The pattern has become familiar. Day after day we get new names of well-known people accused of the behavior ranging from the gross to the illegal, almost always by men of power and influence and aimed at young women and men whose careers they could influence positively or negatively. Their targets felt intimidated from speaking out against them directly or complain to their superiors. What has become clear is that these men behaved with impunity because they felt that their position gave them immunity. Clearly, if things are to change, people must realize that whoever they are, if they abuse their power over people they will be exposed and suffer the consequences.
But now comes the hard part. What should be the consequences?
This is not going to be easy to answer. For one thing, there is a whole range of offenses ranging from the downright illegal to those that are not illegal but utterly gross. Even for those actions that are illegal, the statue of limitations has passed for many. Even when they are still prosecutable, the cases are going to be tough because many of these predators were savvy enough to commit their offenses when there were no witnesses around. The case against them will be largely circumstantial, based on the sheer numbers of accusers willing to come forward publicly, the similarities of their stories, and if they recounted the events to others contemporaneously.
Other cases may not be illegal. Take for example TV broadcaster Charlie Rose. In addition to lewd phone calls and groping, he would apparently ask people to his home or hotel room to work and then excuse himself to take a shower. He would then emerge naked and walk around, seemingly oblivious to the discomfort of the co-worker. Apparently this behavior was so well-known to the cognoscenti that it was referred to by them as Rose’s ‘shower trick’. While there are usually laws against public nudity, I think that it is not illegal to walk around naked in one’s own home or hotel room even if others are present, though I may be wrong.
Should there be a graded scale where offenses are punished based on the severity of the offense? The problem with the latter is that judging severity is highly contextual. Under certain circumstances, depending on the situation and the victim’s age and degree of vulnerability, what others might consider a minor offense could be quite traumatic. And who gets to decide what the punishment should be? And what compensation should the victims who suffered psychologically in addition to having their careers hindered or even destroyed, get and who should pay it?
Or should there be the equivalent of a zero-tolerance policy, whereby any violation of norms above a certain well-defined threshold is punished harshly? Who gets to decide what that threshold is and what the punishment should be? Some of the victims may simply want the emotional release of being able to finally tell their stories publicly after suppressing them for so long. Others may just want to be believed. Others may want to see the offender punished. At least some of the victims who suffered psychologically in addition to having their careers hindered or even destroyed, may feel that they deserve some tangible recompense.
At the moment the price paid by these predators has been determined ad hoc. Some have lost their jobs or been suspended pending an inquiry but many of the names in the news are people who are not employed like most of us but are more like free agents, signing contracts for short periods and have either had those contracts terminated or suspended while others have withdrawn from the public gaze. Such people may come back after lying low for a while and hiring professionals to rehabilitate their image.
There needs to be a frank and open discussion of what should be done to prevent such abuses in the future. What is clear is that the perpetrators seem to span the entire political and ideological spectrum. One the surface, you would think that this would enable us to set aside partisan feelings and discuss this issue more objectively to arrive at an equitable solution. Fat chance. We are in an era where everything is viewed through a highly partisan lens and the first instinct of many will be to try to find ways to defend the people on ‘their’ side while harshly criticizing those they consider their opponents. Many of the abusers have highly partisan supporters who will either dismiss the allegations against them as politically motivated or downplay their seriousness.
But despite those problems, we do have a short window of opportunity to take a serious look at this problem before it disappears from the public gaze. What will keep it in the spotlight longer than (say) the killing of civilians in some foreign country or the plight of refugees or the lack of power in Puerto Rico is that this story involves sex and celebrities and we know that the media loves those.