I know what you’re thinking: Not another sexual harassment post. Bear with me.
I’ve spoken to many women over the past few weeks who feel exhausted by the current news cycle, I count myself among them: the endless onslaught of horrific stories, interspersed with the occasional, extremely bad non-apology.
I know it’s tempting to look away, and it’s fine if you have to; please take care of yourself. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad feminist. But it’s important the stories keep coming out, that the issue remains in the public discourse. It feels like we are in a moment of momentum, working our way towards something better, however clumsy, messy, and painful the process can be. It’s a little cheesy, but I keep thinking of the quote often misattributed to Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” This momentum feels like hell, and we have to keep going.
Last weekend, Los Angeles Times reporter Glenn Whipp published an investigation reporting claims against film director James Toback, made by 38 women. Since the piece was published, at least 200 more women contacted Whipp with similar accusations about Toback.
I learned about the investigation because I’d read a Medium post by a woman detailing her abuse by Toback, and then noticed a great number of people were speaking out about him on Twitter, some in veiled terms, others more specific, including the writer Elizabeth Crane, the band Veruca Salt, and Guardians of the Galaxy screenwriter James Gunn.
I wondered why no one had written about this person, thinking that it was because his career had failed; I hadn’t even heard of him before this. But when I Googled Toback, I saw he has a new movie coming out starring Sienna Miller, and that it had premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and gotten recent coverage by Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Page Six. Toback’s predatory behavior has been written about as recently as Gawker in 2010, and Salon in 2002, and as far back as 1989 by Spy, the satirical magazine published by Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen. (On Twitter, Andersen pointed out that many of the abusive men being exposed right now were originally Spy targets.)
And yet Tobak kept getting money and support to make movies. Everything he created was a failure, and he was known to be an abusive predator, and still he thrived. His continued ability to make movies and work with high-profile actors enabled him to prey on women — he would persuade aspiring actresses, using his meager credentials, that he could make their career dreams come true. It’s unclear if this new attention on predation will negatively impact Toback’s non-career. For now, he has been dumped by his longtime agent.
Andersen’s tweet also mentioned Leon Wieseltier, the former literary editor of The New Republic. Politico’s Michael Calderone reported that Wieseltier’s newest venture, a magazine funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, has been killed, apparently because Wieseltier was included on the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet. But as Calderone noted, Wieseltier’s harassment was already known by The New Republic back in 2014. They received a complaint about him, told him they had “a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment of any kind,” and continued to employ him.
The momentum of this moment is also bringing new scrutiny on men who have repeatedly been accused of sexual abuse, including photographer Terry Richardson and director Woody Allen.
On Monday, Condé Nast International sent out a staff email announcing the company would no longer work with Richardson, and that any work already comissioned would be “killed or substituted with other material.” It’s framed as a matter of principle, but for Jessica Testa, a BuzzFeed reporter who wrote repeatedly about allegations against Richardson back in 2014, the timing seems opportunistic, and it’s reasonable to wonder how long this “ban” will hold, and if it will apply to advertisers who continue to work with Richardson.
The scrutiny also appears to be helping other industries outside film and media. BuzzFeed reported that SEIU fired an organizer in Chicago amid an investigation into harassment, and a months-long investigation by a local New Orleans food critic into restaurateur John Besh seems to have inspired food writers at the New York Times to seek out stories about harassment and assault in the food industry.
Still, progress is slow and difficult. Artforum publisher Knight Landesman resigned after claims of sexual misconduct, but the magazine’s three co-publishers put out a statement attempting to smear his accuser by characterizing her complaint as “an attempt to exploit a relationship that she herself worked hard to create and maintain,” suggesting it would be unbelievable that a woman would feel compelled to maintain a relationship with a powerful, abusive man. As if every single story that has come out over the last few weeks doesn’t prove that preserving those relationships is a huge factor in women’s decisions to remain silent.
When women came forward with stories of former president George H.W. Bush groping them during photo opportunities, while cracking jokes about his favorite magician “David Cop-a-Feel,” many people defended the former president, saying his age may be causing him to behave inappropriately. Even if this is true, how hard is it to not place women within arm’s reach of him while photos are being taken? Let’s not forget Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court, despite Anita Hill’s very public accusation of sexual abuse and harassment.
And then, of course, there’s Bill O’Reilly, who is so committed to his own sense of victimhood, he points to a $32 million settlement with an accuser as evidence of his innocence. Never mind the settlement forced him to pay eight figures to a woman in exchange for her saying that they had “resolved” their issues. Whatever he did to this woman was so galling, that amount of money couldn’t even persuade her to say nothing ever happened. Still, this man who spent years demonizing a doctor with vitriol that arguably led to the doctor’s murder, is able to claim he’s “mad at God” and have his book top the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction. One glimmer of comeuppance has come with the news that, like Toback’s, O’Reilly’s television and literary agents have dropped him.
The latest allegations of abuse to come out were against veteran journalist Mark Halperin, co-author of the book Game Change, and the former political director for ABC News. Oliver Darcy at CNN reported that five women claimed Halperin propositioned, groped and pushed his genitals up against them while at ABC. He replied, “I did pursue relationships with women.” That is not, for the record, how one pursues a relationship. But we already knew Halperin had terrible ideas about sexual harassment and assault — he previously claimed it was legal, and described such behavior as merely “boorish and politically incorrect.” (This recalls Matt Damon’s description of Harvey Weinstein as an “asshole” and a “womanizer” — as though those are perfectly all right things to be.)
