Friday, November 10, 2017

Revisiting Sexual Harassment and Abuse

Louis C. K.
Another entertainer bites the dust. In one of the more sordid descriptions of sexual misconduct, comedian Louis C. K. has probably lost his career. Mr. C. K. joins a litany of other prominent ‘Hollywood’ figures in that have been accused of a variety sexual improprieties. From harassment to rape! In some cases – so many victims came forward that it’s impossible to believe that no one knew about it. (In one case, over 200 women have come forward accusing writer-director James Toback of sexual misdeeds!)

Many of the accused are virtual icons of the entertainment industry. Academy Award winners, even some that have been honored for their philanthropy to humanitarian causes.

Of course the scandal is not limited to Hollywood. Rabbis of all denominations and Hashkafos; Catholic Priests; Christian Ministers; Presidents; politicians; and other high profile public officials have all  taken advantage of their positions of power to sexually harass (or worse) men, women, and children  in their employ  or otherwise in their control or even proximity. But it seems like the epicenter of any and all sexual misconduct of any degree is ‘Hollywood’.

I have discussed this issue recently and I hate repeating myself. But the problem isn’t going away. The list of those accused of sexual misconduct seems to be growing by leaps and bounds every day.

The conventional wisdom is that sexual misconduct - from harassment to rape – is not a function of sexual desire. It is a function of power and control. I believe that’s true. But there are a lot of ways to assert power and control over other people that do not involve sex.  So even though it is about power and control, it’s about sex too. I don’t see how it’s possible to deny that.  As a United States Senator put it (from the senate podium at the height of President Clinton’s sex scandal) ‘If someone tells you it’s not about the sex – It’s about the sex!’

How far back in history was sexual misconduct a problem? Since the beginning of mankind’s reign on earth. The bible describes it negatively as the behavior of the generation prior to the Mabul – the great flood that destroyed all of humanity except for Noah and his family.  The bible is filled with examples of sexual misconduct.

Are we more civilized today than we were then? As a society have men learned to be better behaved around women? I had always thought so. But I’m not so sure anymore. Yes, I believe most of us are better behaved. But it seems we haven’t really moved the needle too much from the pre Mabul days of Noah.

I don’t know what percentage of the male population is guilty of the kinds of things all of these prominent men have been accused of. But I’m sure it’s a lot more than anyone has ever imagined. What happened to our society’s civilized behavior? I guess in all too many cases it’s a facade.  While not all men are ‘pigs’ sadly there are a lot of us that are.

I wish I could say that religious people are immune to such behavior. But obviously they are not. The Catholic Church has one of the guiltiest records of child sexual abuse of any religious institution. And the list of Orthodox rabbis guilty of such conduct has grown and seems to continue to grow to shocking proportion!

I am now convinced that even with all the victims coming forward now, it is only the tip of the iceberg. There are probably still plenty of people that want to keep the abuse they suffered secret for fear of embarrassment – for themselves and their families.

The question I keep asking myself is, ‘Why?’ Why is all this happening? Why are there so many victims coming forward now? Who will be exposed next? And of no small concern is the possibility that in the current climate of justifiable public outrage over sex abuse will be taken advantage of. An unscrupulous individual can accuse an innocent person of it and will surely be believed. We are now at a point where every accusation is considered to be true. 

Even though almost all accusations are true, in the current climate it would be far too easy for an innocent person’s life to be ruined by an unsubstantiated and false accusation of it, added to all the accusations that are true. How can we prevent that? And more importantly, what can we do to change the culture?

Stronger laws and better enforcement is one answer. Encouraging  survivors of abuse to come forward and testify against their abusers is another. Treating survivors of abuse more respectfully is yet another As is teaching people to better protect themselves against it. But there is more we can do as a preventative measure. Which brings me back to Hollywood.

As I have said in the past, I cannot help but believe that Hollywood’s immorality in sexual matters is related to it being the epicenter of sexual harassment (and worse) right now. It is a culture that objectifies women. And thus people with no self control and sociopathic tendencies will use women as objects of sexual gratification.

The hierarchy of the entertainment industry (Hollywood) gave powerful former icons like Harvey Weinstein an easy road to satisfy his lust. The culture of celebrity does that too. So that a Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, or Dustin Hoffman can hit on any target they choose. As can powerful media types like Roger Ailes and  Bill O'Reilly. Usually the victims are targets of opportunity. The objectification of women (or in the case of a gay man like Spacey – the objectification of other men or boys) is in large measure the business of Hollywood. And we are now reaping its fruit.

Any power player who wishes to satisfy his lust will have a sense of invincibility about himself. At least according to those who have been caught with their proverbial ‘pants down’. When in positions of high power no matter what part of society in which that power lies, they seem to think they can do what they want because they will never get caught. Whether it was Kennedy (both John and Edward), Clinton, Bush (41), Edwards, McGreevy, Spitzer, Hart,  Petraeus, Katzav… the list goes on. Nowhere is this more common than in the entertainment industry. As the current President noted several years ago while expressing his own objectification of women – and what he could do to them as a powerful celebrity.

I’m not sure we are going to be able to change the culture of objectifying women in this country – or any country. Or objectifying anyone against their will for purposes of their own sexual gratification. But
I sometimes wonder if the lengths gone to by the extremes of Orthodoxy don’t actually have some merit. Not that I am recommending it. Nor is it even true that these communities immune from it. They clearly are. But I have to believe that the concept of having modesty standards is an important building block against at least the frequency with which these things happen.

I do not recommend women start wearing burkas. Or that religious areas should have men and women walking on different sides of the street, or separate seating in buses or even at weddings. But I do think there is a benefit to modesty standards in the following sense. The less men and women are involved with each other the less opportunity there is for misconduct. What constitutes normal versus extreme? Determining that is beyond my pay grade. But it should be based in Halacha and related to the individual culture in which anyone finds themselves

This will not stop harassment or abuse. That will unfortunately continue. As long there are sociopaths that are willing to use other people for their own self gratification, they will find a way. But clearly, there is something to be said for minimizing interactions between the sexes. Because if nothing else, it will reduce opportunity for sexual harassment and abuse . And that will reduce the incidence of it.