My sister, Kathy, was nine years old the first time our father asked her to give him a hand job. Very early in life, she had begun to gravitate toward the healing arts. She was a born nurturer - compassionate, caring and empathetic - and this, coupled with her fascination with biology and the natural world, had crystallized into her childhood dream of becoming a physician. In our home we had an old, poorly functioning yet still functional microscope. It had been bought originally for our older brothers years earlier but they had long since lost any interest in it (if they ever had any, to begin with). My sister had therefore assumed possession of it and had lately taken to whiling away the hours peering through the eyepiece at whatever she could get onto the slide below. She was fascinated by the hidden, microscopic world that it revealed to her. Observing this, our father saw an opening. "Wouldn't it be interesting to see sperm under the microscope?" he asked her. My sister jumped at the opportunity. Our parents had explained the facts of life to us with scientific detachment and without any evident embarrassment when we were five or six years old. It certainly was not news to my sister that sperm existed - that they were alive and swam. And, now, here was an opportunity to witness firsthand one key part of the seemingly miraculous biological process of reproduction. She eagerly exclaimed "Yes!" As my sister recounts this defining event from her childhood, she recalls being thrilled by the prospect of seeing live sperm under her microscope.
The day it was to happen, I went to my room and set up my little microscope on my desk and waited for Pop to come in. But when he did, I noticed that there was nothing in his hands. "Where's the sperm?" I asked. And he replied, "You have to get it." It was then that I realized what he was doing and I said, "No." He sheepishly left my room. I felt so betrayed and hurt. I didn't have the words at the time, being only nine, but I felt that he was undermining my education. He was not taking my hopes of one day becoming a doctor seriously. When he left, I felt a lump in my throat and I cried. I guess I felt that he didn't really love me.It is probably unnecessary to add here that my sister did not go on to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a physician.
I referred to this episode just now as a defining event for my sister but this was not the first time that our father had attempted to manipulate her into jerking him off. That had happened a few weeks prior to the microscope incident and, although he failed on this second attempt, he had succeeded on the first and would succeed again on a number of other occasions, the precise number of which my sister remains uncertain. When it happened the first time - which she also remembers clearly - instead of exploiting my sister's interest in biology, our father played on her sympathy. He had broken his wrist and needed his daughter to make him feel better.
I was nine when I first gave him a hand job. It was while he had a broken wrist. And in my nine-year-old mind, I thought he wanted the hand job because he was hurt. He told me years later that he thought it was "cute" - that's how he described it - because I kept asking if it's because he was hurt. I really don't remember how many times I gave him a hand job. I think I blocked it out.At least from the time my sister was nine years old, my father viewed her not as a human being (much less as his daughter) - to be accorded all the rights, dignity and respect for both body and person to which the mere fact of being entitles each and every one of us - but as someone he had a right to expect to gratify him sexually. Once she was in her late teens, and no longer manipulable into hand service, he exploited my sister's innate goodness as a compassionate and earnest listener by recounting to her the sexual experiences that he had enjoyed with her high school friends in excruciating detail. In this way my father derived a superadded sexual gratification from the experience: first manipulating my sister's teenage friends into some sort of sexual activity and, then, reliving the experience - even as he compounded the perversity of it - by subjecting my sister to an explicit description of what had transpired. No detail was spared, from critical descriptions of these girls' pubic hair to the specific acts he had had them perform on his body and those that he, in turn, had performed on theirs.
He took a particular pleasure in recounting to my sister how he had exploited the hypochondria of a young woman who had moved in with us. This unfortunate person was something of a refugee from what was already an abusive environment. She was a foster child and had been sexually abused by her foster father for years. My sister befriended her at school when they were adolescents and, a few years later, when we were teenagers, this young woman - I will call her "Rose," but that's not her real name - moved in with us. Besides being emotionally fragile, Rose had developed an eating disorder. This was on top of her hypochondria. I do not wonder that she was a cornucopia of psychological and psychosomatic illnesses, given the turmoil and abuse that had characterized her life. It was not long before my father, having set his sights on her, was able to exploit her particular vulnerabilities to his own ends. He described to my sister how he had convinced Rose that an enema was the appropriate treatment for her gastrointestinal conditions (whether they were real or imagined was, of course, beside the point). He administered it while stroking her clitoris.
