There’s a problem with the way feminism moves forward in reaction to breaking news stories. It brings focus to a single predator, a single incident, and people who haven’t faced the pervasiveness of misogyny can build stories around it about why this was the exception, not the rule. That Harvey Weinstein was typical of liberals or Hollywood, or Roy Moore and Bill O’Reilly were typical of conservatives, that this mass killer with a domestic violence background was typical of veterans or loners or was mentally ill, that case after case is a glitch in the pattern of society, not the pattern itself. But these are the norms, not the abberations. This is a society still permeated and shaped and limited by misogyny, among other afflictions.
Obviously—as we keep having to reassure them, because when we’re talking about our survival we’re supposed to still worry about men feeling comfortable—not all men, but enough to impact virtually all women. And in another way all men, because we’re all warped by living in such a society, and because as Kevin Spacey’s case demonstrates, though men are nearly always the perpetrators, other men and boys are sometimes the victims. Being groomed to be a predator dehumanizes you, as does being groomed to be prey. We need a de-normalization of all that so we can rehumanize ourselves.
Women spend their lives negotiating survival and bodily integrity and humanity in the home, on the streets, in workplaces, at parties, and now on the internet. The torrent of stories that has poured forth since the New Yorker and New York Times broke the long-suppressed stories about Weinstein tell us so. They tell us so in the news about famous women at the hands of famous men, in social media about the experiences of not-so-famous women and the endless hordes of abusers out there, whether we’re talking rape, molestation, workplace harassment, or domestic violence.
This seems to be what’s produced the shock in a lot of what we are supposed to call good men, men who assure us they had no part in this. But ignorance is one form of tolerance, whether it’s pretending we’re in a colorblind society or one in which misogyny is some quaint old thing we’ve gotten over. It’s not doing the work to know how the people around you live, or die, and why. It’s ignoring or forgetting that we had this kind of story explosion before, in the 1980s, with Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991, after the Steubenville gang rape and New Delhi rape-torture-murder in late 2012, and the Isla Vista mass shooting in 2014. One sentence I come back to again and again is James Baldwin’s: “It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.” He’s talking about white people in the early 1960s ignoring the violence and destructiveness of racism, their opting out of seeing it.
You can say the same about men who have not bothered to see what is all around us: a country in which a woman is beaten every 11 seconds, in which as the New England Journal of Medicine put it, “domestic violence is the most common cause of nonfatal injury to women in the United States,” and male partners and former partners were responsible for a third of all murders of women in the US, in which there are hundreds of thousands of rapes a year and only about 2 percent of rapists do time for their crimes. A world in which Bill Cosby wielded a power that could silence more than 60 women and let his crime spree go unchecked for half a century, in which Weinstein assaulted and harassed more than 109 women who, for the most part, had no recourse until something in the system broke, or changed. A world in which Twitter temporarily shut down Rose McGowan’s account for a tweet related to Weinstein that allegedly contained a phone number, but did nothing when alt-right pundit Jack Posobiec tweeted out the workplace address of the woman who reported Moore sexually exploited her when she was 14, as it has done nothing about so many campaigns of threat against outspoken women.
Because here’s a thing you might have forgotten about women being menaced or assaulted or beaten or raped: we think we might be murdered before it’s over. I have. And because there’s often a second layer of threat “if you tell.” From your assailant, or from the people who don’t want to hear about what he did and what you need. Patriarchy kills off stories and women to maintain its power. If you’re a woman, this stuff shapes you; it scars you, it tells you you are worthless, no one, voiceless, that this is not a world in which you are safe or equal or free. That your life is something someone else may steal from you, even a complete stranger, just because you’re a woman. And that society will look the other way most of the time, or blame you, this society that is itself a system of punishment for being a woman. Silence over these things is its default setting, the silence feminism has been striving to break, and is breaking.
Each individual action may be driven by an individual man’s hate or entitlement or both, but those actions are not isolated. Their cumulative effect is to diminish the space in which women move and speak, our access to power in public, private, and professional spheres. Many men may not have perpetrated it directly, but as some have finally discussed, they benefitted from it; it knocked out some of their competition, it dug a Mariana Trench through the playing fields we’re always being told are level. Diana Nyad, the world-famous swimmer who has just revealed that starting when she was 14 her Olympic-champion swim coach began sexually assaulting her, talks about the harm she suffered, the way that it changed who she was, diminished her well-being. She says, “I might have defied ruin, but my young life changed dramatically that day. For me, being silenced was a punishment equal to the molestation.” This story: it could be that of dozens of women I know, hundreds or thousands whose stories I’ve heard.
