Following the news that Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed and abused women for decades, waves of women in Hollywood are coming forward with allegations that describe a culture that permits widespread harassment and assault. This culture disproportionately affects women—but it does not affect women alone.
Actors Terry Crews, James Van Der Beck and Rob Schneider have all said that they have had executives or other powerful figures in Hollywood grope them or make sexual advances. Sexual harassment is not only about sexism. It’s the result of the patriarchy—and the way it works to give powerful men carte blanche to diminish others’ humanity.
Women are all too often singled out for sexual harassment in the workplace. A 2015 study of workplace harassment in Australia found that women filed nine out of 10 workplace harassment complaints, as just one example. Because of sexism, women are seen as sexual objects; as Andrea Dworkin wrote, women “are treated as if we are subhuman, and that is a precondition for violence against us.”
Sexual harassment is also the direct result of patriarchy—a system in which men hold the majority of the power, and in which masculinity is glorified. In patriarchy, masculinity and power are bound together. This means that power is inherently sexualized. The ultimate expression of power and authority in patriarchy is the ability to act with sexual impunity. And sexual impunity in patriarchy becomes an expected perk of power.
This is why many men in powerful positions wind up mistreating others. When Weinstein or Steven Seagal allegedly held meetings in a state of undress—or when Lyndon Johnson held meetings on the toilet— they were actively asserting their absolute power as patriarchs by showing they could violate bounds of sexual decorum. Donald Trump made this quite clear when he boasted about sexually harassing women. “When you’re a star they let you do it,” he said. Fame and power enable sexual abuse, and men act as if sexual abuse demonstrates fame and power.
Men usually signal and assert power in patriarchy by sexually dominating and humiliating women. But they can also signal power by sexually humiliating men—particularly men of color, gay men, and young men. For patriarchs who behave this way, the goal is to show that you are the most manly of all men—and one way to demonstrate this is by treating other men the same way men treat women.
Sexual abuse, then, is not about sexual attraction or gratification; it’s an assertion of, and an abuse of, power. Understanding this is crucial to making a cultural shift. Putting in place more rules limiting contact between the sexes —following the Mike Pence rule of never being alone with women — isn’t helpful. Nor will it work to draw a strict line between work and after-hours socializing, as Josh Barro at Business Insider suggests. Harvey Weinstein wasn’t confused about the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. No one thinks that masturbating into a potted plant in front of a colleague is reasonable, whether you’re in the office or on a social outing.
Men can and do harass women when other people are around, in public spaces and in private ones. Men can harass and abuse other men when women aren’t present. To reign in sexual abuse, we don’t need more restrictions on women. We need more restrictions on power.
Hierarchical workplaces, in which people at the top are seen as infinitely more important than the people at the bottom, encourage abuse and mistreatment. Unions have a mixed record on combating sexual harassment, but at the very least—by putting standard procedures in place and holding employers accountable—they have the potential to identify and punish abusers.
Creating more gender parity in upper-management positions will also help to address the problem. Having women in power undermines the patriarchal logic that says that power is about manliness, and that you show you are powerful by humiliating your subordinates.
We also need more legal scrutiny of abusive contracts. Roger Ailes and others have used confidentiality clauses in contracts to prevent victims from talking about rape and abuse. Harvey Weinstein’s contract allowed him to settle sexual harassment lawsuits with no other consequences, according to a TMZ report. A judge refused to allow pop singer Kesha to break her contract with her producer Dr. Luke on the grounds that Luke’s abusive behavior was “foreseeable.” In other words, from the standpoint of contract law, Kesha should have known better, so any abuse is her responsibility. In all of these cases, maintaining the prerogatives of those at the top is more important to the legal system than the safety and humanity of victims. That’s patriarchy—a system that protects men in power.
Of course, abusers aren’t just protected by laws. They’re also protected by the reluctance to challenge, or restrain, powerful people. When victims speak out, and are taken seriously, others begin to believe that power can be challenged. That’s why Weinstein’s fall has led to a deluge of revelations about others, including Seagal and Ben Affleck—and to men coming forward to say that they have been harassed as well.
Currently, our laws and our culture venerate men in power and protect them from facing consequences to their actions. The default assumption is that successful men have proven their superiority by virtue of their money and influence, and that they have therefore earned the right to treat other people as beneath them. Weinstein’s fall is an opportunity to try to create a different culture, in which men in power are accountable for their actions. That would be a boon for people of every gender.