So is this a cultural shift, or just a passing moment?
Women have known too many men who say all the right things, only to do all the wrong things. Unless actions replace hashtags and value signaling, we’ll see old power structures and patterns of behavior remain as entrenched and unequal as ever—along with a healthy new dose of mistrust and resentment with which women will contend.
The #MeToo movement. “The Silence Breakers” named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. High-profile resignations in media, entertainment, and politics. The defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race. All of these could be signs of a cultural change; it’s too soon to say. Many men bristle at any mention of “the patriarchy” or “rape culture” or “white male privilege,” but those describe the culture that must acknowledge itself before it can change.
I joined the workforce more than 30 years ago at the age of fifteen. Sexual harassment was commonplace. That was not evidence that women found their abuse acceptable. Rather, evidence that not all groups have equal power to embrace or reject a culture that harms them. The victimization of marginalized groups continues because the culture is determined by those who benefit from their own complacency, complicity, and contentment. Spousal rape did not become a crime until 1979, but no one with a firm grasp on their sanity would argue that women found rape at the hands of their husbands an acceptable part of the culture.
Of the high-profile men who have recently been accused of workplace harassment or assault, there is near uniformity in the culture they represent. The New York Times is maintaining a depressing, but useful running list of prominent people accused of sexual misconduct. They come in all ages and sexual orientations, from all sorts of professions. Their victims, too, range in age, gender, sexual orientation and race. But, with few exceptions, those accused are male, economically or professionally privileged, and white. When we refer to a cultural shift, that is the culture that must change.
As more people come forward to share their stories of assault or harassment and demand that the perpetrators be held to account, the offenders’ excuses also exhibit similar themes. In addition to pretending that, back in their day, women welcomed harassment and assault, many have described the events as a mere misreading of the women’s sexual interest in them. Charlie Rose explained that, until his behavior became public, he simply thought he was pursuing mutual sexual interest. It is pure and simple victim-blaming and shaming and it is inexcusable. Little wonder that women and other marginalized groups are skeptical that a cultural shift is, indeed, occurring.
A culture than enables and protects those who harass, assault, and discriminate existed for centuries. Yet only eight months after Bill O’Reilly’s firing, some men are already crying “witch hunt” and asking where will it end. For a bit of perspective, little more than one year ago, our country elected a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women and recounted with glee his ability to ogle nude teenagers. Roy Moore may have lost his Senate bid, but we have African American voters to thank for his defeat; 73 percent of white men supported Moore and, perhaps more disconcerting, so did a majority of white women.
Disturbingly, many in “the culture” seem to believe the solution is to step-up the current, unacceptable level of discrimination. If women are coming forward in increasing numbers to report assault or harassment by men, the culture reasons, then men in positions of power should avoid being alone with women. To suggest that, for no reason other than a women’s gender, men in positions of power should limit access to themselves is a textbook description of sexual discrimination. Men who promote this tactic indict themselves, revealing they either a) think women coming forward are lying, or b) believe men are incapable of not sexually harassing or assaulting women if the opportunity arises. I don’t believe either is true of the majority of men. It’s a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction that requires serious examination to prevent a new round of discrimination against women.
When the culture recognizes that the problem with harassment and assault is that it occurs, not that victims reveal the abuse, that will be evidence of real change. The culture must recognize that good leadership includes a fuller engagement with women as professionals and adopt hiring and promotion practices that eliminate the innate advantages for white men. With true cultural change men will join with “The Silence Breakers” to insist that their culture end its longtime commitment to preserving, protecting, and defending their power and privilege with all too little regard for others.