To: All women
From: A former adjudicator of sexual harassment claims
Re: Fortifying #MeToo in the post-Harvey Weinstein era
With the guilty verdict of one-time Hollywood mogul and seemingly full-time sexual predator Harvey Weinstein reached this week (also here), the #MeToo movement — which had come to be seen as “gone too far” and “out of control” in the trial’s run-up — now gets a big, big break. Women of the world, let us take advantage of this big, big break — this window of opportunity — and work in concert to protect this historic and invaluable movement.
How? By getting on the same page in understanding how historic and invaluable #MeToo is. And understanding that, powerful as #MeToo is as social movement and force for change, it can also be damaged, even undone — even used against women — with comparatively little effort, spun into equal and opposing power by the force-multiplier of social media, by those wishing to push women back into subservience.
In other words, we must sail our worthy ship — call it Pequod — and chase the Great White Whale of sexual harassment — call it Moby-Dick — exercising our navigational skills in such a way that the behemoth does not outmaneuver us, is not allowed to turn round and ram this worthy ship of ours, destroying it as Moby-Dick did in Melville’s novel, leaving only “chips in the vortex.” Case in point: Climate science denialism got its big, big boost when, hacking the computers of climate scientists, deniers manipulated the data to “prove” that the scientists overstated dangerous trends.
Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in late 2017 in all its nauseating depredation, other famous men who wielded their power in equally nauseating ways over women have been exposed and seen their careers ruined: TV anchor Matt Lauer, talk-show host Charlie Rose, comedian Louis C.K., political guru Mark Halperin, opera singer Placido Domingo, litterateur Leon Wieseltier. Comedian Bill Cosby, whose long legal battles preceded this era, during this time finally was found guilty of his serial predations.
This reckoning of “toxic masculinity” (newly coined term) was enabled by the brave testimony of women — waves of women — who, sick of the depravity of these men, spoke out, thus giving a second wind to #MeToo, founded back in 2006 by Tarana Burke, and building it into the present juggernaut. (Note #MeToo’s cyclical nature; we want #MeToo to stay on its present upside.) With Weinstein et al., the public finally “got it” about sexual harassment, so long discounted or denied, as the traumatic and often career-ending and life-altering experience it is.
At that time, as the scandals of Weinstein et al. broke, I wrote (here and here) that, at long last and after eons, a grand reckoning on the power imbalance between men and women seemed at hand. It was thrilling, this New Day, an uplifting note in our post-9/11 tumult, in low times a good sign. But I also wrote: “My one fear in all this is that a false allegation will be filed by one women or several, which could be spun to cast doubt on the validity of the entire ongoing reckoning. Memo to women: Maintain exemplary conduct and solidarity with your sisters.” I worried about Moby-Dick destroying #MeToo then; I still do.
And the element of the Weinstein trial that, in my opinion, could become that Moby-Dick is the element that, as it turned out, enabled the guilty verdict itself: the acceptance that an assault victim might continue to have consensual sex after the alleged nonconsensual assault. This judge and jury in New York accepted this new marker, acknowledging that trauma works on victims in inexplicable ways. But: Will the jury of public opinion — the sea in which #MeToo sails — always buy it? This way danger lies, I believe.
I speak on these matters from historical perspective: as a former adjudicator of sexual harassment claims in the late 1970s.
As an equal opportunity officer for a major American city (San Diego), my first responsibility was to protect women and minorities as we moved them into the nontraditional areas of work (police, fire, sanitation, etc.). Without much federal or state guidance, I drafted what I believe was one of the nation’s first municipal policies prohibiting sexual harassment on the job. This drafting included defining what sexual harassment is: My working definition came to be this — behavior, whether verbal or physical, that sexualizes the workspace.
