The Gross Political Exploitation of Women’s Pain
Do our leaders care about stopping sexual assault and protecting women even if it can't score them any political points?
The end of Harvey Weinstein’s reign in Hollywood has started a cultural domino effect. First, some of the women he’d hurt came forward. Then, women who had been hurt by other people in the same industry came forward. Then, women outside of Hollywood who had been sexually assaulted or harassed within their own industries started talking, sharing their experiences using the hashtag #MeToo. And now, everybody from MSNBC to CNN to USAToday agrees: somebody should do something.
The men agree that they should not sexually assault or harass women, and that they should listen to the stories of women (and men) who say they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted. The women sharing their stories agree that men have let them down. Everybody except maybe Woody Allen agrees: this is bad, all of this. At least on the surface.
In light of this groundswell of support for targets of sexual assault and harassment, a few tangentially related stories caught my eye this morning. The first dealt with a leaked document from the Trump White House that claimed, without statistics or facts to back it up, a lack of manufacturing jobs in America contributes to, among other things, domestic violence. The second story dealt with media hypocrisy in the midst of a sexual assault epidemic, and the third, a shameful legacy of sexual abuse in the Olympic gymnastics community. Two encompass how women’s pain is used for political gain and ignored when it requires work. The other reminds us how much real work is left before the problem is solved.
The White House’s two-page document, obtained by the Washington Post, was circulated by Peter Navarro, the director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy. Its aim was to present a case for the U.S. disentangling itself from NAFTA and other trade agreements. The document asserts that a decrease in U.S. manufacturing jobs leads to a whole host of other social ills, like abortion, a decrease in fertility, and domestic violence. How nice of the Trump administration to care about women when it helps them get things for men.
The Trump administration has only ever used the needs of women and girls as political props designed to bolster unrelated items on the president’s agenda, and this is no exception. Every subgroup of women, from domestic violence survivors to women who might want to have or not have children, have been targeted by White House policies. No serious person could believe that women’s health is suddenly of urgent concern when it comes to trade policy but not a concern when it comes to actual women’s health. Navarro’s document is gross.
Sexual assault and harassment are also suddenly a grave concern at Fox News, a network conceived of by and for men who love their news with a side of greased up lady legs, a network with an endemic sexual harassment problem that has led to several host firings and the ouster of founder Roger Ailes. Since Hollywood’s biggest open secret became public fodder, the network’s focus has been on Weinstein’s political affiliation, as though that somehow informed his actions. As though it matters to women who are sexually harassed or assaulted whether or not their abuser is a registered Democrat.
Writing at Crooked.com, Brian Beutler summarized this phenomenon thusly. “Trump’s enablers have taken an interest in the stomach-churning revelations about Harvey Weinstein not because they’re committed foes of workplace sexual misconduct or gender inequality, but because they want to neutralize one of Trump’s biggest liabilities (that he is an admitted sex offender) and undermine the credibility of the mainstream media in the process.”
I’d argue that it’s likely the sudden feminists at Fox don’t possess the self-awareness to realize they’re neutralizing Trump’s history of grabbing women by the wherever. To suddenly take umbrage with something that was once not that big a deal at Fox requires self-righteous self-delusion. Some pearl-clutchers at Fox probably think that getting mad about Harvey Weinstein is the same thing as doing something about sexual assault and harassment. But even with the best-faith reading, this mass red state awakening can’t change much. Despite what the internet might lead one to believe, getting angry isn’t the same thing as doing something.
Beyond Weinstein and Hollywood and partisanship, there’s plenty to get angry about in the #MeToo hashtag, and in McKayla Maroney’s story. Maroney claims that USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar molested her for years, starting when Maroney was 13 years old. Dr. Nassar has been accused of abuse by scores of women and girls and was charged in February with 22 counts of criminal sexual conduct. Five of those counts involve girls under 13 years old. While Americans cheered for Olympic gymnasts and gleefully memed McKayla Maroney’s disappointed silver medal face, she was experiencing unimaginable pain. Right in front of us, with the most people possible watching, he got away with it.
Nassar isn’t a political donor like Weinstein or a partisan mouthpiece like Ailes or the Republican president like Donald Trump. There are no political points to be gained by condemning him. A cynical part of me wonders if the story of Nassar’s decades-long stretch of alleged sexual exploitation of gymnasts, a story that dropped months ago, died from public discussion quickly because there was no way to use his case as a tool to implicate one’s ideological opponents. If the allegations against him are true, Nassar is a serial predator who was able to exploit women and girls for a generation without being caught, or without being stopped. Whatever enabled that environment to exist should be something everybody works to eliminate.
Putting the White House’s unending rain of bullshit, Fox News’ sudden case of The Morals, and Maroney’s admission beside each other brings into relief the gap between the problem we’re facing and the rhetoric packaged as though it’s addressing that problem. These three stories, together, show how women’s suffering is used as a means to a political end, something useful to win arguments and score craven political points, not a real problem that anybody has any intention of solving. The problem is women and girls are exploited by men who have more power than they do. The solution is not a trade deal, or by forcing Hillary Clinton to apologize for accepting a campaign donation.
Truly caring about women as more than means to political ends means unilaterally condemning sexual assault no matter who is doing it and who they’re doing it to. It means that Nassar, as close to Harvey Weinstein as U.S. Women’s gymnastics has, should be a part of the discussion moving forward, as big a part as Ailes, as big a part as the next industry’s heretofore hidden monster. Focusing on anything but the women affected is worse than useless.