I emphasize here that, as horrendous as this abuse of Rose was, my father then managed to compound it by making my sister privy to it: by compelling her to become, so to speak, a disembodied participant in his scatalogical ménage à trois. When my sister objected that she didn't want to hear about such things, our father accused her of having aged into a prude. My sister would have been about eighteen at the time. Our father was pushing sixty.
All of this has been in my thoughts again lately as the public has finally been forced to acknowledge, in the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and others, the quotidian sexual abuse and harassment to which girls and women - not exclusively, as I know from my own experience, but primarily girls and women - are routinely subjected. A seemingly endless stream of personal narratives from victim after victim has poured forth. These are deeply personal yet, at the same time, powerful political statements about sexual harassment and abuse.
Three key themes seem to emerge from all this.
The first and perhaps most obvious is how common sexual abuse and harassment are. Of course, this is not news to women themselves. Nor is it news to men like me who were, themselves, sexually abused in childhood. Nor is it news, also to men like me, who grew up in homes in which sexual abuse, though mostly concealed, was nonetheless pervasive, normalized even, and facilitated by a culture of silence, acquiescence and profound sexism.
My sister, as it turns out, was sexually abused not only by my father but also by our maternal grandfather. And as egregious as the abuse visited upon her by our father was, what our grandfather did to her actually makes what our father did pale in comparison (although my sister considers what our father did to her a far greater betrayal, since he was her father). Our grandfather sexually abused, assaulted and exploited my sister from the time she was about four years old until she was about twelve, when our grandfather - many years later than he should have, if there were any justice - developed pancreatic cancer and died at the age of seventy-six. It was several years after our grandfather died that my sister finally disclosed to our mother that he had sexually abused her for most of her life. And it was only then that my mother revealed that he had done the same to her, to my aunt (her sister), and to who-knows-how-many others. When our father, who had the audacity to call himself a feminist, learned what his father-in-law had done to my sister and our mother, his response to both of them was, "So you made an old man happy; what's the harm?" This is what I mean when I refer to a culture of normalized sexual abuse and deeply entrenched sexism that prevailed in our home and, I maintain, prevails in our society broadly. This is the same sort of mentality that minimizes sexual assault with quips such as, "If rape is inevitable, you may as well just lie back and enjoy it." This notion that sexual abuse - from harassment to assault - is "no big deal" is part and parcel of how common it is, and this, as I have observed, is one of the key themes that has emerged from the numerous accounts of sexual harassment and abuse now coming out in the wake of the Weinstein revelations. This theme - how commonplace sexual harassment is - runs through many of the accounts by other victims:
Like many other women, I could make a long and ugly “shit men did to me” list, starting at age 11 that includes groping, stalking, date rape, following for blocks in the dark while saying with increasing anger ‘talk to me..what’s your name . . . severe workplace sexual harassment, disgusting whispers on the subway, etc., etc. . . .
Even if a minority, together they’re able to damage a large number of girls and women. . . . When you add it all up, it turns out that these experiences are, sadly, common. - Jenny Listman
I could go on about other instances in which I have felt demeaned or exploited, but I fear it would get very repetitive. Then again, that’s part of the point. I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather. - Molly Ringwald
Several years ago, I approached a couple of successful female actors in Hollywood about an idea I had for a comedy project: We would write, direct and star in a short film about the craziest, worst experience we’d ever had on a set. . . . But the stories, when we told them, left us in tears and bewildered at how casually we had taken these horror stories and tried to make them into comedy. They were stories of assault. When they were spoken out loud, it was impossible to reframe them any other way. This is how we’d normalized the trauma, tried to integrate it, by making comedy out of it. - Sarah Polley
About 10 years ago . . . I attended an empowerment seminar. . . . [T]here was one moment I’ve never forgotten. The group leader . . . asked anyone in the room of 200 or so people who’d been sexually or physically abused to raise their hands. Six or seven hands tentatively went up. The leader instructed us to close our eyes, and asked the question again. Then he told us to open our eyes. Almost every hand in the room was raised.
