the body politic

The Conversation We Should Be Having

For two weeks, we’ve been awash in fetid tales of sexual predation, harassment, assault, and every form of abuse of power we can imagine. We have read stories from actors and directors and writers and gymnasts, and scrolled through endless first-person accounts on social media as women tried to explain that we too know what it is to navigate the threatening terrain of oppressive sexual power dynamics, to be degraded or diminished or insulted. Around us, (some) men have also told their stories. They’ve apologized or reared back or expressed their bewilderment and horror — and have promised that now they are listening. And maybe this is it, the moment that the lights go on.

But why, then, does this feel like some Gilead-ean Groundhog Day? A dystopian retread of ugly weeks we have slogged through before, the threat that things might not only not improve, but degrade precipitously and unexpectedly, hanging menacingly over our every revelation? The fact is, we just did this — like, all of this — almost exactly a year ago.

It was last October that the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump was recorded bragging about how when you’re famous you can do anything to women, including grabbing them by the pussy, sparked a torrent of stories from women describing how they had been harassed or assaulted by the Republican candidate. There were Twitter hashtag campaigns; there were soaring and righteous speeches; there were even tepid denunciations of Trump from his own party.

This was not a small or quiet set of revelations; it felt seismic. It rocked and traumatized and electrified women — and, I was told at the time, men. I had conversations with guys, including a former senator, who told me of their shock at realizing how many of the women in their lives had been groped or catcalled or threatened or harassed. I remember stories from women who were so angry, so sure that this was the light-bulb moment at which everything was about to change, that they began to challenge and yell back at oglers and creeps on the street: Not anymore, buddy! Just wait till pussy grabs back, we promised.

And here we are. October is drawing, as every month of this year has, to its grim and dispiriting close. And as it does, women again contribute their searing, humiliating recollections to hashtag campaigns and listen to the men in our lives tell us how shocked, shocked they are to find that gambling is going on in here. And we tell each other that now, now is the moment that it all changes.

But what we keep missing, as we talk and reveal and expose, is that this conversation cannot be just about personal revelation or speaking up or being heard or even just about the banal ubiquity of abuse; it must also address the reasons why we replay this scene, over and over again. Part of what we have to come to grips with is that this is not a story simply of individual misconduct but of systemic inequity, a story of nuts-and-bolts infrastructure of gender injustice that has permitted generations — centuries — of this behavior, and that has worked again and again to beat back any resistance to it.

A few days after the stories about Harvey Weinstein broke, former Vice-President Joe Biden gave a blistering speech in which he lit into the film executive, noting correctly that “sexual assault is not about sex; it’s about power” and describing, in Biden’s words, “deeply embedded attitudes in our culture that for a thousand years have shamed the victims and have allowed the perpetrators to escape the consequences of their actions.” Biden also praised the “courageous women” who have spoken about their stories and argued that, “It’s long past time for the powerful men in Hollywood to speak up … Silence is complicity.”

Biden, the architect of the Violence Against Women Act and recently a strong voice in the movement to address campus sexual assault, was right about a lot of things in this speech. But what he did not reckon with was his own deeply embedded complicity, his own direct and serious role in protecting the powerful, in permitting the shaming of women, in directly silencing those willing to speak about their experiences of harassment.

In 1991, then-Senator Joe Biden led the all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee presiding over the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. When word got out that Anita Hill, a former colleague of Thomas, was willing to speak about how he’d sexually harassed her, Biden made no effort to seek her out or speak to her. He also initially resisted the calls of his female colleagues in the House to delay the vote to hear Anita Hill’s testimony.

Once Hill did appear before the Biden-led committee, she was interrogated about her sexual proclivities, called an “erotomaniac” and depicted as lonely and desperate (then-conservative writer David Brock famously referred to her as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”). Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, didn’t even object to Senator Orrin Hatch’s suggestion that Hill had copied one of her stories about Clarence Thomas from The Exorcist. Most crucially, however, Biden declined to call three other women who were willing to testify in support of Hill, including Angela Wright, a woman who had worked with Thomas and had previously complained of his having pressured her to date him and his comments about her breast size.

Altogether it was as vivid an example of every dynamic Biden described in his Weinstein excoriation last week: the shaming, the silencing, the ways in which long-embedded attitudes have allowed generations of perpetrators to escape consequences.

In the end, Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, where he has, ever since, diligently worked on the side of the powerful and against those who might want to challenge that power. He voted against reproductive autonomy. He voted to weaken equal-pay protections. He voted to dismantle the protections of the Voting Rights Act. And he voted in favor of weakening the federal ban on sexual harassment in the workplace — a decision that would make it infinitely more difficult for anyone to speak up in the manner Biden recommended.

It’s not that Biden was wrong to give the speech he gave about Weinstein, nor is this about making him pay in perpetuity for his individual past political crimes or ignoring the real ways in which he has evolved since the 1990s. In fact, it’s not about Biden individually — any more than this is about Harvey Weinstein or Clarence Thomas individually — at all.

The conversation we should be having, alongside the one about individual trespasses, is about mechanisms far larger than any one perpetrator. It’s about the kind of power structures that enable powerful individuals and then shield them from resistance or retribution.

Biden is right that this is not a story about sex, but about power. What he is failing to acknowledge is how he himself has been not just complicit, but an active participant in the long-term strengthening of exactly the kind of power dynamics, exactly the kind of mechanisms and institutions, that make the act of speaking up difficult, risky, and often futile.

We need to keep in mind how these complicated mechanisms work, as we read more upsetting stories, listen to more surprised reactions, ask ourselves again if we’re crazy or did this not just happen and wasn’t it supposedly going to get better and how did it get so, so much worse?

It got worse, in no small part, because of these big structural protections, because of the systems the powerful designed to protect the powerful from incursions by the less powerful.

Donald Trump won the presidency for a lot of reasons, including white women voting for him and Hillary not going to Wisconsin and racism and Facebook and Russia. But he also won because of the systems put in place by the men who’d come before him.

On November 8, 2016, 3 million more Americans chose Trump’s opponent. Were our voting truly democratic, Hillary Clinton would be president. And, yes, that’s not how the rules are written and so pointing to the popular vote doesn’t get us anywhere, but … that’s the point. Those rules were written, the Electoral College created, by powerful white men looking to preserve their own ability to abuse their power, to enrich themselves through slavery, and to overpower those who might object to those abuses.

The Electoral College and voter suppression — enabled by the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, enabled by Clarence Thomas, enabled by Joe Biden, enabled by the disproportionately white and male makeup of the ruling class — worked to elect a man who ran on the promise to create even more oppressive mechanisms: Muslim bans, and walls, the gutting of Title IX provisions, and the birth-control mandate. Those objecting once again have little ability to challenge them.

Joe Biden is right; men need to start speaking out, not just about other men, but about themselves, about the power they wield and the role they play in creating the realities that seem still to shock them.

The Conversation We Should Be Having