Wednesday, October 18, 2017

That's not how it works

Among the various wrong responses to the news about Harvey Weinstein, I want to spend a little time on Mayim Bialik's op-ed:

It has already rightly received some backlash, so maybe everything has already been said, but I couldn't help but notice that her apology missed the point as well. Anyway, there were some fallacies in it that stuck out to me, and I would like to address them now.

"I dress modestly. I don't act flirtatiously with men as a policy."

This is probably the part most perceived as victim-blaming. The easiest defense is the closely following statement that obviously that doesn't excuse the actions of the men and admits that having to watch your behavior can be oppressive.

The reason that defense doesn't work is that it implies that it was flirtatious behavior that led to the assaults and harassment, acting as a sign that the advances were welcome.

There is no evidence of that. Sure, some women could have been flirty, but listening to the stories does not back that up as a contributing factor. Expanding that beyond Weinstein to look at other victims and that point becomes even stronger. It happened to women who were acting professionally, who were acting uncomfortably, and to women who were trying to avoid the situation.

There was a 1994 movie, Disclosure, based on a Michael Crichton novel. I never saw it, and I doubt it's very good. However, one thing I remember from the trailer, which I saw many times, is the-obviously-a-lawyer character saying "Sexual harassment is not about sex. It is about power."

That phrasing -- for rape and assault as well as harassment -- seemed to become a mandatory line in any movie or television show dealing with it: it's not about sex, it's about power.

The idea has been around since at least 1975 (Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape by Susan Brownmiller), but based on the movie it's been mainstream for at least 23 years. You would think we would have it down by now, but I still see it disputed, relatively recently in the case of Steven Pinker. Those arguments often focus on the biological differences between men and women and the power of lust.

I mention that because Bialik's mention of "doe eyes" and "pouty lips", and her concluding by encouraging women to develop their inner attributes - especially if they are not beautiful - seems to go back to this idea of all of harassment and assaults being responses to the desirability of the women. Isn't it great to not have to worry about that?

Without ever having been sought after for my looks, I find that highly insulting. As the flood gates open, and we find more and more women victimized by Weinstein, but also victimized by other men in the film industry, and then we hear about similar situations in modeling, sports, and academics, is that really that tack you want to take? If only Angelina Jolie had been more politically aware! If only gymnast McKayla Maroney had tried to develop some kind of skills beyond her looks! And don't forget politics, with those congressional pages not devoting themselves to anything but makeup!

I don't think that's what Bialik meant to say, but as much time as she spent on her own awkwardness and such, maybe she has carried a chip on her shoulder all this time about not being pretty, and resented the pretty girls. She's 41 years old; this is a really good time to get over it.

Most of all, so many times what ends up as victim-blaming is based on this faulty assumption that you can prevent bad things from happening to you. If you are just good enough, smart enough, careful enough, then you don't have to worry about being lucky enough. I wish that were true.

As we start thinking about prevention and correction, you can start finding some pretty big obstacles. One I have heard is "Just never meet in a hotel room." That sounds logical, but the film industry involves a lot of travel, the nice, big rooms often have meeting space, and it can be very practical.

Sure, if you are meeting in a restaurant, your producer is unlikely to take off his clothes. It ignores how many women have been groped or forcibly kissed or had horrible threats made to them in restaurants. It also ignores how easy it should be for any person to stay fully clothed and not sexually assault someone else.

I don't think solutions that require the prey to constantly outsmart and outrun the predator are ideal. In addition, if you think your care can prevent every bad thing from happening, not only does it tend to make you treat victims horribly, but it's going to make it much harder to deal with the time that your precautions don't work.

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