A decade ago, I couldn’t have conceived of the fact that so many women had experienced sexual coercion or intimidation; now, I’d be surprised if I could find a single one who hadn’t. . . .
[A]s horrifying as the allegations against Weinstein have been, more appalling still is the sense that his behavior isn’t uncommon. - Sophie GilbertThe second theme is this: not unlike certain molds or other forms of contagion, sexual abuse and harassment seem to flourish in the absence of air and light. That is precisely why it is imperative - especially now - that those who have been victimized or others who know about sex abuse speak up and expose it to as much air and light as possible.
At the same time, although it is a truism that silence gives consent, I do not think it is fair to say this of victims of sexual abuse: of themselves nor of others. Lupita Nyong'o, for example, has written about "joining in a conspiracy of silence that has allowed this predator [Harvey Weinstein] to prowl for so many years." Minka Kelly has apologized for being "complicit" in concealing Weinstein's behavior by not exposing it. In one news story and editorial after the other, the phrase "complicity of silence" appears again and again. But a distinction must be made between the silence of those who have no power and the silence of those who do, or between those with limited power and those with unchecked power. In the case of Weinstein's victims, and of sexual-harassment victims in general, while their silence may contribute to an environment that enables the abuser to go on abusing without facing any appropriate consequences for his actions, I think that their silence must be always be understood to be a result and not the cause of the culture in which the abuse occurs in the first place. Victims are often too ashamed to speak up. Or they fear retaliation. Often they simply are not believed and it is they, themselves who are, in effect, put on trial. In some cases they fear being labeled as trouble-makers, or fear being dismissed as having an ulterior motive or merely having an ax to grind. I think that a less tangible but perhaps even more pervasive reason that victims don't speak up is that they succumb to the explicitly sexist social pressure in which the abusive behavior by powerful men is tolerated because there is a presumption that the powerful have so much more to lose by being exposed than the victims have to gain by exposing them. This is the phenomenon in which the victims of sexual assault by talented and promising male athletes have been discouraged from seeking justice on the grounds that the perpetrators stand to lose so much by being held accountable for their actions.
These twin themes - silence, and its obverse: the importance of breaking it - likewise appear again and again in these accounts now being published:
What I am most interested in now is combating the shame we go through that keeps us isolated and allows for harm to continue to be done. . . .
I hope we are in a pivotal moment where a sisterhood — and brotherhood of allies — is being formed in our industry. I hope we can form a community where a woman can speak up about abuse and not suffer another abuse by not being believed and instead being ridiculed. That’s why we don’t speak up — for fear of suffering twice, and for fear of being labeled and characterized by our moment of powerlessness. - Lupita Nyong'o
What have we been willing to accept, out of fear, helplessness, a sense that things can’t be changed? What else are we turning a blind eye to, in all aspects of our lives? What else have we accepted that, somewhere within us, we know is deeply unacceptable? - Sarah Polley
Why did I never say anything about Wiesel? I debated with myself on and off over the years about potential effects on others. . . . "If I say something, how will it benefit society on the chance that there were not and never would be other victims? I might hurt many people who would lose their idol. Would the information be used as a weapon against the Jewish community? What books will high school teachers assign if I say something?” It would have made so many people sad. I didn’t want to add sadness to the world. - Jenny Listman
Stories like these have never been taken seriously. Women are shamed, told they are uptight, nasty, bitter, can’t take a joke, are too sensitive. And the men? Well, if they’re lucky, they might get elected President. - Molly RingwaldSometimes it is out of sheer misplaced though deeply ingrained loyalty or even a concern for others that victims are reluctant to speak up, as a result of which the perpetrator himself is never held accountable. I asked my sister whether she had informed our mother about the more egregious forms of sexual abuse to which she had been subjected by our father. She told me that she had not, even when she disclosed to our mother what our grandfather had been doing to her. I asked her why she hadn't. She answered, "I knew it would crush her. And I didn't want to hurt him, too."
