For whom is the sex abuse bell tolling?

Rebecca Traister writes an excellent and comprehensive article in New York magazine that looks at many facets of the current sex abuse controversy. She thinks that this bell is tolling for pretty much all of us. I will give just a few quotes about each aspect that she touches.

She argues that what we are seeing is a watershed event for the feminist movement.

This is not feminism as we’ve known it in its contemporary rebirth — packaged into think pieces or nonprofits or Eve Ensler plays or Beyoncé VMA performances. That stuff has its place and is necessary in its own way. This is different. This is ’70s-style, organic, mass, radical rage, exploding in unpredictable directions. It is loud, thanks to the human megaphone that is social media and the “whisper networks” that are now less about speaking sotto voce than about frantically typed texts and all-caps group chats.

Really powerful white men are losing jobs — that never happens. Women (and some men) are breaking their silence and telling painful and intimate stories to reporters, who in turn are putting them on the front pages of major newspapers.

But she says that the very intensity of the mood has produced conflicting emotions as women are suddenly confronting issues that they long suppressed and are now forced to deal with all the ambiguities and contradictions, especially when it comes to the men in their lives who might have thought that they were free from any guilt but are now realizing that complicity comes in many subtle forms.

But it’s also harrowing because it’s confusing; because the wrath may be fierce, but it is not uncomplicated. In the shock of the house lights having been suddenly brought up — of being forced to stare at the ugly scaffolding on which so much of our professional lives has been built — we’ve had scant chance to parse what exactly is inflaming us and who. It’s our tormentors, obviously, but sometimes also our friends, our mentors, ourselves.

Part of the challenge, for me, has been in my exchanges with men — the friends and colleagues self-aware enough to be uneasy, to know they’re on a list somewhere or imagine that they might be. They text and call, not quite saying why, but leaving no doubt: They once cheated with a colleague; they once made a pass they suspect was wrong; they aren’t sure if they got consent that one time. Are they condemned? What is the nature and severity of their crime? The anxiety of this — how to speak to guys who seek feminist absolution but whom I suspect to be compromised — is real. Some of my friends have no patience for men’s sudden penchant for introspection, but I’m a sucker; I feel for them. When they reach out, my impulse is to comfort. But reason — and a determination not to placate, not now — drives me to be direct, colder than usual: Yes, this is a problem. In fact, it’s your problem. Seek to address it.

Still, I’m half-frustrated by men who can’t differentiate between harmless flirtation and harassment, because I believe that most women can. The other half of me is glad that these guys are doing this accounting, reflecting on the instances in which they wielded power. Maybe some didn’t realize at the time that they were putting the objects of their attention at a disadvantage, but I must acknowledge that some, even my friends, surely did.

She then looks at the fact that only a certain class of women have the privilege of speaking out publicly now while all the others can only stew in silent rage or whisper about it among trusted close friends.

Considering all of these angles, it’s easy to conclude that this moment actually isn’t radical enough, because it’s limited to sexual grievances. One 60-year-old friend, who is single and in a precarious professional situation, says, “I’m burning with rage watching some assholes pose as good guys just because they never put their hands on a colleague’s thigh, when I know for a fact they’ve run capable women out of workplaces in deeply gendered ways. I’m very frustrated, because I’m not in a position right now to spill some beans.”

There is another realm of anger here, arising from our knowledge that even the long-delayed chance to tell these repugnant truths is built on several kinds of privilege. As others have observed, it matters that the most public complaints so far have come from relatively affluent white women in elite professions, women who’ve worked closely enough with powerful white men to be available for harassment. Racism and class discrimination determine whose stories get picked up and which women are readily believed.

That reality fogs some of the satisfaction we feel in watching monstrous men lose their influence; we know that it’s a drop in a bottomless bucket. “Maybe we can get another two horrible people to have to step down or say they’re sorry,” one Democratic lawmaker told me, “but that helps only 20 people, and it’s 20 million who need things to change. Plus, you’re a farmworker? A lady who cleans offices? You’re a prostitute or an immigrant? You’re not going to tell your story.”

She says that fear, real fear, of being found out and exposed and suffering consequences, is what will drive change.

The truth is, the risk of exposure that makes us feel anxious about the well-being of our male friends and colleagues — the risk of being named and never recovering — is one of the only things that could ever force change. Because without real, genuine penalties on the line, without generations of men fearing that if they abuse their power, if they treat women like shit, they’ll be out of jobs, shamed, their families devastated — without that actual, electric, dangerous possibility: Nothing. Will. Change. Companies will simply start investing more in sexual-harassment insurance (a real thing!) and make payouts a line item in the budget, and we’ll go back to talking about how men are just men.

She also sees a backlash coming and what will trigger it, and that the more extreme behaviors will cause us to shrug at the less extreme ones, though the impact of the latter on the people at the receiving ends could be as severe.

Yet you can feel the backlash brewing. All it will take is one particularly lame allegation — and given the increasing depravity of the charges, the milder stuff looks lamer and lamer, no matter how awful the experience — to turn the tide from deep umbrage on behalf of women to pity for the poor, bullied men. Or one false accusation could do it. One man unfairly fired over a misinterpreted bump in the elevator could transform all of us women into the marauding aggressors, the men our hapless victims.

What needs to be done? The only real solution is equality in power for women. As we know, women have nowhere near equal representation, remuneration, or power in the working world. There have been many studies of why this is so but the fact that so many women, because of the harassment they experience early in their careers, feel forced to change jobs and move to those with lower prospects, or even leave the field altogether, could well be a major factor in why they have not advanced as much.

Many men will absorb the lessons of late 2017 to be not about the threat they’ve posed to women but about the threat that women pose to them. So there will be more — perhaps unconscious — hesitancy about hiring women, less eagerness to invite them to lunch, or send them on work trips with men; men will be warier of mentoring women.

The only real solution may be one that is hardest to envision: equality. As Kristen Gwynne, who has worked for and with multiple harassers, says, “What bothers me is that this moment, as good as it is, prompts the question: What are women getting out of it? I lost time. It affected my self-esteem and my ability to produce work. So even if the people who did target me were punished, I still feel like I deserve some sort of compensation. I don’t want them to release a public apology — I want them to send me a check. I wish we could storm the offices of these men, kick them out, and change the locks. We should demand something different of men that’s not just them going to rehab. Put women in power.”

Heather McLaughlin, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State University, recently described in an interview with “Marketplace” radio her study showing that about half of women in their late 20s who’ve experienced harassment start looking for a new job within two years of the incident. For those who’ve endured more serious harassment, the figure is around 80 percent — and many opt to leave their chosen professions altogether: to start over, often in less male-dominated fields, which of course tend to be lower-paying. Ina Howard-Parker, a former book publicist who told me she was harassed at several progressive publishing houses, did just that. “I ended up deciding I’d rather work at Trader Joe’s, where at least there’s an HR department and rules of engagement at work.” She now renovates houses in rural Pennsylvania.

Traister pretty much touches all the bases in this very complicated issue.


  1. says


    Thank you for alerting me to Traister’s piece. Many times I’ve had the discussion about can bad men (never women or even just bad people, but bad men) produce great works. One of the common examples has been the music of the raging antisemite Richard Wagner.

    After reading Traister work I find myself asking a different question: How many even greater works died on the vine because they were overshadowed by these bad men?

    Before this morning I had little hope that this was an actual sea change. I feel differently now.



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