A couple nights ago (December 4), during a Tribeca Institute 20th anniversary panel and screening of the 1997 film Wag the Dog, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver and Dustin Hoffman had a heated discussion about the sexual harassment allegations against Hoffman. Here’s the story on NBC.
I have to say, I empathize with Hoffman here. Of course I am appalled by any grown man hitting on a 14-year-old; but, hey, it happened to me repeatedly from the time I was twelve. I relinquished (I refuse to say ‘lost’) my virginity at 14. My best friend in middle school was sexually promiscuous, which everyone (including me) swept under the carpet or gossiped about. At least three of my high-school friends were severely hit on or actually had affairs with married men. Just 200 years ago, girls as young as 12 could be legally wed in Britain and Europe (younger in other parts of the world). Shoot, Spain’s legal marrying age was only increased from 14 to 16 (!) two years ago (BBC article). I figured it was just a part of life, toughened my skin, and tried not to make bad decisions.
“I’m no Gennifer Flowers,” I once told a nervous professor days after I’d drunkenly allowed him to put me in a compromising situation. I was sure I could handle myself, though I was beginning to think I was a magnet for these kinds of encounters. The “Me Too” campaign has made me think otherwise.
I’m not excusing this kind of behavior. I certainly want serious consequences for anybody who has used his position of power to force or solicit sexual acts from anyone. But I agree with Dustin Hoffman. It was and IS a different time than we all want to believe.
We should not indict every man accused of sexual harassment without taking into deep consideration the context of his actions. It is this context, not each man behaving badly, that underlies the misogyny, sexual harassment, and abuse of power infecting our society. The situation will be far less improved by each powerful or well-known man we shame than by admitting this simple truth: Our SOCIETY supports sexual harassment.
Sex is a powerful force in both men and women, but especially in men (Men’s Health article). We should not excuse unacceptable behavior based on this fact, but we should not expect that men (or women, for that matter) can just will themselves to cut it out if we demand it.
As a developing adolescent, men frequently commented on my appearance, some more gentlemanly than others, and some with the habit of putting their hands on my hip(s) or patting my behind. Although there may have been an uncomfortable moment or three, they weren’t anything I couldn’t walk away from. In fact, most the time I was flattered. My response was no different from that of my female friends who found themselves in similar situations. Indeed, many of us dressed and acted in ways to seek out precisely this kind of attention.
I’m not blaming the victims here. I’m just saying no one should be surprised by the situation, given the immense value our society places on sexual desirability. Look through any magazine in the grocery store and you’ll see attractive, flesh-bearing women with sultry eyes staring back at you. Turn on any television drama. Watch any movie. We glorify attractive women; and not just attractive women, sexy women. Humans learn by imitation, for God’s sake.
We women must own up to our part in this reality. After all, who can blame us? For centuries, our societal structure has relied on the belief that we are intellectually and physically inferior to men. Now that this is no longer the case, we women – we Americans – must stop securing our financial futures and reputations at the expense of standing up for ourselves and one another.
Given the pervasiveness of the problem, this is a big ask. In addition to magazines, movies and television, the very air around us vibrates incessantly with sound waves carrying lyrics like, “Let’s put it into motion/ I’mma give you a promotion/ I’ll make it feel like a vacay, turn the bed into an ocean” (Billboard article). Even when the language isn’t explicit (a rarity), the majority of the songs we hear on a daily basis are about sex, excessive drug use, and partying. The music industry doesn’t pretend to soften the edges anymore. Even my teenage kids think the lyrics mostly suck; but they listen to it because it’s the only thing on the air, or they argue that the music is good even if the lyrics aren’t.
Anyone with the tip of a pinky toe in their local music scene knows that this prevalence of ‘sex songs’ isn’t due to the lack of other quality options. And who can blame the music industry? The American people WANT sex, excessive drug use, and to party ’til the cows come home. But what the American people need is boundaries.
It is no freak of Nature that we judge members of the opposite sex by their physicality and treat them accordingly. We also cannot deny a man’s (or woman’s) drive to have sex with appealing members of the opposite sex. This is how Nature ensures our survival as a species. In acknowledging these very human traits, we can and should impose appropriate and effective boundaries that protect everyone’s rights not to be objectified, much less sexually harassed or assaulted.
We must also remember that our recovery is a collective effort. Every one of our realities is determined by our combined perception of what is best for our survival as a species and, therefore, what is socially acceptable (for more on this, see Anil Seth’s Ted Talk). The good news is that the time for complacency has passed, which means our daughters (and our sons, for that matter) may never have to say, “Me Too.”
Published 6 December, 2017, by melissarooneywriting.com
Post Script: The following interview with Melissa Gilbert, who was severely sexually harassed by Oliver Stone, is inspiring:
NBC’s news story regarding the altercation between John Oliver and Dustin Hoffman over accusations against the latter involving inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment: