Most American men have no idea what it’s like to go through life as an American woman. Judging from all that’s happened these past few weeks, I sure as hell don’t. Yes, there’s shameful inequality in pay, prestige and power, but that’s not what I’m talking about. You know exactly what I’m talking about.
It seems as if the Harvey Weinstein cesspool has triggered a torrent of recrimination, some of it repressed for decades. In showbiz, politics and business, predational heads are rolling so regularly that we probably need a new hashtag to save time: #HeToo. But as Roy Moore apologists are telling each other today at the Alabama polls, where “Democrat” is considered a term more obscene than “pedophile,” how can you believe somebody who silently sat on an outrage for forty years? Why would she only come forward now?
I think the short answer is: Donald Trump. In this sense and this one sense only, by utter foolish accident, he’s actually done some good.
Remember when electing a divorced president (Ronald Reagan) was slightly wicked? It was so long ago. The nuptial bar has since sunk so low that if Trump had picked Newt Gingrich as his running mate, they’d be tied in total wives with Henry VIII — and it’d be no big deal. But when candidate Trump was credibly accused of multiple molestations, even caught on tape bragging about how easy it was, he crossed a disgusting line — and when he was nevertheless elected anyway, something snapped. The first gush of mass loathing flooded city streets the day after his inauguration.
This cultural moment isn’t partisan, or political at all. As each day seems to bring a new set of accusations of “inappropriate behavior” — often a polite euphemism for grotesque acts that I naively thought were restricted to the mental institution — some men are amazed at how widespread the sordid history turns out to be, even felling some we’d once thought were “nice guys.” But women aren’t amazed. They simply say, welcome to my world.
I was chatting with a lady with whom I’d shared a relationship years ago. We worked in the same professional setting. She casually mentioned having had to fend off more than one clearly unwanted offer among the circle of people we served. I was astonished. We’d been as close as two people could be, yet she’d never mentioned that. Why? Because it’s simply the price our society exacts for being an attractive young woman. It wasn’t an issue because it was ordinary life and she’d become accustomed to it. I, on the other hand, had had no frickin clue.
Still don’t. As the current round of masculine embarrassments began (not all of them heterosexual), I posted a note trying to explain to my female friends that these shitheads did not represent menkind in general, that most of us were as flabbergasted as they. But I was mistaken. Women are not flabbergasted at all. Ask any adult you know whether she’s ever received an inappropriate sexual advance. Not every man behaves this way, sure. But it’s a fact of life for damn near every woman.
The difference between today’s accusers and those of Bill Clinton or Bill Cosby or Clarence Thomas — the reason for such momentum that seems to arise all at once — is that victims of sexual impropriety are no longer being reflexively disbelieved, vilified, or ignored out of hand. In the current climate you don’t call a whistle-blower “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” as David Brock infamously referred to Anita Hill. Still, Gretchen Carlson writes in this week’s Variety about feeling “incredibly isolated” after suing the late Fox News mogul Roger Ailes for harassment, and that was just a year and a half ago: Bill O’Reilly was still on the air. But each time somebody calls out a creep and is actually heard emboldens other victims who have sublimated their injuries, who have gone along to get along, and now those millions of microaggressed snowflakes are thundering down the mountain in the form of an avalanche. Still doubt it? They just became Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”
I’m not necessarily talking about putting up with the threat or reality of actual intercourse. There are hundreds of lesser ways to make women uncomfortable, and I’ve probably been guilty of a few myself (though in my long PE-class-based history of locker-room habitation, I’ve never heard anything even close to what Trump said to Billy Bush). The fact that my behavior didn’t register as improper on me, a self-regarded “nice guy,” is precisely the issue. You can’t make the world a better place until you finally put yourself in the other woman’s Blahniks. (New metaphor TK)
Is this just a random moment, or has something fundamentally changed? We will only be able to tell when things begin to not happen to women who aren’t within the spheres of powerful men in Hollywood or the media or politics (which is just showbiz for ugly people: groping, anyone?). And when something doesn’t happen, it never makes the cable news or the courts or the cover of Time. It’s like poor Obama trying to assert that without his stimulus package the Great Recession would have been much worse: try as you might, you can’t prove a counterfactual. But when his company’s unsmiling zero-tolerance policy forces the assistant shipping manager in the Boise regional office to self-edit his public appreciation for the sweet young intern, this lesson will have been internalized and a cultural page turned, just like the day they banned smoking in his office. We can’t hear about something that didn’t happen. Instead, let’s pay attention to how less frequently we have to use #HeToo.