We treat the physical assault and the silencing after as two separate things, but they are the same, both bent on annihilation. Domestic violence and rape are acts that say the victim has no rights, not to self-determination or bodily integrity or dignity; that is a brutal way to be made voiceless, to have no say in your life and fate. Then to not be believed or to be humiliated or punished or pushed out of your community or your family—or in the case of Rose McGowan after Harvey Weinstein allegedly raped her, followed by spies intent on containing your voice and undermining your truth—is to be treated the same way over again. Ronan Farrow just exposed the network of spies employed to keep her silent; fellow New Yorker writer Emily Nussbaum noted, “if Rose McGowan had told the story of the Mossad spies earlier, everyone would have simply assumed she was nuts.”
Because we tell stories about what’s normal, or we’re told them, and this level of malevolence from our prominent men is not supposed to be normal, even when we have so many stories confirming that it is. So many women who told stories about men trying to harm them were treated as crazy or as malicious liars, because it’s easier to throw a woman under the bus than a culture. The bus rolls forward on a red carpet of women. Trump gets out of the bus and brags about getting away with grabbing women by the pussy and gets elected president less than a month later. He puts in place an administration that starts clearcutting women’s rights, including the rights of victims of sexual assault.
Fox renewed Bill O’Reilly’s contract after he settled a sexual harassment claim for 32 million dollars, a payment for silence from the victim that included destroying all the emails that documented what he had done to her. The Weinstein film company kept paying off victims, and the settlements purchased the victims’ silence. Fellow straight men in comedy apparently formed a protective wall of silence around Louis CK, making it clear that the man who kept jerking off at unwilling, non-consenting, appalled women was more valuable than those women were and would remain more audible than them. Until something broke; until journalists went fishing for the stories that had been hidden in plain sight. And the stories poured forth: about publishers, restaurateurs, directors, famous writers, famous artists, famous political organizers. We know these stories. We know how the victim in the 2012 Steubenville rape was harassed and threatened for reporting a rape by her high school peers. Four adults in the school district were indicted for obstructing justice by covering up the crimes. The message was clear: boys matter more than girls. One 2003 investigation reported that 75 percent of women who report workplace sexual harassment faced retaliation.
What would women’s lives be like, what would our roles and accomplishments be, what would our world be, without this terrible punishment that looms over our daily lives? It would surely rearrange who holds power, and how we think of power, which is to say that everyone’s life might be different. We would be a different society. We have shifted a little over the past 150 years or so, but since the Civil War, black people have still been held back, since women got the vote 77 years ago, women of all colors have still been kept out, and of course black women got it both ways. Who would we be if our epics and myths, our directors and media moguls, our presidents, congressmen, chief executive officers, billionaires were not so often white and male? For the men now being exposed controlled the stories—often literally as radio executives, film directors, heads of university departments. These stories are doors we walk through or doors that slam in our faces.
It is to the credit of Diana Nyad that, despite having a rapist as a coach, she became a great swimmer, to the credit of those Olympic gymnasts on the US team that they won gold medals despite having a molester for their doctor (more than 100 women have accused him to date). But who might they have been, in their personal lives as well as their professional achievements, without such harm being inflicted upon them by men who wished to harm them, who regarded harming them as their right and their pleasure? Who might we all have been if our society didn’t just normalize but celebrate this punishment and the men who inflict it? Who have we lost to this violence before we ever knew them, before they ever made their mark on the world?
Half a century after the fact, Tippi Hedren told how Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted and harassed her off-camera and punished her on-camera and then told her, “his face red with rage,” if she continued rejecting his advances, “I’ll ruin your career.” Hitchcock, whose desire to punish beautiful women drives many of his films, did his best to do so, even blocking an Oscar nomination for her starring role in his 1964 film Marnie. These famous people are not the exceptions, but the examples, the public figures we know playing out the dramas that are happening in schools and offices and churches and political campaigns and families too.
We live in a world where uncountable numbers of women have had their creative and professional capacity undermined by trauma and threat, by devaluation and exclusion. A world in which women were equally free and encouraged to contribute, in which we lived without this pervasive fear, might be unimaginably different. In the same way, a United States in which people of color did not have their votes increasingly suppressed, in which they did not also face violence and exclusion and denigration, might not just have different outcomes in its recent elections but different candidates and issues. The whole fabric of society would be something else. It should be. Because that is what justice would look like, and peace, or at least the foundation on which they could be built.
Rebecca Traister and others have made the important point that we should not mourn the end of the creative lives of the men being outed as predators; we should contemplate the creative contributions we never had, will never know, because their creators were crushed or shut out. When Trump was elected we were told not to normalize authoritarianism and lies, but the losses due to misogyny and racism have been normalized forever. The task has been to de-normalize them and break the silence they impose. To make a society in which everyone’s story gets told.
This too is a war about stories.