Monday, November 27, 2017

When the "good guys" are the harassers

Over the past few months, the media has exploded with claims of sexual harassment made by victims against men in positions of power. The allegations range in severity, from molestation and sexual assault of minors to unwanted sexual advances and "butt-grabbing." Regardless of the details, many of these allegations had common themes running throughout: men abusing their professional, social, and personal power; and victims staying quiet, fearing retaliation, harm to their careers, public shaming, and damage to their reputations.

The tidal wave of sexual assault allegations has not been relegated to one party or industry. The accused come from a variety of careers and political affiliations. As someone who identifies as more politically liberal, this has forced me to contend with my own discomfort as I discovered that many public figures I trusted and respected had acted so terribly. It's easy, even validating, to believe and accept that men like Donald Trump (serial misogynist) and Roy Moore (serial crazy person) have committed acts of sexual assault and sexual harassment. It stings to hear such accusations leveled against Al Franken and John Conyers, Democratic stalwarts and proponents of causes and ideals I identify with and care about. I will admit that even the accusations against Louis C.K. hurt a bit. I was subscribed to his email list and watched all his comedy specials multiple times... but lord knows I'm certainly not laughing now.

I am not the only one dealing with these mixed feelings. In conversations with friends and family, I have heard others express disbelief and even make attempts to justify and mitigate the conduct of these men and others.  These pained responses seem to reflect the cognitive dissonance we are all experiencing... how can a "good guy" have done this?

This cognitive dissonance is playing out in the media as well, as prominent women publicly (and I would argue, clumsily) defend these men. For example, on Meet the Press last week, House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi spoke in support of John Conyers. In doing so, she inadvertently checked boxes for multiple tactics sexual harassers use to undermine their victims and the accusations against them. Pelosi attempted to bolster Conyers' credibility at the victim's expense, portrayed Conyers as the true victim, minimized the severity of Conyers' conduct, and highlighted Conyers' otherwise respectable history of supporting women.

The women of SNL made a similar effort to defend Al Franken. Thirty-six women who worked with Franken at SNL while he was on the show issued a public statement, lightly condemning Franken's behavior as "stupid and foolish" but nonetheless going on to say that none of them had ever experienced sexual harassment from Franken and that Franken "treated each of [them] with the utmost respect and regard." As The Stranger's Anna Kaplan so aptly put it, "All 36 women who were involved with producing the show anywhere from the top down signed the letter to show solidarity and support for him because of how they personally interacted with him. However, maybe one of the most glaring realities that has come out of the past six weeks is that people you think you know, maybe aren’t exactly who you thought they were."

If the #metoo campaign showed us anything, it is that sexual harassment is a pervasive aspect of American culture (regardless of race, class, age, or political affiliation) that has touched a tremendous number of lives. It's only realistic to anticipate that even people we like and love (not just public figures but people we actually know) may have engaged in reprehensible conduct. 

So how should one respond when someone you like and respect is accused of sexual harassment? What is the appropriate way to balance your care for the accused with your concern for the victims? An article recently published on Bustle.com outlined seven productive and empowering steps people can take:

1. Listen to the accuser
2. Laud the survivor for coming forward
3. Don't center your response on your relationship with the harasser
4. Talk to the harasser
5. Offer the harasser actionable advice to improve their conduct
6. Critically evaluate your relationship with the harasser
7. Focus on receiving information rather than merely reacting to information

I strongly identified with this strategy. In following these steps, one can show compassion to the victims of sexual harassment while also recognizing that it's possible (even helpful) to maintain a relationship with the accused. In fact, by standing in solidarity with accusers, and offering honest and critical feedback and advice to the harassers (either in person or in the public sphere), individuals have a valuable opportunity to contribute to ending a culture that condones and encourages such behavior.

Not all public responses to harassment claims have been tone-deaf and inept. One example of a great response came from Sarah Silverman, a comedian and close friend of Louis C.K. In her statement, which ran before an episode of her show on Hulu, she followed some of the steps outlined above. She recognized that it hurt to hear about the things Louis C.K. had done, but also unequivocally stood with his accusers:
 “He wielded his power with women in f—ed up ways, sometimes to the point where they left comedy entirely. I could couch this with heartwarming stories of our friendship and what a great dad he is, but that’s totally irrelevant, isn’t it? Yes, it is. It’s a real mindf*ck, because I love Louis. But Louis did these things. Both of those statements are true. So I just keep asking myself, ‘Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you still love them?’ I can mull that over later certainly, because the only people that matter right now are the victims. They are victims and they are victims because of something he did. So I hope it’s OK that I am, at once, very angry for the women he wronged and the culture that enabled it, and also sad, because he’s my friend. But I believe with all my heart that this moment in time is essential. It’s vital that people are held accountable for their actions, no matter who they are. We need to be better. We will be better. I can’t f—ing wait to be better.”
Suffice it to say, I can't wait either.


5 comments:

B. Williams said...

Coming back to this post to add another example of a GOOD media response. Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kobt after Matt Lauer's firing on the Today Show. A statement that recognizes the sadness and confusion of revelations that a friend has done terrible things, while still supporting the survivors or sexual harassment and commending their bravery: https://www.today.com/video/matt-lauer-has-been-terminated-from-nbc-news-1105840707690.

