Sex­ual ha­rass­ment is per­va­sive

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - By Gene Lyons NEA Con­trib­u­tor

OK then, #MeToo. Long ago and far away, I had an aca­demic su­pe­rior who en­joyed sex­u­ally hu­mil­i­at­ing younger men. There was un­wanted touch­ing — al­ways in so­cial sit­u­a­tions — but mainly it was about mak­ing sug­ges­tive re­marks hint­ing that be­ing a “hunk” was how I’d got­ten hired.

My “pretty lit­tle wife,” as she was in­sult­ingly called, got to stand there and watch. We had no idea how to de­fend our­selves. There was a se­cond guy in my depart­ment, also an ad­min­is­tra­tor with power over one’s ca­reer, who made a prac­tice of invit­ing younger men on manly hikes in the woods and mak­ing ag­gres­sive passes.

It was a thor­oughly poi­sonous at­mos­phere. I knew that to com­plain would in­vite ruin: first through what’s now called “gaslighting” — claim­ing I’d imag­ined ev­ery­thing — fol­lowed by ac­cu­sa­tions of sex­ual panic and ho­mo­pho­bia. A def­i­nite no-win sit­u­a­tion. Iron­i­cally, life in a New Eng­land col­lege town had been among my Arkansas wife’s girl­hood dreams. In­stead, she found her­self pa­tron­ized to her face when she opened her mouth — al­ways by aca­demics, never or­di­nary New Eng­lan­ders, I should stip­u­late. I quit be­fore they could fire me. But it was a real learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. In con­se­quence, al­though def­i­nitely not Mr. Sen­si­tive, when it comes to sex­ual abuse I’ve al­ways un­der­stood what women are talk­ing about.

Much of the time, it isn’t even about de­sire — apart from the de­sire to put you down and keep you there.

That said, my sit­u­a­tion was far less threat­en­ing than the women preyed upon by dis­graced movie mogul Har­vey We­in­stein. First, there was no pos­si­bil­ity of phys­i­cal force. Se­cond, my an­tag­o­nists’ power was lim­ited to the precincts of one pro­vin­cial aca­demic depart­ment. All I had to do was walk away. No harm, no foul. Not so We­in­stein. As the head hon­cho at one of the most suc­cess­ful movie com­pa­nies in the world, he had the where­withal to ad­vance or ruin an ac­tress’s en­tire ca­reer. Based upon first-per­son ac­counts in Ro­nan Far­row’s lengthy New Yorker ex­pose, he was a cal­cu­lat­ing preda­tor who set the same trap re­peat­edly in lux­ury ho­tel suites in New York, Hol­ly­wood, Lon­don and Paris.

He’d in­vite a young ac­tress to a meet­ing in his ho­tel suite, greet her with drink in hand wear­ing noth­ing but a bathrobe, and then pounce, some­times vi­o­lently. A big-time Demo­cratic donor, We­in­stein fol­lowed the script as writ­ten by Don­ald J. Trump. You re­mem­ber how it goes: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do any­thing ... Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do any­thing.”

If cer­tain of the New Yorker al­le­ga­tions could be proved — alas, they prob­a­bly can­not — We­in­stein be­longs not in some lux­ury Euro­pean re­hab, but an Amer­i­can pen­i­ten­tiary. He’s more than a sex­ual ha­rasser; he’s a rapist.

Also, ap­par­ently, a bully in other ways. “Lucky me,” com­mented the Bri­tish ac­tress Kate Winslet, “I some­how dodged that bul­let. The fact that I’m never go­ing to have to deal with Har­vey We­in­stein again as long as I live is one of the best things that’s ever hap­pened and I’m sure the feel­ing is uni­ver­sal.”

Al­though he’s pro­duced hu­mane films such as “Good Will Hunt­ing,” “The Cry­ing Game,” “Pulp Fic­tion” and “Shake­speare in Love,” tales of his tem­per tantrums are uni­ver­sal.

That said, We­in­stein didn’t in­vent the con­cept of the Hol­ly­wood cast­ing couch, nor the louche sex­ual ethics of the movie busi­ness gen­er­ally. Trad­ing sex­ual fa­vors for sought-af­ter parts is as old as the the­ater. The an­cient Greek drama­tists Sopho­cles and Euripi­des were fa­mous for their ad­ven­tur­ous love lives. In­deed, one of the most in­ter­est­ing ar­ti­cles to emerge from the We­in­stein af­fair was Slate’s re­count­ing of a Bri­tish fan magazine’s 1956 ex­pose en­ti­tled “The Per­ils of Show Busi­ness.”

In­con­gru­ously il­lus­trated with cheese­cake pho­tos, it fea­tured the fol­low­ing rules from ac­tress Marigold Rus­sell work­ing women ev­ery­where would be well-ad­vised to heed: “One: When you have to talk busi­ness, stick to of­fices — and of­fice hours. Two: Re­fer in­vi­ta­tions and of­fers to your agent. Three: Don’t give your home phone num­ber, give your agent’s.”

Ac­tress and di­rec­tor Sarah Pol­ley writes that her agent wouldn’t let her meet We­in­stein alone when she was 19, which told her all she needed to know. She also fig­ured that “the idea of mak­ing peo­ple care about (Hol­ly­wood sex­ual pre­da­tion) seemed as dis­tant an am­bi­tion as pulling the sun out of the sky.”

Me, I’m so vain that I can’t imag­ine want­ing in­ti­macy with some­body that didn’t want me back. Which in the fi­nal anal­y­sis makes a bully like We­in­stein seem al­most pa­thetic to me, al­though not to his vic­tims, I’m sure.

That said, there’s also some­thing smug and ugly about these rit­ual me­dia ston­ings. For a colum­nist like the New York Times’ Bret Stephens to write that We­in­stein’s “re­pul­sive face turns out to be the spit­ting image of his pu­tres­cent soul” strikes me as se­ri­ously over the line.

We sin­less pun­dits hide care­fully be­hind our by­lines.

Gene Lyons

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