My only instrument in adjudicating was a sit-down between the complainant, the object of her complaint, and their boss. Enlightenment took place when, after I laid out the case, the object of the complaint saw the light — “Oh, I get it: Women don’t like porn magazines in the common area,” “Oh, I get it: Women don’t like to be asked what kind of sex they like.” I enunciated our policy throughout the City, including at new employee orientation — “Thou shalt not harass your fellow worker”; “Thou shalt not engage in hanky-panky with a fellow worker, then charge sexual harassment when the affair is over”; “If harassed, thou shalt keep a record.”
In the three years I served, I adjudicated a dozen harassment cases, a remarkably small number for a workforce of 7,000, small perhaps because I spent most of my time out in the field, monitoring. But I did worry: What is not being reported? What am I not seeing? And I wondered: How do I adjudicate egregious harassment — assault or rape — if it comes to light? My cases involved salacious talk, porn, nastiness like razor-blades in coffee cups and hair-pulling (which I adjudicated as reckless endangerment and battery, respectively; enlightenment ensued). But with an egregious charge, while referring the complainant to a lawyer, I’d want a thousand-piece orchestra — a movement.
Which, hallelujah, is what we have now: #MeToo.
What we also have now is a more egregious sexual harassment — far more. Who can forget the outrageous and cruel predation — sadism even — alleged of Weinstein et al.? And the mass of victims: Women alleging sexual misconduct by Weinstein now number at least 90 (that is no typo: 90). Fittingly, this fiend will now face prison time. Weinstein will appeal his guilty verdict handed down in New York, but odds are he will face some prison time. N.B., in this trial Weinstein was found guilty of only two of five charges, and they are the lesser charges: rape, not sexual predation. He also faces a criminal suit in Los Angeles.
It would take a long book to describe, degree by degree, the cultural degradation that has allowed some opportunistic men to abuse their power and exact sexual degradation of women in their employ. But, this is the cultural moment we are in and we must work with the tools we have — which again, lucky us, comprise an entire arsenal: #MeToo.
Thus it is incumbent on us, women of the world, to keep our mighty weapon in as good a working order as we can, as unsullied in name and value as we can, and perceived as fair as we can make it. In other words, to the extent we can manage this juggernaut, we must manage it responsibly.
To do so, I resubmit the standards described above, notably: Thou shalt not engage in hanky-panky — especially with the boss and engaged in voluntarily — then charge sexual harassment when the affair is over. I would also resubmit to women my advice above: “Maintain exemplary conduct and solidarity with your sisters.”
About fairness: Recall the question marks arising about #MeToo — as blunt instrument, plowing fairness under, going “too far.” An example giving many pause was Al Franken, resigning his Senate seat after allegations of fondling — without “due process” (a Senate investigation). And by now we all have heard anecdotes — say, a friend’s son accused of sexual assault who claims it was “just a bad date.” But such anecdotes, attaining critical mass, can hurt; it’s vital that our movement be seen as fair. (To recur to my EEO role: The only time I ruled against a woman complainant — a police recruit cited repeatedly for endangering her fellow cops in responding to their call for cover — I learned later from another department head how important my ruling was: “You did yourself a world of good,” he said, speaking for all department heads, “because we perceived you as fair.”)
Finally, about solidarity: Given the volatility of #MeToo, how one bad case can hurt the cause, I would hope any woman considering filing a complaint or lawsuit of sexual harassment, especially against a famous man which will draw major media, will pose this basic test to herself: “If I win, will it help the cause of other women?” Even more important: “If I lose, will it hurt the cause of other women?” For we are all in it together — this cause — and we are obliged to think of our sisters.
And a semantic nit: Let’s get back to speaking of “the truth,” instead of “my truth.” Think: Bringing my story, speaking the truth.
By no means am I saying women should hold back on a valid claim of involuntary sexual assault; this lifelong feminist cheers taking action and the Weinstein guilty verdict gives hope of a fair and successful hearing in doing so. But to protect #MeToo, it is imperative that we consider the implications on all women of the actions we take. Because #MeToo is not just about you or me, it is about all women.
#MeToo = #UsToo.