I have already indicated that my sister and Rose were not my father's only victims. The Weinstein allegations reminded me of my father in part because, like Weinstein, my father abused his position - as a teacher and as an employer - to coerce and to attempt to coerce girls and young women into sexual contact with him. At times this was manifested merely in unwanted touching and, at others, in manipulation into actual sexual activity.
Our father taught art privately for many years. He considered himself a frustrated artist whose dreams of producing "great art" had been thwarted by the necessity of having to earn a living. He contented himself, instead, with producing the occasional portrait in charcoal of family members but he also sought a creative outlet through teaching. He and our mother had converted the garage into an art studio where, every Saturday morning, our father conducted art classes for the neighborhood children. (One evening each week he also hired a model to pose nude for adults who wanted to sketch nude figures. For these sessions, a piece of particle board, cut to size, was discreetly placed in the studio window for privacy. I have a childhood memory of sneaking out to the garage - or studio - and peeking through the sliver of space between the edge of the particle board and the window frame in order to see the nude model within.) As my sister relates it,
[Rachel Feinstein (not her real name)] was in the art class with me when we were about twelve. She was a smart and talented young girl. She was outgoing and precocious and she would talk a lot with Pop. You could say he treated her like a favorite student because of her abilities.
One Saturday, Rachel showed up with her parents. Her parents were livid and demanded to speak to Pop alone. All I knew at the moment was that she was not coming back. It turned out that Rachel had told her parents that our father had reached around from behind her with both hands and grabbed her breasts - something he constantly did to me, by the way. Her parents were furious and wanted to contact the authorities but, in the end, they didn't because they didn't want to hurt our family.(There's that concern for others, again.)
For their part, Pop and Mom talked about how dramatically Rachel had waltzed into the art class that day to say goodbye to all the other students. Not the actions, they argued, of a frightened child. They called Rachel (and other girls who would tell on molesters) malicious and vindictive.There were, of course, other attempts - who knows how many? - by my father to take advantage of his position. He somehow or other convinced a young woman - a neighborhood girl who had been a childhood friend of my older brothers - to pose nude for him. My sister recounts this chapter in the chronology of his abuses thus:
- Then there was Mindy [not her real name]. She was posing for a painting for him. Mindy was around eighteen at the time. She would come over in the evening, and they would go into the studio and Pop would draw and paint nudes of her, more than one. And the painting was a gift for Mom. (I don't know how Mom stood it!) Pop described to me once how one of Mindy's nipples wasn't erect while the other one was, so with the palm of his hand, he rubbed it so they both would be erect.In researching this essay, I was reminded that pedophiles and sex-abusers tend to exhibit patterns of such behavior. I do not know what the statistics are but, anecdotally at least, there seldom appears to be but one victim. It occurred to me, therefore, to make inquiries of my own of women whose paths I knew crossed my father's decades ago. I asked one such woman - she had grown up next door - whether my father had ever sexually abused her when she was a child. She responded, by text, as follows:
He asked me to model and I did but then he asked me to get into a sex position and I refused. It was creepy and scary. I think I was thirteen or so. I guess I trusted him but it was a mistake to do so.Perhaps one of the most galling examples of my father's sexual abuse concerns a young African American woman who, to her misfortune, came to be acquainted with our family in consequence of her mother's being employed by my parents as our "cleaning woman," as they use to be called. My sister relates this sordid episode as follows:
Mary was Josephine's [not their real names] oldest child. They were dirt poor and lived in a Queens housing project. I believe Josephine's husband was an alcoholic. Josephine had eleven children altogether and, as the oldest, it fell to Mary help take care of her siblings. (When all this happened, Mary, herself, was only sixteen.) Growing up in a ghetto and looking after her siblings so her mother could go clean other people's homes - that was her world. As a way of helping to broaden Mary's horizons, Mom and Pop invited Mary to attend the art classes without charge. What an opportunity that might have been for a young girl living in such abject poverty. It was shortly after the Rachel incident that Pop told me that he had asked Mary to give him a hand job. How could a man who taught me about civil rights and feminism do that? How could I, at twelve, see how horrible that was, and not he? Pop told me that Mary had told him, when he asked her for the hand job, that her father wants the same thing, and she guessed that's how all men are. I found out sometime later that Mary dropped out of school and had had two children before she turned twenty. Can you imagine what a difference Pop could have made in her life?And there were, of course, others whom my father asked for hand jobs or sex. My girlfriend at the time, who declined (I did not find out about about all this until decades later); her sister, who likewise declined; the young wife of the son of one of my father's cousins, who did not - and on it went. But the one constant was the abuse of my sister. I asked her about how much knowledge she believes our mother had of our father's sexual abuse of her. While my sister never revealed to my mother the true extent of the abuse (my mother died - also from pancreatic cancer - only four years after her father had), she has no doubt that our mother was aware of a good deal of the abuse.
