Believe Women Matter

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.



Believe Women Matter — 19 Comments

  1. Hear, hear. In my immediate family, every single one of us have endured harassment, rape, or rape attempts. I was fired from a job for refusing to sleep with my boss. I didn’t complain–who could I complain to? He would lie, of course, and I had seen how badly this fifty-something guy had beaten his 19 year old wife.

    When my grandmother was raped as a young teen by a neighbor boy, she didn’t dare tell anyone–she knew that she would be tossed out of town as a floozie, her mother leading the pack. There is still too much “What did you do to invite it?” in our culture.

  2. It saddens me that this has been an issue all our lives — we are none of us young. I hope that our children can see a better world. I have handed the issue down to my daughter, so there is good hope of it.

      • My daughters have each encountered the same crap–from far too young an age. The younger one, at age 13, was home sick from school when a USPS worker rang the door to deliver a parcel. She went downstairs, signed for it… and the guy (who was not our usual postal carrier, whom we knew and liked) started hitting on her–obviously young, with a red runny nose, in a ratty bathroom. To her infinite credit she yelled at him: “Eww, my God, no! I’m a kid. What the fuck are you doing! Ewww.” And she called to report him to our post office (though whether they did anything is anyone’s guess).

        I don’t know if she would have been so intrepid had she not been in her own doorway, able to slam the gate and the door. Maybe she would, intrepid is her middle name. And both her father and I believed every word she said. Whether the manager of the post office did, I cannot tell you.

    • I couldn’t watch the whole thing, but I’m glad it’s out there. I really do have to get my news from the written word, because I yell at TV and radio, even when I agree (as here). In a written piece, I can skim past the official lies by Kelly and his ilk, knowing that the reporter or opinion writer has to mention them. But on TV, it’s hard to skip them.

  3. El V, my most personal person for many years now, has been taking huge strides within the last years as harassment, assault, rape, violence committed by men who target women has begun receiving more media attention. He’s always been that way about physical acts. But he’s getting it in all the millions of other ways that women experience this all time, especially now that the tech industry is showing its colors. He’s actually become sensitive to mansplaining, and how often he would do it. I mean, he really is sensitive in ways he never was before — and he feels pretty sheepish about it. He’s realized what he never did before how women can feel threatened and demeaned so easily in ways that men — particularly a tall man like him, with a very sharp mind and wit, has never in his life considered because such things do not happen to him.

    I heard a radio piece a few days ago in which a man says that men as allies, the media, etc., are going about this all wrong, by putting these matters in such terms as “how many women are raped,” as opposed to how many men commit rape, ” how many women are subject to physical abuse,” as opposed to how many men hit women. What he means by this is the abstracting of women are subject to by removing the person who commits the abuse. It seemed a good understanding of how this all continues. He says with the abstraction of it, men are removed from the equation and nobody does this, it just ‘happens.’

    (posting from Mexico, so we’ll see how this works)

    • I think that’s a good shift in the discussion, to focus on the persons committing the abuse.

      One thing I remember reading awhile back in relation to sexual harassment (and worse) in the military was that the atmosphere created by a commander could enable it or shut it down. If a commander let it happen without action or actively encouraged it by his own actions, it would get out of control. If a commander took a no-nonsense stand against it and backed it up, it wouldn’t.

      In many groups of men, there are a couple of assholes who will do this stuff and many other men who are made uncomfortable but don’t want to stand up to the assholes. We need those men to start standing up.

      • Yes, for sure. Back when we were at Tulane, one of our best friends on the faculty that had brought us, was a younger fellow whom el V had mentored through his dissertation on Brazilian politics of the 1960’s and the Tropical musical movement. El V has had an unfortunate habit of interrupting me, telling me to get on with it, etc. — C called him out on it every time el V did it. It made a difference. For one thing it’s also important for men to realize that others do not necessarily see something as they do. Something el V learned from this, was no matter how often I would tell him that “I am not you,” “stop thinking that everything I say or do is you doing it or others thinking I am doing it,” he never got it. It’s part of that male – female couple dynamic I still see played out so often. The male assumes that she is He, rather than a We, This is a very difficult lesson for men to learn, it’s such ingrained foundational patriarchal thinking for thousands of years — We means ME!