We’ve tried it with race and privilege. It hasn’t worked, seeming forced. This week, a different conversation—equally difficult—emerged organically.
The flood gates that opened when Harvey Weinstein was accused by multiple women of making crude and vulgar sexual advances have spilled into a national conversation about the power differential between men and women and how men in positions of influence seek to exploit women who are often voiceless and without recourse to the instruments of retaliation that are available to men. As difficult as this conversation is, it has become a national moment, repeating itself over and over in media reports, in bars and diners and at the office water cooler. The conversation is essential as we continually re-examine our society’s unfolding cultural mores; like the conversation about race and (white) privilege, it is a discussion that must happen if we are to move increasingly toward justice, fairness and safety for all.
This dialogue begs certain questions: While sexual exploitation is always wrong, in such a highly nuanced subject, it is essential that we consider questions of degree. This is not just parsing intent or action, but as we seek sustained changes as a society, it is imperative to examine the different degrees of offensive behavior and the corresponding appropriate response. These determinations must be made devoid of politics or retaliation. Not every salacious act should be painted with the same brush. How do we measure these differences? Does the offense involve words only? Physical touching? Coercion? Violence? What is the power differential at work? Are minors involved? Is there one accuser or a dozen?
Once this conversation has begun, it will be incumbent upon us—men and women—to discern these differences and consider valid ethical responses. These “degree discussions” will require continued bravery on the part of those who initiate them as well as by the accused who choose to honestly engage the charges–and, indeed, by all men. The results of these conversations will be an important measure of our society.
Another consideration in this multi-layered dialogue is the role of admission and apology. In an extraordinary White House briefing on November 17, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the difference between Senator Al Franken’s actions and those of President Donald Trump is that Franken has admitted his wrongs and Trump has not. In truth, admission is non-determinative in terms of degree. Roy Moore, candidate for Senate from Alabama has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing despite being accused by nine women—some claiming his behavior was perpetrated upon them when he was an assistant district attorney and they were children. Moore’s denials do not diminish the level of immediate pain or lingering trauma experienced by these women and may even increase the degree of suffering.
But while admission and apology are essential ingredients in healing, these professions are not end products in themselves; apologies must be accompanied by a change in behavior. Like the conversation on race, words are only the beginning. Lasting solutions lie in actions that lead to sustainable, systemic change.
How do we recreate a society where women feel secure? How do we affirm the recent empowerment that this season of sharing has created among women? How do we expand the benefits of these recent revelations beyond the rich and famous to make workplace environments safer for the millions of women who are not working in high profile positions in media, entertainment, politics? How does the waitress working in the local café or the lab assistant working overtime in a pharmaceutical company go to work with the confidence that they will not be assaulted by their boss?
How do we encourage men to understand the inappropriateness of “locker room talk” or “the casting couch” and help them institute policies where the old boys club closes its doors for good. For our own sake, and for the sake of our children—boys and girls alike—men must step forward in solidarity with women to insure that we create a culture where women feel safe and where men are held accountable for their actions, past and present, so that our collective future is free from fear.