Let’s get something straight, before yet another conservative commentator proposes making chivalry great again to stop the Harvey Weinsteins of the world: There were no good old days for women. Not anywhere, and certainly not in Hollywood. Treating women like disposable commodities is an age-old practice that transcends any one industry but is particularly endemic in those where a few gatekeepers decide who works and who doesn’t, often based on their own subjective tastes. The only thing novel about Weinstein’s behavior, aside from its scale, is how many people now agree it was wrong.
What has changed is the language we have available to talk about abuses of power, including but not limited to rape. For years, what powerful men did in Hollywood, politics or elsewhere in pop culture was described in terms of “seduction ,” “ sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll ” and “free love,” and it took on a sordid glamour. These men were “womanizers ” and “libertines.” Even now, if you listen to famous people say what “everybody knew” about Weinstein, it’s often couched in language like George Clooney used this past week: “If you’re asking if I knew that someone who was very powerful had a tendency to hit on young, beautiful women, sure.” Weinstein hid in plain sight because there was nothing remarkable about a man trying to trade his power for sex with an otherwise unwilling woman. What else are young and beautiful women for?
Thanks in part to the feminist movement, some of these stories are now being retold from the perspective of those women, using such words as “rape” (not just as a property crime, and not just involving physical force) and “assault” and, most of all, “abuse of power.” Such a necessary reframing lends the speaker some of the power long denied to victims, but it also opens new horizons with unclear boundaries for men and women. Much of the behavior described by the women who spoke to the New Yorker about Weinstein’s abuse is, by their accounts, criminal; they said no, they tried to get away. But beyond yes and no, power dynamics are harder to parse. Abuses of power range across all kinds of conduct, with all kinds of frequency. They take place at work and in the bedroom, and not all are illegal. In my own field, the media, there are subtweets and group texts in which women discuss wrongdoers; there was briefly even a spreadsheet listing men to stay away from, only a few of whom were accused of Weinsteinesque actions.
There is a basic social consensus, at least on paper if not always in practice, that sex should not be forced and bosses should not proposition subordinates. But between those unambiguous wrongs and some fantastical utopia of enthusiastic consent is a world of ambiguity, where we don’t yet know how to spot, taxonomize and, if necessary, punish acts that involve technical consent but feel like violation. A lens as broad as “abuse of power” means it’s hard to know what counts.
As much as this feels like uncharted territory, for feminism this is a return to form. As activists set about transforming law and culture in the 1960s, they boldly invited public sanction into what had been considered the private domain. They argued that sexual violators weren’t just mythical strangers in the streets; they included husbands, upstanding men, and even do-gooders in the antiwar and civil rights movements, whose sexism inspired what we now call the Second Wave. When Weinstein invoked the ’60s and ’70s to excuse his behavior (“that was the culture then”), he was partly right, at least as far as the law went. Raping your spouse wasn’t a crime; a court first accepted it as such in 1979. The Supreme Court didn’t recognize sexual harassment as a violation of federal employment law until 1986, and the concept still seemed foreign to many Americans when Anita Hill bravely took the stand before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. (For all the talk of accusations ruining lives, Clarence Thomas still sits on the Supreme Court.) It took until 2012 for the FBI to update its definition of rape from “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will” to any type of penetration “without the consent of the victim.”
But a bitter split among feminists over pornography and sex work in the ’80s and ’90s shattered the consensus on what, exactly, constituted coercive or problematic sexual behavior and what was the exercise of sexual agency. And feminists, perhaps, were sick of being called anti-sex. So the affair that President Bill Clinton — the first Democratic president after the Reagan backlash — carried on with a young subordinate did not prompt the movement’s finest hour. Of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Gloria Steinem wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “The power imbalance between them increased the index of suspicion, but there is no evidence to suggest that Ms. Lewinsky’s will was violated; quite the contrary.” Lewinsky herself wrote in 2014, “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship.”