Part of the frustration of this moment is that we are having to clarify and negotiate terms that should have been obvious all along. It can feel irritating and tiring, but it’s important. Deadspin writer Lindsay Adler tweeted that she was “seeing a number of notable media men publicly gloating over [Halperin] … which is wildly fucked up.” A man I’m friends with reached out to me to ask if I could explain what she meant, since I’d retweeted her. He felt gleeful over Halperin’s outing, happy for the women whose claims are being taken so seriously that HBO has dropped plans to make a movie based on Halperin’s account of the 2016 election. Why not celebrate the fall of a bad man, especially since it was the women he abused who took him down?
I told him I couldn’t speak for Adler, but that I thought a good lesson for men in this might be to ask the questions advised of people in meetings: Does this need to be said? Does it need to be said by me? Does it need to be said by me, right now? (Helen Rosner has a good list of what men can do “right the fuck now” to support women.) You may feel there is triumph in the takedown of a powerful person who used his power to abuse women, but it came at a horrible cost, and the cost wasn’t to you. It’s not your triumph to crow about.
I tried to make this point last week: men should be more curious about the experiences of their female peers. To that end, I’ve been sharing a helpful post by Laura Bassett at HuffPost, in which she works through and explains why harassment and abuse can be so difficult for women to call out, or even identify. Just as men have for some time been led to believe they can get away with these behaviors, we’ve been told we have to put up with them.
This is part of why one quote from Slate‘s interview with Anthony Bourdain on John Besh and Harvey Weinstein has resonated with so many women.
I’ve known women who’ve had stories like this for years and they’ve said nothing to me. What is wrong with me? What have I, how have I presented myself in such a way as to not give confidence, or why was I not the sort of person people would see as a natural ally here? So I started looking at that.
This is an important part of the reckoning we need to have right now. It will arguably be more meaningful for men who haven’t and don’t abuse women to consider their place in their ecosystem than it will be for the abusive men to seek therapy (or one-week outpatient programs). Lindsey Adler wrote a post a couple of weeks ago under the headline, “Why Would This Time Be Any Different?” I’ve thought about it often, and her argument that good men need to step up. Bringing men into this process — into this journey through hell — is an important way to foment real change.
There are a few different reckonings afoot. Some people have questioned whether seeking recourse through the media, or going public online, is the best move for women who have been abused and harassed. Complain to human resources, they say. But the stories we’re seeing are littered with examples showing how human resources departments don’t represent the interests of employees — they’re meant to protect the companies, and therefore protect abusers. A former New Jersey state representative outlined in a Facebook post how FOX’s HR department helped O’Reilly smear women who came forward with complaints about him.
Relying on institutions to police themselves rarely works, as Alexandra Starr recently showed in Harper’s with her feature on how the Olympic committee turned a blind eye to allegations of abuse until they were forced to address them in court. The criminal justice system in general needs its own reckoning. In New York City, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has come under fire for dropping cases against the Trump children and Harvey Weinstein after having accepted donations from the defense firms representing them. Most recently, victims of an abusive gynecologist took issue with the fact that Vance struck a deal allowing their abuser to avoid jail time, after realizing the firm representing the doctor had donated $42,000 to Vance since 2008. There is a write-in campaign to replace Vance in this year’s election, in which he had been running unopposed. But the longterm reckoning that needs to happen is a revamp of New York’s state election laws, to prohibit district attorneys from accepting donations from defense firms.
Also in New York, two police officers had sex with a teenage girl in their custody and tried to claim she consented, prompting a lawmaker to propose a law making it illegal for police to have sex with people in custody. It’s bizarre that such a law would even be necessary, that anyone would think that someone in police custody could consent to sex with the officers who arrested them. The larger reckoning that needs to happen is a conversation about power, who has it, who doesn’t, and what that means.
No doubt there are people willing to claim that the girl raped by the police was in the wrong for getting arrested to begin with. There are always people eager to align themselves with the system, with power, with orderliness, to avoid the disturbing, disruptive work of turning things upside down in the process of making them better. There is no shortage of “good” people in these past few weeks finding subtle ways to blame the women who speak out for something or another. Judd Apatow tweeted that it is “sad” that young actresses accept jobs working with Woody Allen, prompting John Jay professor Phil Goff to tweet, “We stay losing because folks care more about blaming victims than interrogating the system that preys on them.”
BuzzFeed reporter Charlie Warzel wrote a TinyLetter about the pro-Trump media’s interest in the Shitty Media Men list, insinuating that the public nature of this particular reckoning is, essentially, bad for business, as anti-media Trump fans are seizing it opportunistically as an indictment of media as a whole, at a time when trust in the media is worryingly low. It’s a strange position to take, to suggest that women should shut up and take it for some greater good, or even that they should attempt to quietly reform from the inside the industry that has betrayed them over and over. Why would it be the women who speak out who are undermining trust, rather than the men who abused their power and the colleagues who enabled them to do so?
There’s something interesting, to be sure, about the internet — a space notoriously hostile to women — facilitating “the fifth wave of women’s liberation: the great doxxing of bad men,” as Leah Finnegan wrote at the Outline. Perhaps it isn’t ideal. Perhaps journalism isn’t either. A media veteran friend pointed out that for every story that we put out, there are countless stories we can’t, due to journalism’s standards for what is and isn’t publishable. Maybe that is one of the reckonings to be had, too. It’s all understandably exhausting. But we have to keep going.