(As if that were the only reason not to do it.)Mom witnessed Pop touching me a lot. When I started developing, he constantly reached from behind me and grabbed my breasts right in front of her. One time after he grabbed me, I was in the dining room setting the table for dinner and I overheard Mom in the kitchen remonstrating with Pop to the effect that girls' developing breasts are sensitive and painful.
That just gave Pop a pretext for humiliating me more by coming over to me and loudly and pompously declaring, "Kathy, I owe you an apology. I didn't realize your breasts were painful."
He also always grabbed my ass in front of everyone from the time that I was little.
One time I went into Mom and Pop's room to say good night when I was around thirteen. I was wearing those loose boy pajama pants with nothing underneath. Pop was lying in bed and Mom was standing near the bed, and I was standing near where Pop was lying. He started telling me that soon I will be growing pubic hair, and he reached over and began rubbing me on my pubic area. And then he said, "Wait a minute!" because he felt that I already did have hair there. Mom looked very worried, and I just made a quick exit.
The third theme that, to me, at least, emerges so conspicuously in light of all these revelations, is that sex abuse and harassment, especially when they occur in the workplace, represent a peculiar intersection between personal abusive sexual conduct and a broader social order that facilitates it. That is why I was struck, while reading these personal accounts, as well as pondering my own family history, that never have truer words been written - and perhaps never were these words more relevant than they are right now - than "The personal is political." Though not originally given this title by the author herself, this is an essay that came to be known by that name which was written by Carol Hanisch way back in 1969 amidst the burgeoning renaissance of the women's movement (then known as the "women's liberation movement," now often referred to as "second-wave feminism," and which I still prefer to call just plain feminism). In it, Hanisch sought to counter the criticism that had been leveled against some feminists by others within the vanguard of left-wing activism (and even from some within the women's liberation movement itself) that consciousness-raising and focusing on matters of particular concern to women - matters that affected women every day in their personal lives - were not really political concerns, per se, but were, rather, merely personal ones, and thus had no place within the left-wing movement. As Hanisch explained in a new introduction to her essay, written almost 40 years later,I cannot think of a better proof that the personal is political than the phenomena of sexual abuse, -harassment, and -assault. Indeed, I take it as axiomatic that sexual abuse and sexual harassment cannot be understood clearly, let alone addressed effectively, in the absence of a feminist critique of society. My own feminist outlook on this is simple: One must analyze matters to which sex and gender are germane within the context of how sex and gender function to privilege some while disadvantaging others. There is no question but that our society, to this day, reflects persistent patterns of male privilege and entitlement (for those who choose to avail themselves of it) in certain key areas (and, to a much lesser degree, female privilege and entitlement in others) and that the everyday acts of oppression or abuse that occur as a direct consequence of this social structure cannot be viewed in any meaningful or useful way by artificially detaching them from the overarching social structure that creates the conditions that allow these acts of oppression and abuse to occur in the first place. Does anyone imagine that, if women had as much power as men do in the entertainment business, we would now be bombarded with claim after claim of sexual abuse and harassment by women against men like Harvey Weinstein? It makes no more sense to view sexual abuse and harassment as something discrete and unconnected to sexism than it does to view economic exploitation as something discrete and unconnected to capitalism.
