The Weinstein moment is making us all a little more woke, and it’s safe to say Americans are finally grappling with a complex but crucial idea: “Sexual harassment,” Gretchen Carlson said in a recent TED talk, “is not about sex. It’s about power.” The behaviors we’ve seen in men from Charlie Rose to Mark Halperin stem from the notion that women should be the subjugated and submissive objects of male power and dominance.
But if “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault” are not sexual, the modifier is problematic. It seems to minimize the severity of the act or even reclassify it, suggesting that it’s not just a type of assault but also a subcategory of sex. This is what Geraldo Rivera implied when he said the media is a “flirty business” and fretted that we may be “criminalizing courtship & conflating it [with] predation” — as though flashing one’s penis at work is just a clumsy way of asking someone on a date. In this universe, women supposedly can’t tell the difference between mutual, respectful flirtation and harassment, because the difference is a blurry line that clueless men with good intentions have a hard time discerning.
We have to stop seeing sexual harassment and sexual assault as some sort of flattery of women gone awry. In truth, sexual assault has nothing to do with sex, or sexuality, or flirting, or courtship, or love. Rather, sexual assault is a kind of hate. The men who gratify themselves by abusing women aren’t getting off on those women, but on power. These men don’t sexually assault women because they like women but because they despise them as subordinate creatures. We should call it misogynistic harassment and misogynistic assault, not sexual assault. These are hate crimes.
I don’t mean this in the formal, legal sense. Hate crimes are already problematic: How can you ask a deeply imbalanced and systemically biased criminal justice system to hold crimes of bias special? Black men are more likely to be given harsher sentences than white men for the same crimes. Relying further on a warped criminal justice system suggests that it is a solution to injustice against marginalized communities rather than, often, its source.
But if we understand that these crimes are the result of targeted hate, rather than misguided lust, we can devise better solutions than the kind of “treatment” Harvey Weinstein is supposedly receiving for his “problem.” The way to combat hate is not (only) through enforcement against individual perpetrators. We need to fight the misogyny, sexism and the systemic marginalization of women and disproportionate empowerment of men. That’s what creates the society-wide dynamic in which men think they’re better than women. This dynamic is evident in gender pay gaps; in the unequal burden of domestic chores; in the election of overt misogynists to the presidency; and in the subjection of women to harassment, assault and rape. The truth is that none of these are aberrant behaviors by aberrant men, or even aberrant forms of affection. They’re the predictable dynamics of a society that hates women.
If rapists aren’t just brutes who somehow slipped from the back alley to the boardroom — and, clearly, they are not — then we need to see about how our boardrooms and stockrooms and classrooms and family dining rooms teach, incentivize and perpetuate misogynistic hate. And then rather than focusing on the tawdry details of each scandal like some romance novel with a dark twist, the media and all of us should talk about the structural power imbalance within each company or the culture of misogyny in a given industry. Specifically, employers shouldn’t focus only on accountability — as the Weinstein Corp. did by firing Weinstein, or only fixing the reporting of future acts, as the chain Massage Envy is now said to be doing. Employers also need to address misogynistic hate deep within corporate culture and rooted in business policies — in stingy parental leave rules, in recruiting and promotions, and even in male-oriented staff rituals at golf clubs or steak houses. In this context, companies would recognize the issue isn’t just how women are discouraged from coming forward but how men in the company are encouraged to minimize and marginalize women, which fans misogyny and hate.
That hate ends up infecting and affecting all of us. Whether we realize it or not, most men hate women. As do most women as well; studies show both women and men have unconscious bias against women. For instance, tools some scientists use to measure our unconscious associations suggest that both women and men more readily associate men with positive attributes and women with negative. In fact, evidence suggests that women hold these unconscious biases more than men. Which makes us all, for instance, more likely to grant a job interview to a man than a woman, or think a successful man is talented while a successful woman is just lucky.
That’s because we’ve all grown up inside the rotten barrel of a society that automatically grants men disproportionate power and privilege. Even those of us who are women, are married to women or have daughters we love still unconsciously or consciously absorb our cultural messages and norms about the inherent inferiority of women, a belief that courses through all of our veins, whether we intend for it to or not, simply because it’s the rotten air we’ve all learned to breathe. That’s the rot at the core of misogynistic harassment and assault — a rot within all of us, that has nothing to do with sex or affection and everything to do with hate.