Aoife Mee said...

Becca,

Your words really hit home with me. Despite my heightened awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in nearly all cultures across the world (including my own), I still never cease to be shocked each time new sexual harassment allegations come to light about celebrities or politicians who have long been highly regarded and respected by the public in the US, Ireland and beyond.

Indeed, as Suzanne has highlighted on a number of occasions, many Catholic priests (who were arguably the most respected people in Ireland for years) were later found to have been responsible for the widespread sexual abuse of children in parishes across the country for decades. And the worst part is, throughout these years, their abuses were routinely covered-up and swept under the rug by the Catholic Church, while the young and vulnerable victims were pressured to remain silent for fear of being shunned by the Church and the community. Although I was raised a Catholic, my family and I are neither practising, nor would we describe ourselves as particularly religious. Nevertheless, the news of these appalling abuses by "men of God" shook us to our very core.

Even more recently, Irish Rugby star, Paddy Jackson, has been charged with the rape of a 25 year old woman in his (and my) hometown of Belfast. It is so hard to believe that someone I had been a fan of and who had grown up and gone to the school down the road from mine could be responsible for such horrendous behaviour.

I agree with your argument that we should try to remain objective as much as possible, and not attempt to justify or minimise the gravity of their abuses based on our positive relationship with or views of the accuser. In doing so, I hope that we will begin to break down some of the barriers that discourage and prevent victims of sexual abuse and harassment from coming forward.

Omar de la Cruz said...

Becca,

Thank you for your post, you brought up many good points that I've also been giving some thought to. I've never seen anything like this recent explosion of sexual assault allegations. It seems every morning I wake to news stories of more men being fired or issuing apologies following claims of sexual assault. While this felt eye-opening at first, it all made sense the more I thought of it. We all live in a patriarchal society. Regardless of our political, religious, economic, and other differences, we all grew up in a society that we know devalues women, often treating them as objects. Accepting this, it makes sense that people from all walks of life are the ones being outed as sexual harassers, people we like and people we don't like. Of course, none of this was really the point of your post. Your post seems to get at how to navigate our feelings and actions when a friend or someone we like is accused of sexual assault. I really like the Sarah Silverman, Savannah Guthrie, and Hoda Kobt responses you shared relating to that. I'm okay with the idea that you can feel sad for your friend while also supporting the people they assaulted as long as we don't minimize the experiences of those hurt and treat them as secondaries in the matter.

Joterias! said...

B. Williams, Great post! Savannah words on yesterday’s “Today Show” stood out: “We are grappling with a dilemma... how do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly? And I don’t know the answer to that.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evhLzq7Gsak) The steps you mention in your article partially answer Savannah’s question. Yet, I’m unsure about the sixth step: “critically evaluate your relationship with the harasser.” Personally, I think it’s asking a lot of individuals in relationships with persons accused of sexual harassment to critically examine those relationships from an emotionally detached state. Instead, I wonder if restorative justice practices could be used to redress instances of workplace sexual harassment, to allow all parties involved an opportunity to process/vent their emotions as they move forward.

Restorative justice programs are already available in other contexts, like sexual assault cases, are voluntary, and rely heavily on the emotional involvement of all affected parties. (https://restorativejustice.org.uk/blog/should-there-be-restorative-response-sexual-harassment, https://vawnet.org/material/restorative-justice-responses-sexual-assault) I figure that by putting feelings at the fore, restorative justice practices may allow individuals in relationships with accused sexual harassers to process any (internal) shame associated with liking/loving/befriending someone who has “behaved badly.”

Relatedly, I wonder what the surge of workplace sexual harassment grievances will do to women’s freedom to dress (or present themselves) however they want. Angela Lansbury recently drew attention when she stated that women “have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive... [and] it has backfired on us.” (https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2017/11/28/angela-lansbury-talks-sexual-harassment-women-must-sometimes-take-blame/900780001/) I don’t agree with her view, but I think plenty of women and men will agree with it. So it seems we, feminists, will have to re-assert that a women’s choice of dress or presentation of self is not an invitation to have sex. It is depressing that positive movement on one front, the ability of sexual harassment victims to speak out, may come at the expense of women’s right to dress however they want. And that’s on top of clarifying the difference between workplace sexual harassment and “courtship” to the men, like Geraldo Rivera, who don’t quite grasp the difference. (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/geraldo-rivera-matt-lauer-defense_us_5a1f253de4b0392a4ebad412) Our jobs as feminist’s will never be done!

Suzanne Connell said...

Becca,

Fantastic post! I share the same feelings as many others in being met with shock and disgust every time a new wave of sexual harassment by a big household name is reported in the media. While I also appreciate the value in having victims of celebrity sexual transgressions come forward, it also slightly bothers me that it had to take high net-worth individuals confirming that they have been treated in a despicable manner for us to start listening to and believing our friends, brothers, sisters, cousins and so forth. This passionate movement to encourage and support victims to speak up and oust their abusers from their protected pedestals of power needs to continue. It can't be relegated to our memories of what went on fleetingly in 2017, but needs to grow and become even bolder. We don't want to think that the "good guys" are the harassers too, but we need to accept this fact and demonstrate as a means of improving the lives of women and men to come, that no one can sexually assault or harass someone and come out unscathed, not even the "good guys".