The paper actually began as a memo that I wrote in February of 1969 while in Gainesvill, Florida. It was sent to the women's caucus of the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), a group for whom I was a subsistence-paid organizer doing exploratory work for establishing a women's liberation project in the South. The memo was originally titled, "Some Thoughts in Response to Dottie's Thoughts on a Women's Liberation Movement," and was written in reply to a memo by another staff member, Dottie Zellner, who contended that consciousness-raising was just therapy and questioned whether the new independent WLM was really "political."
This was not an unusual reaction to radical feminist ideas in early 1969. . . . The radical movements of Civil Rights, Anti-Vietnam War, and Old and New Left groups from which many of us sprang were male dominated and very nervous about women's liberation in general, but especially the spectre of the mushrooming independent women's liberation movement, of which I was a staunch advocate. Arriving in New York City after ten months in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, I had found SCEF to be one of the more mature and better progressive groups around. . . . However, many on the SCEF staff, both men and women, ended up joining the criticism of women getting together in consciousness-raising groups to discuss their own oppression as "naval-gazing" and "personal therapy" - and certainly "not political."
They could sometimes admit that women were oppressed (but only by "the system") and said that we should have equal pay for equal work, and some other "rights." But they belittled us no end for trying to bring our so-called "personal problems" into the public arena - especially "all those body issues" like sex, appearance, and abortion. Our demands that men share the housework and childcare were likewise deemed a personal problem between a woman and her individual man. The opposition claimed if women would just "stand up for themselves" and take more responsibility for their own lives, they wouldn't need to have an independent movement for women's liberation. What personal initiative wouldn't solve, they said, "the revolution" would take care of if we would just shut up and do our part. Heaven forbid that we should point out that men benefit from oppressing women.
Recognizing the need to fight male supremacy as a movement instead of blaming the individual woman for her oppression was where the Pro-Woman Line came in. . . .
This points, in turn, to a somewhat obvious solution, a point likewise made again and again by others with respect to the Harvey Weinstein accusations. In his column Steinem, Sandburg and Judd on How to End Sex Harassment, Nicholas Kristof quotes Rosabeth Moss Kanter (a professor at Harvard Business School). The solution, Kanter says, is "More women in all positions of power; and not as tokens." Similarly, Mayim Bialik writes,
I believe that we can change our culture, but it won’t be something that happens overnight. We live in a society that has treated women as disposable playmates for far longer than Mr. Weinstein has been meeting ingénues in luxury hotel rooms.
One major bright spot: We are seeing more women taking on prominent roles behind the camera. Women like Jenji Kohan and Jill Soloway are showing the kinds of female characters on their shows that we all know in real life but never got to see on TV.Or as Molly Ringwald put it:
My hope is that Hollywood makes itself an example and decides to enact real change, change that would allow women of all ages and ethnicities the freedom to tell their stories—to write them and direct them and trust that people care. I hope that young women will one day no longer feel that they have to work twice as hard for less money and recognition, backward and in heels.In other words, assuming all the accusations against Harvey Weinstein are true (and I don't see why Weinstein should be entitled to the benefit of the doubt any more than his accusers should) just as Weinstein was able to get away with his abusive conduct for so long because of his power, one antidote, to be sure, would be to change the culture so that powerful men like him would not yield to the temptation to sexually abuse or harass in the first place (or, dare we hope, not even entertain the inclination to do so). But an even surer antidote would be simply to have more women in power. Lots more.
I feel strongly then - and certainly this is a conviction born, at least in part, of my own family history - that, as Hanisch argued, the personal is political. At the same time, however, I am not one to subscribe to the notion that "it's not about sex - it's all about power." This is an oft-repeated refrain but I think, as an explanation for sexual abuse, it is simplistic and fanciful. Just as it makes no sense to view sexual harassment and abuse in a vacuum from which sexism and gendered power are excluded, neither does it make sense to view sexual harassment and abuse in a vacuum from which sex itself is excluded. Of course sex abuse is about sex and not just about abstract power. Men sexually harass women that they actually are sexually attracted to.
