Because Sex Abuse is the Old Normal
By Madeleine H. Burnside
Bill O’Reilly—barely beyond settling a huge sexual harassment lawsuit—is negotiating for a job with the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair, in case you missed this, is the second largest television station operator in the country, dominating markets in the South and Midwest. It has been involved with Fox Broadcasting since that company’s launch in 1986 and is consistently criticized for its conservative-only news reporting. There are entire regions of our country that get no news beyond that which Sinclair provides—would that be undue political power? But I digress. So, despite Sinclair’s much-vaunted family values, sexual harassment is not a deal-breaker when it considers hiring. Does no one question this?
The answer is “no” because sexual harassment has been and remains normal. When women warn each other about certain men, it isn’t with a lot of shared surprise. Such things happen everywhere, all the time: in corporations, in the armed forces, in churches, in colleges—there’s no place free from it.
Harvey Weinstein is the latest predator to be outed. Because it’s show-biz and everyone loves a Hollywood scandal, there’s a lot of news coverage. Movie stars and other industry figures are coming forward saying, “Me too.” Their male counterparts who had long recognized what was going on are apologizing for not speaking up. Women, harassed years ago, are saying they are sorry for not speaking sooner. Back and forth. It’s a rush-to-regret Derby with only losers. Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg wrote a prose poem about Weinstein, his mentor of many years, and his sorrow that he got swept up in the moment, the parties, and the personal advantages. You might dismiss that as self-serving B.S. if it were not for his recurring refrain, “Everybody fucking knew.” And there you have it. Everyone does know. Weinstein’s rapacious appetite wasn’t strictly acceptable, but it was normal.
It’s less than twelve months since voters blew off Donald Trump’s boasts about groping random women as normal. Among this year’s celebrity lawsuits there’s Bill Cosby (for multiple rapes), and Harvey Weinstein for couch-casting, exposing himself, and maybe rape. Mark Halperin of CNN has just been accused of not only asking female colleagues to sit on his lap but to do so while he had an erection. George H.W. Bush must be surprised to find himself in the line-up of living presidential offenders alongside Bill Clinton. I bet Bush had no idea that the odd butt-pat/fondle was other than warmly received. Why? Because no matter how a woman experienced it, that behavior was typical of the men he grew up with. It was normal.
But also in 2017, the New York Times reported that O’Reilly and Fox News had settled five lawsuits against O’Reilly since 2002. In fact, there’s a tangle of charges from various women. O’Reilly left Fox last spring, as did Fox’s CEO, Roger Ailes, who was also accused of multiple instances of sexual harassment.
I don’t have a problem with anyone else’s voracious sexual appetite or their capacity for one-night stands. I do care about consent. Someone may make a come-on remark to a person they find attractive but they need to pull back quickly and gracefully if the response is less than positive. That’s the difference between sexual pursuit and predation.
I realize that people in elevated positions (usually men but women too) use their standing to pressure others to sleep with them. Many friends, male and female, gay or straight, have stories of powerful people trying to intimidate them into sex. Sometimes it’s meaningless, other times it’s ugly, but it’s not necessarily coercive, just opportunistic. How you select among life’s opportunities is personal and some of the effects get muddled by subjectivity and hindsight. It may be the abuse of power, it may be sleazy, but it’s not necessarily sexual abuse. Sexual harassment is abuse when defined as an on-going hard push despite the other person’s disinterest. It’s very much abuse if the victim has to face negative consequences for not acquiescing. Groping is abuse. Rape is rape.
If such abuse won’t stop (as it probably won’t in this century) there have to be consequences to at least slow the offenders. Bill O’Reilly must never work again. Probably the same goes for Mark Halperin but it's too soon to tell. Bill Cosby should be in prison. George H.W. Bush needs to update his social skills. Bill Clinton’s wife has paid his price for him—which further disgusts me, but let’s not start on that. The boasts of sexual assault should have been a deal breaker for the American electorate, but they weren’t, and thus we have Donald Trump. He needs to be voted out. Abuse must stop being normal.
The Women’s Liberation movement of the late 1960s learned a lot from the Civil Rights movement that directly preceded it. We have had some successes but many unresolved issues from that time are surfacing again. These days, we’ve had to state “Black Lives Matter” because that idea, that core principle, has yet to be established. It’s not normal. It is normal for a well-dressed black man driving an expensive car to get pulled over by the police for no reason. A casually dressed black man may be considered to be “asking for it” when he pops out to buy candy after dark—much like a woman who finds herself stranded in the wrong place. “Black Lives Matter” demands a new norm in which all people are treated according to their individual actions—just as the vast majority of white people are. African Americans are fathers, sons, husbands, lovers, uncles, senators, doctors, artists, mailmen. Their lives are important to themselves and others. They matter.
I can’t help thinking that women are once more in debt to African Americans for their leadership in the struggle for personal and legal rights. White, black, or brown: women’s bodies matter. This is not one of those vapid or reactionary “All Lives Matter” comments. This is about another group of people who are subject to violence because of how they present—not their color, but their gender.
Women cross the street to avoid dangerous-looking people. They don’t necessarily live in fear but they live with caution. Depending on where they are, they lock themselves in their cars or avoid certain parts of town. They throw the deadbolt in their hotel rooms. In cities, they carry pepper spray. In isolated areas, they may sleep with a pistol under their pillow. Most find strength in numbers, leery of being alone in a subway car, a public elevator, or even a college restroom. Like most African Americans, women remain polite in order to evade a threatening situation, despite any inner rage. They understand that the consequences of losing self-control can be dire. I know this—I’ve been beaten up in New York City by a stranger, just for rejecting his advances.
For many women, the abuse is not just occasional and random but daily. They have to fear their male family members or their spouse—or their boss in a much-needed job. These may not be celebrities, more likely they are women whose names you will never know. They may be rich or poor. Class doesn’t matter, it’s gender that does—that’s what makes it normal.
The right to make love or to have sex just for fun must be left up to the individual woman. No one should touch someone else’s body intimately unless invited. We all know this. Right now it’s a rule that is honored in the breach by many—boys will be boys! Now it’s time to stand up against that behavior and kick the rule-breakers to the curb.
Don’t let Bill O’Reilly dominate any part of our culture again.