A lot of the discussion – the angry discussion – accompanying the much-applauded fall of Harvey Weinstein focuses on believing women. The argument is that if people believed women when they said they’d been harassed, assaulted, raped, things would change.
As Jessica Valenti put it in a recent column in Marie Claire (nice to see fashion magazines becoming a bit more political, by the way):
Imagine if our culture believed women who came forward about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. If it did, perhaps the victims of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged predatory behavior wouldn’t have feared coming forward on their own.
But I don’t think belief is the problem. It’s not that people don’t believe women; it’s that they don’t believe women matter.
When that Stanford swimmer got off with a slap on the wrist, it wasn’t that the judge didn’t believe he raped the woman in question. It was that the judge believed that such assaults against women aren’t important, especially when contrasted to the future of a white male athlete at an elite school.
And unfortunately it isn’t just men who don’t think rape, assault, and harassment by men against women are important. The new policies being put in place by the Secretary of Education make it clear that she doesn’t think women matter.
If you know your history, you know folks believed women when it was convenient to do so, as when white women accused Black men of rape. Many of those stories were lies, but no one who mattered – Black lives didn’t matter – failed to believe.
The closest I get to Hollywood is seeing the occasional movie. I sometimes read reviews, but I don’t pay attention to the gossip or the business side. I knew who Harvey Weinstein was, but I didn’t know anything else about him. (I could happily have gone the rest of my life without knowing some of the things I now know about him.)
Still, I knew the “casting couch” existed and I didn’t think it disappeared with the studio system. All those hordes of beautiful young women who work very hard at being beautiful are encouraged for a reason. They may believe they’re serious actors trying to build a career, but no one else does. Beautiful young women are there to serve the needs of powerful men.
I’m sure most of those young women think, “But for me it’s different,” because that’s what women do. We convince ourselves we’re the bright one, the talented one, the outstanding woman who is going to get chosen on her merits, not because she’s fuckable.
I wrote about my own experiences with harassment a year ago, when this topic was last all the rage. I came up with several examples, not counting the rape attack, which I don’t count because I successfully defended myself against that one. And I didn’t include some of the of the ordinary obnoxious ones, like the time a guy motioned me over to his car to ask directions. When I got close, I could see he had his dick in his hand. (Why didn’t I write down his license plate? Why didn’t I call the cops? Probably because I already knew that men did these things and no one cared.) To this day, I never get close to a car when I’m asked for directions, even when it’s a woman asking.
But the key one was the summer internship, the one where I didn’t quite realize what was happening and thought the problem I had with the boss was that I wasn’t hip enough. Nothing happened then, either – I’ve seen naked men before – except that I didn’t get the kind of mentorship I needed from that job. And it left me angry. I’m still angry.
The harassment related to work is probably worst in the fields where being a certain kind of beautiful is part of the job description, but that’s far from the only place women run into this particular brick wall. Harassment reports out of academia are common these days, but reading the stories people tell on Facebook or in other places makes it clear that it happens in every job from fast food to the corporate suite.
We believe the women; we just don’t believe it’s important. That guy makes the big sales; who cares if he puts his hand up his co-workers’ skirts. That one is the boss; you have to make nice to him. Or, in the best of circumstances, new women employees are advised, “Don’t let X get you off by yourself.”
We believe women. We just don’t believe women matter.
Women can learn how to handle these situations so that they don’t get raped or even fondled. They can learn how to be so intimidating that people don’t try. I’ve given talks on that subject and right now I’m writing a book about it. It’s useful and important and very possible. Women are encouraged to believe that they are too weak to do anything about abusive men, and that’s not true.
But while being able to protect yourself is good and important, it doesn’t solve the whole problem. Saying no might get you fired or keep you from getting a job. Being intimidating will definitely mean some men – employers among them – won’t even consider you. A knee to the groin, even in self defense, could get you arrested. Suing is useful, and we need for more women to do it, but there’s no guarantee you’ll win. And, of course, there are situations when more than your career is at stake.
We need to change laws and policies and the culture. It is most important that we hold the powerful men like Weinstein to account, but we also need to build a society that doesn’t tolerate the everyday abuse that all women experience.
No more “boys will be boys” – a phrase that is perhaps the most obvious example of the fact that we believe women, but don’t think that abuse of women is important.
We have to build a society in which we believe women matter.