Thus, while the personal is, indeed, political, I believe that it is also possible to overly politicize sex abuse. I suspect that those who take this tack - that sex abuse and harassment are about power only, as opposed to sex - do so out of a fear that others may distort their intent by falling into the naturalistic fallacy. In other words, that if it is acknowledged that the sex drive is innate and necessary for the reproduction of our species, it must therefore follow that every manifestation of the sex drive, up to and including sexual abuse and harassment, must therefore be okay, or at least understandable, hence, forgivable. I reject that slippery-slope sort of reasoning. Sexual abuse is most decidedly motivated by the sex drive but that does not make it any less an impermissible encroachment by the perpetrator on the rights of the victim that occurs less because of the nature of the sex drive itself than because of the power differential between perpetrator and victim.
It is men's power, after all - the disproportionate power that men have relative to women in specific industries and in society more broadly - that allows them to get away with it or at least to think that they have a right to get away with it. That is why sexual abuse and sexual harassment cannot be divorced - in practice or in theory - from sexism. And that is why sexual abuse and sexual harassment cannot be addressed without feminism. The motive to harass sexually may come from our natures but the power to act with impunity on those impulses comes from how our society is organized along the lines of sex and gender, allotting power disproportionately to some at the expense of others. Social ills do not arise spontaneously out of thin air. They are created by the social structure in which they occur. Sexual abuse and harassment do not flourish in spite of sexism but precisely because of it. Without sexism, the impulse to harass or exploit might still exist but it would it wither, starved of the environmental factors that it needs to survive.
For many men, the events of the past few weeks have led - or should have led - to some serious soul searching. I have also been doing some soul searching and, in my own case, again and again I have come up against the moral conflict between what I have said and what I should have said or, at least, might have said. - Between the exigencies of justice and the dictates of decorum. When my father died sixteen years ago, I eulogized him at a memorial service that my brothers, my sister and I gave in his honor for our family and our family's friends. By then I had become aware of his history of abuse - not all of it, but enough of it - and, although I tried not to completely whitewash that history, I thought it inappropriate at the time, and under those circumstances, to launch into an indictment of his character. I hinted only obliquely at some of his "unspeakable" offenses but, notwithstanding, concluded by eulogizing him with the phrase with which his friends had been wont to characterize him:"a great guy." The way that I remembered my father at his memorial service has, over the years, gnawed at my conscience. In light of the events of the past few weeks, that gnawing sensation has burgeoned into an utter revulsion that can only be expiated with a public airing and repudiation of my father's crimes and an acknowledgement of my own complicity in glossing them over at his memorial service.
Of course, in the end, my father escaped justice. And this is another reason why I am now bringing all this out into the open. Among the essays and personal narratives that I have read in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, one of the most moving, powerful, and, above all, galvanizing, is the one written by Lindy West that appeared in the Times a couple of weeks ago. In it, Ms. West writes,
In a just system, Weinstein would have faced career-ruining social and professional consequences the first time he changed into a bathrobe and begged a horrified woman for a massage. In a just system, the abuse wouldn’t have stayed an open secret for decades while he was left free to chew through generation after generation of starlets. Weinstein’s life, like Cosby’s, isn’t the story of some tragic, pitiable downfall. It’s the story of someone who got away with it.
The witches are coming, but not for your life. We’re coming for your legacy. The cost of being Harvey Weinstein is not getting to be Harvey Weinstein anymore. We don’t have the justice system on our side; we don’t have institutional power; we don’t have millions of dollars or the presidency; but we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them.I cannot undo what my father did, nor can I undo my own failure to condemn him when I had the chance. But I can now do what Lindy West seems to be adjuring me to do: to provide at least some small measure of justice for my father's victims by depriving him of the legacy of "greatness," rectitude, and simple decency that he forfeited the first time that he asked my sister for a hand job and every time thereafter. There is a principle at stake here, and I prefer to situate myself on the right side of it. I speak, then, for victims everywhere, and not only for female victims but for all victims. I speak, especially, for my father's many victims. And, above all, I speak for my sister.