Setting All Kinds of Limits

Becky O'Malley
Saturday October 21, 2017 - 12:43:00 PM

Seeing how users of social media quickly come to resemble lemmings leaping off a cliff is disheartening, to say the least. One might decide to test the water, and thousands follow, right or wrong. Sadly, the righteous indignation over sexual harassment is being exploited by some as a vehicle for complaining about real or imagined personal grievances that have nothing to do with sex.

Now, outing producer Harvey Weinstein as the most prominent practitioner of Standing Operating Procedure in the entertainment industry is long overdue. As someone who went to high school in the Los Angeles area sixty years ago, I can to this day tell you the girls—friends of friends—who encountered what we used to call the casting couch, and which of them succumbed in order to get trivial parts in B-pictures. I can even name the moderately successful starlet we knew about who had a child after, shall we say, ultimately non-consensual relations with a famous leading man. 

It’s remarkable that this culture has endured for such a long time, despite widespread common knowledge and occasional minor exposés. Time and past time to bring it to light.

And of course it wasn’t just “the industry” and it wasn’t just employment. There was the athlete at my high school who married her much too handsome tennis coach right after graduation (though this story loses some of its power to shock given the current French president.) Anyone who’s ever been near academia knows about torrid relationships between professors and students, not all of them heterosexual or male-dominated. None of this is new, none has been much of a secret.

We could go on in this vein at great length and not run out of examples going back the sixty years I remember and much farther. Semi-coercive sexual conduct between people of unequal power has always existed and always been wrong, of course, and most often it’s men coercing women. It’s good to get it completely out in the open.

But it’s a crying shame that the bandwagon effect has induced many, many people, mostly women, to jump on #MeToo as a way of complaining about imagined slights or unwanted but non-sexual attention from men. Publishing so many of these bogus tales of woe results in diluting the perceived seriousness of the valid accounts of women who were grievously injured by Harvey Weinstein and his ilk.

I’ve been deeply annoyed in the last couple of days by getting an email from a woman I hardly knew, an actor as it happens, someone I’d made the mistake of accepting as a “friend” before I noticed what an energy sink Facebook is and stopped looking at it. She told me to be sure and check out her latest Facebook post, which I made the serious mistake of doing. There she recounts, in lurid quasi-Victorian prose, a perfectly commonplace series of housemate disputes with a male co-tenant, but frames them as if they were sexual harassment. 

What did the guy do? Well, she says, he “exhibited aggressive and threatening body language, verbally hinted at threats” and more in the same vein. What exactly does it mean to “verbally hint at threats”? Not the same as making threats, evidently. I suspect he glowered at her, and who wouldn’t, the way she admits she was acting? 

Yes, she seems to have made him mad, but judging from accounts of a series of tiffs they had, which seem to be mostly over housekeeping standards, even a woman might have found her trying and shown it by body language. I did check with other women I know who had lived in the house with him, and none reported anything of an inappropriate sexual nature. 

And even if everything sexual she hints at but doesn’t describe in her “wink wink nudge nudge” story were true, which I doubt is the case, she could have moved out months before she did. She could have blocked him from her email, text and telephone, which she didn’t. She could have asked their landlord to evict him, which she didn’t (though landlords of consenting adults generally don’t regard themselves as being in loco parentis for their tenants.) 

Instead she waited two years before posting these unsubstantiated charges on Facebook. The man’s identity is thinly disguised, but will be obvious to their mutual friends. He has no real way of defending his reputation, since she doesn’t charge him with anything tangible enough to deny. Nevertheless, if I were to advise her, which I won’t, I would suggest that she retain a libel defense lawyer just in case. 

There are many valid reports of genuinely bad Weinstein-type situations in the #MeToo chain, and attention must be paid to them. But it is a serious mistake to encourage women to portray themselves as powerless victims as this one does, especially when nothing has actually happened. This particular case is more pathetic than shocking, but all women can and should learn to stick up for themselves in any situation. We are not victims by nature. 

A woman should be empowered, on her own, to firmly decline unwanted sexual attention, even if it means risking a career. For an excellent role model, women can look to Lupita Nyong’o’s op-ed in the New York Times, where she describes a series of encounters with Harvey Weinstein in which she maintained her dignity and physical safety and yet went on to a distinguished career. 

She deserves admiration for finally telling the story, but she, like thousands of other women who’ve survived similar threats, deserves even more admiration for courageously taking care of herself. He might be powerful, but she’s smart and she’s right, and that makes her even more powerful than he is in the long run. Everyone can learn from her experience. Also, however, it's important that the very real problems of both sexual harassment and sexual assault not be trivialized by those like my correspondent who try to attach these meaningful labels to every trivial argument.