Systemic sexism cracking under #MeToo

We’re in a #metoo cultural moment that’s removing blinders about systemic sexism. Let’s look at how we got here and explore what comes next.

If we do that honestly, feelings come up — anger, embarrassment, shame, regret. There’s probably not one of us who doesn’t wish we had understood things better earlier, hadn’t gone along with some of the sexist confines of our culture, had behaved differently in particular situations, or had been heard by others sooner. This goes for both men and women. It’s important to recognize these feelings, and equally important to channel them into positive action.

Anyone paying attention to the news lately has seen the tsunami of women’s voices uprooting our cultural landscape. Hundreds of thousands of women affirmed online through the hashtag #metoo that the alleged sexual harassment and assaults by film mogul Harvey Weinstein are perpetrated by lots of other people (mostly men) in all pockets of society. They’ve been doing it for a very long time, and they’re still doing it with very few repercussions.

One woman started a shared list of #metoo news accounts of sexual harassment and assault in various fields, a depressingly long list despite focusing just on the last year or so. (You can add to it and share.) These problems pervade academia, of course, despite being against the law under Title IX. One recent study of sexual harassment of graduate students found that both men and women get harassed in high numbers, though harassers target women significantly more than men. Men did most of the harassing of both sexes, the study found. Men have been assaulting and harassing women in the restaurant industry, the literary world, sports, politics, the military, the news industry, the faux news industry, and pretty much every pocket of society, if you look.

Keep in mind that sexual harassment and assault are not about sex. They’re about hierarchy, abuse of power, and coercion. Tolerance of sexual coercion gets perpetuated by myths that women want it and that men are just being men when they do it. Much of our entertainment industry and legal system pretend that these male fantasies are everyone’s realities. The juggernaut of the porn industry instills a sick enjoyment of coercion and hierarchy. These set-ups hurt men as well as women — men also abuse men to show power, and these myths make it harder for even well-meaning men to establish intimate relationships. The ingrained hierarchy of our sexist society still prioritizes men over women, though, so females get the brunt of the abuse.

Any of us raised in the United States have grown up in this toxic system that discriminates against women in all facets of society, not just in sexual relations. That makes it hard to see sexism or to change it when we think we see it, even in the people closest to us, until cultural shifts start to open our eyes.

That’s why Senator Birch Bayh, the “father” of Title IX and a legal champion of women’s rights, could not bring himself in the 1970s to “let” his smart, inspiring wife Marvella get a full-time job, for which she never quite forgave him. And it’s why Marvella acceded to his wishes. (See her autobiography, Marvella: A Personal Journey.)

It’s why the male staff of Rep. Don Fraser (D-Minn.) were able to cut out his politically savvy wife and strategic partner, Arvonne Fraser, from much of the inner workings of his Congressional office in the 1960s and 1970s. Luckily for us, she turned her considerable talents and knowledge to growing the women’s movement and as president of the Women’s Equity Action League became a prime defender of Title IX. (See her autobiography, She’s No Lady: Politics, Family, and International Feminism.)

It’s why the female students at Yale who filed the first sexual harassment complaint under Title IX in Alexander v. Yale in 1977 met condescension and hostility not just from male students and the male-dominated news media but from other women. One female student said later, “There was some sense that the women in the lawsuit were whining about issues they should have expected to face: We all faced them. Before Yale, at Yale, after Yale.” (See this excerpt from Nicole Allan’s To Break the Silence.)

There are deep psychological reasons why we can’t see mistreatment for what it is, especially when it comes from someone or something we trusted. In their excellent book Blind to Betrayal (Wiley, 2013), psychologists Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell document the widespread phenomenon of not fully seeing mistreatment and betrayal because of a need to protect a place in the world, or in society, in relation to others. It’s one reason why people who have been sexually assaulted may not remember or speak of the assaults until years later. It’s probably also a reason that mothers of male students who are accused of sexual assault or harassment do everything they can to “protect” their sons from consequences or even to acknowledge that young men may need better guidance and limits. Freyd and Birrell’s book details the severe consequences of remaining blind, however, in both personal and societal terms.