These days, though, you hear less of the term “sex positive,” bandied about proudly into the new millennium. It now implicitly requires a follow-up: Sex on whose terms? Positive for whom? Listening to the accounts of heterosexual women working and dating today, the older feminist critiques of male power and the sexual revolution seem as relevant as ever. In a 1982 essay, “Toward a Feminist Sexual Revolution ,” feminist critic Ellen Willis observed that the supposed sexual liberation movement of Hugh Hefner was actually a “sexual libertarian movement,” and that “liberation involves not only the abolition of restrictions but the positive presence of social and psychological conditions that foster satisfying sexual relations.” Thirty-five years later, the British feminist Laurie Penney wrote, in an essay that predated the Weinstein revelations, “Today’s sexual freedom is rather like today’s market freedom, in that what it practically entails is freedom for people with power to dictate terms and freedom for everyone else to shut up and smile.” Less had changed than advocates once hoped, or perhaps than young women once assumed.
So what behavior should land a man on a list of bad actors in a world still largely controlled by men? What about the guy who has a consensual relationship with a woman who works for him? Or the man who perennially humiliates his partner by staying too late at the party and talking too close? Or the one who is always sending borderline private messages and setting up nebulously professional meetings that seem poised to turn sexual? Or, to use examples from the Weinstein episode, the man who employs a subtler version of Weinstein’s badgering that was captured on tape (“Don’t embarrass me. . . . Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes”)? Or the one who, after ignoring a firm no, might eventually get a resigned yes?
What constitutes coercion when women are less likely to have the resources or social power of their male peers, when we are still conditioned to placate them and measure ourselves by their attention? Even encounters that do not involve the commission of a crime or the violation of employment law can do their damage, suggesting consent alone is an incomplete standard. What these stories have in common is what Penney calls “the ubiquitous, unspoken understanding that women are first and foremost objects of desire, not individuals with desires — sexual, professional — of their own.”
Hence the breadth of behavior that may make women caution one another about a man. “I’m not saying everyone who gropes someone at a party is a rapist,” feminist journalist Ann Friedman told me. “But a lack of awareness of power imbalance as it relates to age and gender and title, in terms of the private warnings that go out among women: There is a reason to flag that.”
Yet there are definite risks, even for victims, in conflating all abuses of power with the most egregious ones. “It’s really important to parse out the difference between who is kind of sleazy and who is a sexual predator, even if they both come from the same place: toxic masculinity,” Collier Meyerson, a contributor to the Nation, told me. “It can ruin lives.” For one thing, men of color are still likelier to be perceived as predatory (one study of exonerations found that black men are 3 1 / 2 times more likely to be wrongly incarcerated for sexual assault than white men). For another, as we become attuned to the subtler gradients of violation, how do we respect people’s accounts of harm while figuring out how to prioritize the most harmful?
This time around, the conversation about violations feels different, more urgent and revelatory, as if we seem to relearn about boundaries every couple of months, when people stop keeping a powerful man’s secrets. It’s a lesson I’m always learning myself. Even after years of reporting on and studying these issues, I find myself revisiting, with a shudder, intrusions I’ve shrugged off for the sake of getting on with my life and my job: the flirtatious boss early in my career who made me doubt that my work was worth anything, but also the bad boyfriends whom I forgave, even when it was over something like using a condom. My silence, too, protected them.
None of this means women shouldn’t be treated like adults who can make our own decisions — or that we cannot harm ourselves. Conservatives who think chivalry is a sufficient answer to these problems fail to see the difference between requests for protection and demands for respect. But it does make for a complicated world. Penney describes men she knew feeling “bewildered. Uncomfortable. Wrestling with the specter of their own wrongdoing. Frightened, most of all, about how the ground rules for being a worthwhile person are changing so fast.” They have indeed changed quickly, if also too slowly. But men who are worried might want to think through what it means that they wield more power than they understand. The absence of a no, or even the issuance of a yes, is not always so simple. Men who want to be with women should learn a grown-up lesson most women learned long ago: Just because you want something doesn’t mean you’re entitled to get it.