas. Shibboleths such as male dominance, power through violence, understanding and compassion equal weakness, perceiving women primarily as sexual objects, the infantilization of women, female meekness, aggressiveness, hyper-competitiveness, or anything similar that could infect a young person’s mind with the notion that the abuse of women is anything but completely unacceptable must be eradicated. Additionally, the violent and degrading treatment of women by men in our society mirrors our society’s treatment of workers, immigrants, people of color, the currently or formerly incarcerated, or Muslims. Our society privileges illegitimate hierarchies of all kinds, as well as the people that put them into practice every day. However, people like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump are as much the source of the problem as they are the result of the problem. They are not the epicenter though; they are the aftershocks.
To paraphrase Erich Fromm’s argument in The Sane Society (1955), when an individual is sick we call it insanity, but when a society is sick, we call it normal. And sadly, in American society today, sexual predation is normal, especially for those in positions of political, social, economic, or cultural power.
When we think of issues as troubling as sexual assault or harassment, it is often easier in the short-term to simply blame the perpetrator, call for change, and move on with our lives — and this is often easier for the victims or those who have been previously victimized as well. Based on my past conversations with women who have experienced these kinds of crimes, it is paralyzing to think about the social pervasiveness of sexual objectification and possibility — or indeed probability — that they will experience these things again in the future. Sadly, it may be partly because of the lack of a sustained conversation about how to address the social, political, economic, and cultural conditioning that produces this beyond unacceptable behavior that it continues to such an insane degree. While we absolutely need to have procedures and policies in place to prevent and address these abhorrent actions such that people who cannot or refuse to not act in these ways do not remain in positions where they can prey on others, these measures are inadequate.
Firing Harvey Weinstein will change very little in our society. It certainly will not change the fact that a small plurality of the American people — some of whom were women — knowingly voted into the highest office in the land, an admitted sexual predator. Firing Harvey Weinstein will not change the culture that produced Harvey Weinstein. Firing Harvey Weinstein will not change the culture that produced Donald Trump and his supporters (not all of whom are sexual predators, but all of whom decided that being a sexual predator was not prohibitive to becoming President).
If we have learned anything from the carceral society in which we live, we should have surely surmised that punishment can only do so much — and that is, troublingly, very little. We need to “fire” the structures that produce people like Weinstein and Trump, and the millions of men who would or do behave in similar ways. In order to expel these structures, we first need to locate them. That should be our task, alongside doing whatever we can in the short-term to protect everyone and anyone who could be or has been victimized in the way that Weinstein and Trump — and innumerable men — have victimized the women in their lives. Collective, solidaristic action against these structures of domination is the longer-term project, but it must start now. We can only do this together by collectively taking responsibility for the society that we (re)produce.
Dr. Bryant William Sculos holds a PhD and specializes in Critical Theory and global ethics. He is a postdoctoral fellow at The Amherst Program in Critical Theory, adjunct professor at Florida International University, contributing writer for the Hampton Institute, and Politics of Culture section editor for Class, Race and Corporate Power.