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Harvey Weinstein and the problem of collaborators

What the #metoo campaign reminds us about sexual assault.

When assessing the Harvey Weinstein scandal, don’t forget all the collaborators who enabled his abuse. (Peter Foley/European Pressphoto Agency-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

I want to know what Andrea Dworkin would have had to say about Harvey Weinstein.

It’s been half a century since Dworkin — a controversial member of the first generation of radical feminists to theorize about sexual violence — and other second-wave feminists started the modern conversation about sexual violence, and sometimes it seems that there hasn’t been much progress. Take the fact that Weinstein’s repeated sexual assaults on women have been an open secret in film, journalism and politics for at least 30 years. Hundreds of people conspired to conceal his predatory behavior.

Yes, conspired. It’s the conspiracy, as well as how it ended, that makes me interested in what Dworkin herself might have written in this space. A feminist often rejected and reviled by other feminists, Dworkin understood that colleagues and co-workers, friends and family, played key roles in enabling and covering up sexual violence. But she also believed that the sound of women’s voices was a powerful antidote to what she saw as a ubiquitous form of oppression.

In the Weinstein case, Dworkin might have found a kind of vindication.

That’s in part because the Weinstein conspiracy crumbled as women started to speak out. And though Weinstein has been fired as chief executive and was forced to resign from the board of the company that bears his name, they haven’t stopped speaking. Women beyond Hollywood are flocking to Facebook and Twitter to contribute to the #MeToo hashtag, adding their stories of being sexually harassed, groped or assaulted.

Dworkin helped to popularize the speak-out as a way of combating sexual violence by breaking the silence that surrounded it. Since the 1970s, speech has been a traditional feminist weapon against sexual violence: It was women telling their stories, and other women agreeing to believe those stories, that first brought rape, incest and other forms of violence against women out in the open and on to the policy table.

The speak-outs that powered the radical feminist anti-violence movement — a ritual in which women approached the microphone one by one to tell their stories — have now moved to the digital public sphere. If Taking Back the Night seems not to have stemmed the tide of sexual violence, I guess we can still try to Take Back the Facebook.

But we will have to do it without Dworkin. She passed away on April 9, 2005, of heart disease, missing, among other things, the social media revolution.

This may be a good thing. Scorned in print by many feminists (some of whom seem to have barely read her work) for being “anti-sex,” today Dworkin would have been savaged by her enemies on Twitter and Facebook. Her insistence that being the object of male violence — sexual and otherwise — was the single experience that all women shared made most men, and even many feminists, uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of rage.

She also won few allies with her assertion that rapists never committed their crimes alone. In the decade after publishing her 1974 book, “Woman Hating,” Dworkin developed her theory that men “collaborated” with each other to maintain gender supremacy through violence against women.

Dworkin employed a sweeping definition of what men did to deliver women into the hands of their abusers, acts that were both active and passive. Male friendship was a particularly dangerous form of collaboration, she argued. “It is in male bonding that men most often jeopardize the lives of women,” Dworkin declared. “Male bonding sets up a particular woman as the rightful and inevitable conquest of a man’s male friends and leads to innumerable cases of rape. Women are raped often by the male friends of their male friends.” But inaction and silence were forms of collusion, too, even causing women to accept the silence forced on them by others.

Sound familiar?

By the mid-1980s, Dworkin had already begun to lose her authority in a movement that was mainstreaming women into professions and boardrooms. With her thought partner, Catharine MacKinnon, Dworkin became a target of frequent derision, especially from other feminists, because of her insistence that ending sexual violence would require dismantling a pornography industry that was not only thriving, but also transforming the erotic content on mainstream television and in film. Violence and rape were part of the process of making porn, Dworkin and MacKinnon contended; sold as a guide to pleasure, it was in reality a manual for abusing women.

Men and women, free speech liberals and radical feminists, saw in this campaign a revival of the obscenity prosecutions that had subsided only a decade earlier. In 1983, when the Minneapolis City Council hired MacKinnon and Dworkin to write a model civil rights ordinance that would allow people of any gender to sue for harm stemming from the making or use of pornography, their critics on the left mobilized against the campaign.

This put Dworkin and MacKinnon in the crosshairs of free speech defenders like the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as smaller feminist free speech groups who wielded little national power, but plenty of influence within their own movement and in the burgeoning field of women’s studies. The free-speech faction won: efforts to pass this ordinance died in the United States; it had passed in only one city, and in 1984, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it unconstitutional, nullifying it even there.

This loss had consequences for Dworkin’s reputation. Her activism left her, and other feminists, stigmatized as anti-pleasure and anti-sex. MacKinnon, to this day a distinguished law professor with numerous achievements, survived the smears, but Dworkin did not. A woman whose first books had been supported by major presses in the 1970s scrambled to find anyone willing to publish her in the 1990s.

But Dworkin knew some things, in a clear and uncompromising way, that help make sense of a character like Weinstein. As an archetype, as a predator and as a man, this Hollywood power broker would have been an achingly familiar figure for Dworkin. She saw Weinsteins all around her; women would stop her, unbidden, on the street in Greenwich Village, and tell her stories about their Weinsteins. And Dworkin met her own first Weinstein as a child, a man who pawed her in the darkness of a movie theater.

But were Dworkin with us today, her sharpest criticism might be reserved not for Weinstein himself, but for his collaborators. Although she is best known for her work against sexual violence, perhaps one of Dworkin’s greatest — and least discussed — contributions to feminist politics was her recognition that violence against women, and sexual violence, require these accomplices.

And Weinstein had a lot of collaborators.

There were those who actively collaborated, and those who, for their own calculated reasons, colluded through their silence. There were the people who claim not to know that the “casting couch” is alive and well in Hollywood. There were the assistants who delivered young actresses to suites where Weinstein waited for a “massage” in a bathrobe. There were the agents who accepted these assaults as just another rite of passage for their female clients. There were the husbands and boyfriends who shut up, even after confronting the producer. There was his brother and business partner, Bob Weinstein, who claims to have been completely in the dark about his brother’s “depraved” assaults on women. There were the politicians who accepted campaign contributions. There were the lawyers who negotiated the hush money. And there were the editors who killed stories that they knew were true.

If Dworkin were here, she would nod her head. Of course, she would say. Of course they knew. They always know.