Add peer pressure, power, and prestige to the mix, and it gets even easier to turn a blind eye. That, in part, may be why I missed one of the most important stories of my career as a journalist. Many years ago as a medical news reporter I covered a presentation by the president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Dr. William Ayres. In his “research,” a strobe light shined on a 3-year-old girl triggered convulsions that “look just like an orgasm!” he announced gleefully. I knew in my gut that this sounded off, and he seemed kind of creepy, but around me hundreds of psychiatrists in the mostly male audience looked on passively, not questioning anything about it. So, I mentally dismissed it, not sure I had the resources or sufficient reasons to pursue it. Years later, in 2007, police charged him with molesting dozens of young patients. The news reports said all of his victims were boys, but I doubt that. Ayres finally wasted away in prison. His wife and son, blind to betrayal, defended him to the end.

Could I have prevented some of his crimes by digging into his conduct when I had the chance? Maybe. Or maybe the male power structure would have closed around him to prevent any change, as it did for decades around Weinstein, and Bill Cosby, and so many others.

What I do know is that I am ashamed that I didn’t say something then. Anything. It’s certainly not the only time in my life when I didn’t clearly see or act after sensing that something might be wrong. Things always seem clearer through the retrospectoscope. It’s important to acknowledge not only the individual failures but the larger influences that contributed to them. We can understand the mistakes and limitations of the past without condoning them. We can speak out to prod society toward a better future.

Quentin Tarantino (Via Sgt. Michael Connors/Wikimedia Commons)

Some men (very few, granted) who have seen the light since #metoo have spoken out. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg admitted, “Everybody fucking knew” about Weinstein’s harassment but didn’t stop it. Director Quentin Tarantino said he now feels ashamed for ignoring what he knew was happening. I was talking to an older relative recently about sex discrimination in past decades and he said of his fellow men, “We knew what we were doing.”

The ability of men to admit that their run-of-the-mill actions contributed to women’s pain and suppression comes only because women persisted in demanding better treatment. Thanks to feminism and opportunities under Title IX, recent generations of girls and boys have grown up not only knowing that some sexist behaviors are wrong but able to say so out loud. We no longer accept that it’s okay for a professor to demand sex for a good grade, as happened in Alexander v. Yale. We no longer say that employers sexually harassing employees is no big deal.

Anita Hill (Via Tim Pierce/Wikimedia Commons)

No one claims any more that men and women who are equally qualified for a job shouldn’t have the same chances of hiring and promotion. Women in the 1980s coined the terms gang rape and acquaintance rape and domestic violence to name assaults that the male-dominated culture had written off as the fault of women or something that the man had a right to decide. Anita Hill spoke up about being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas in the early 1990s and drew derision from male Senators but emboldened more women to speak their own truths. Female students in the past two decades, standing on the shoulders of women before them and armed with Title IX, have pushed the problems of sexual assault and institutional betrayal to the front burners of academic attention.

So, why are these problems still with us? Rebecca Traister hypothesizes in The Cut that Weinstein finally got called out only because over time he grew older, professionally weaker, and less powerful. In a devastatingly accurate piece, Jennifer L. Pozner points out in The Village Voice how mistreatment of women gets characterized as them liking it and institutionalized in Hollywood’s “romance” movies, scrambling perceptions of reality to fit rape culture. The ingrained sexist hierarchy persists — the prioritizing of power and profit over people, the myths that women are inferior or exist only to meet men’s needs, the frailty of men’s egos if they don’t get what they want from women.

That’s why when nearly 150 women working in politics in the California capital broke out in a chorus of “me too,” they didn’t name the men who harassed them. “It was just really important that we start to talk about a culture and a change in culture,” said Assemblywoman Autumn Burke. “When you make it about one person, it loses sight of how pervasive the problem is.”

These are deep flaws in our culture and our societal systems that require deep and broad changes. If #metoo helps open the eyes of enough men and women, perhaps we’ll adopt changes we already know of that can build a more equitable world. Instead of the divided stance of “me too,” our society could fundamentally embrace “we too,” together as equals.

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