April 7, 2020

First Steps

By Stephen Tuttle | Nov. 25, 2017

The rogue's gallery of accused sexual harassers, abusers, and assaulters now includes

actors, directors, producers, record moguls, politicians including two former presidents and the current president, television broadcasters both behind and in front of the camera, and various business executives.

Public opinion, which essentially ignored most such claims since public opinion existed, has turned dramatically the other way. The boys-will-be-boys attitudes of the past are gone or nearly so; women victims have found their voice and are using it. Men in power using and abusing mostly young women who have none are an ugly anachronism whose time is just about up.

What happened that so dramatically reshaped the landscape? We started believing the women, partly because so many were making similar accusations against the same men. Safety in numbers then opened the floodgates completely.   

More than 300 women have accused movie director/producer James Tobak of behavior ranging from inappropriate harassment to full-blown sexual assault. Several dozen have similarly accused Harvey Weinstein, and dozens more director Brett Ratner and music mogul Russell Simmons.

Accusations have been made that former president George H.W. Bush inappropriately touched young women (he apologized), we know Bill Clinton's history, and President Donald Trump has been accused by a dozen women and was twice recorded saying what sounded a lot like an admission of sexual assault. 

Clinton's case is instructive because the initial reaction to accusations against him used a template that is still popular today: First, strongly deny anything ever happened at all and demonize the accuser by claiming she's attention-seeking or money-grubbing, or of dubious repute in some way. When that doesn't work, claim the sexual contact you previously denied was actually consensual. And, of course, demonize the accuser by at least implying she's a slut. When that doesn't work, quietly pay a large settlement with a confidentiality clause so nobody can talk about it. “I didn't do it, she's a liar, she wanted me to do it, here's a bunch of money to be quiet.”

The Clinton camp called Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky liars and worse. The president even lied under oath about it and was impeached, though not convicted, as a result. But Flowers recorded phone calls with the president, Lewinsky kept that blue dress, and Jones received an $850,00 settlement. Clinton's defenders are mostly quiet these days. 

Even those acknowledging their behavior offer lukewarm or faux apologies complete with rationalizations and excuses, usually followed by a settlement offer. Former Fox broadcaster Bill O'Reilly paid one woman a staggering $32 million settlement all the while claiming he never did a thing and acquiesced only to spare his family the media storm sure to accompany any civil trial — a trial at which his family would presumably suffer the embarrassment of learning he was completely innocent, or so he said. 

Only President Trump, with a dozen accusers (all of whom he has called liars) and incriminating audio tapes, has escaped our new assumption of guilt; his supporters simply do not care what he does, including alleged criminal behavior.

Unfortunately, some of the most serious sexual assault allegations are now too old to prosecute, the statute of limitations having expired. Most of those now being accused will never face any kind of criminal prosecution but careers, justifiably so, are over. 

(Sexual harassment itself, by the way, is not criminal unless it involves other crimes, like unwanted touching or coercion, but it's unacceptable and plenty actionable as a civil matter. Not to mention the attendant career-ending publicity.)

Thank goodness women now feel sufficiently empowered to expose some of this aberrant behavior even if it happened decades ago. It's the first step in getting around a corner that should have been turned long ago. The next step is to start reporting the miscreants immediately. It's surprising there isn't some sort of nonprofit that helps women report harassment and abuse and protects them during the process.

The porcine predators are already on notice that there can be career-ending consequences for their behavior, and it would be good to add legal consequences to the mix. If a bigger weapon is required to make this stop, then women should have it. 

There should be a cautionary note here. The assumption of guilt is a dangerous road antithetical to our legal traditions. It's inevitable some accusations, likely a relative handful, will not be true. We have to be willing to reject those while affording the wrongly accused a chance to defend themselves even in the current atmosphere; accusations alone are not proof of guilt. 

That women have found a strong voice and the public is finally offering a listening ear are benchmarks in a too-long journey. The silence has been shattered, and the first steps in ending the outrages have been taken. Now, let's keep walking.


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