Will men finally behave?
The spectacular fall from grace of powerful men like Weinstein represents a seismic change in attitudes towards sexual harassment
It all began with a single complaint against Harvey Weinstein. Within a short period thereafter, dozens of women, many of them high-profile, came forward to talk about their bad experiences with Weinstein. Then began the flood—a torrent of complaints against high-profile men in entertainment, media, politics and academia started pouring in.
Countless women have been caught in power dynamics beyond their control. In industries like the entertainment business, the potential and talent is decided not by academic qualifications, but by an individual, almost always a male, using subjective factors. In these cases, the chances of exploitation are high. Sexual harassment in the entertainment industry has long been an open secret.
But the wave of complaints on sexual harassment and the subsequent reactions from all walks of life have come as a surprise. The #MeToo campaign is spreading. Almost every day the name of a new high-profile sex offender is revealed. The spectacular fall from grace of powerful men like Weinstein represents a seismic change in attitudes towards sexual harassment.
This is not the first time that a woman has had the courage to take on a high-profile person. In 1991, Anita Hill voiced her complaints against Judge Clarence Thomas in a televised testimony. But nothing really changed. Powerful men continued to prowl and continued to take advantage of women using their positions of power. But 26 years later, the situation looks different. What is different this time?
Sexual harassment is all about power. There is a strong cognitive association between power and sex. From the evolutionary days, dominant males have maintained relatively high sexual access to potential mates. Moreover, on the basis of theories of motivated social perception, one can conclude that power elicits motivated biases in sexual perception, leading power holders to think (often incorrectly) that others are sexually interested in them. This fundamental misperception of the intent of others can set the stage for harassment.
Why did power equations that were built over centuries suddenly start crumbling? A combination of several factors came together to create this historic moment.
The victim decided to break her silence in public. The silence of the victim was emblematic of powerlessness in our society. The perpetrators of crime thrived under this veil of silence. They continued to prowl looking for more hapless victims, overconfident in their belief that the victim will always remain silent. With more and more women standing up to talk about their ordeals, the voice of the victim is slowly getting louder.
There are other significant changes too. Jessica Bennett, The New York Times’ gender editor, noted that it is “perhaps the first time in history, powerful men are falling like dominos and vulnerable women are being believed”. Kimberly Latta recently spoke up in The New York Times about being raped by her professor in 1985 when she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley. On being asked why she was speaking about it after such a long time, she replied, “People are believing these women. Maybe they’ll believe me too.”
The climate of disbelief that existed among the larger American public about Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas played no small part in the Senate committee dismissing the case. But today the fact that the larger world is willing to believe the narratives of these women even decades after the incident is a significant change in American society.
Not only is the public believing the victims, but the organizations to which the perpetrators belong are taking action against them. The verdict and punishments were not meted out by a court of law, but by the very institutions that these sexual predators no doubt have helped build.
It is the general public that is now playing the pivotal role. Social media is directing the flow of events. In the Harvey case, it was not easy for the journalist to get the support of the traditional media houses initially to break his story. But as the hashtag #MeToo exploded on social media as a vehicle for individuals to share their stories, the traditional media had no option but to go with the dominant mood.
Will the Weinstein case have an impact on countries like India? We hear cases of police refusing to accept the complaint of a victim just a few hours after the incident. Rape survivors in India are exposed to victim-blaming behaviours or attitudes, the experience many liken to a “second rape”, a phenomenon known as “secondary victimization”.
It might take a long time for the police and judiciary to change their attitudes and reactions to sexual harassment. Hope rests with the individual organizations that receive complaints from victims of sexual harassment. The initial reactions of some of the institutions whose faculty have figured in the Indian version of the #MeToo campaign have been that there has been no official complaint against them so far. But this is not the end of it. The very fact that many women were willing to talk openly about the harassment itself is a good beginning. Appropriate action against the accused, as it happened in the US, will create an avalanche in India too.
But there is no doubt that the men in power will no longer indulge in sexual harassment with absolute disdain for the victim. They will think twice before taking sexual advantage of a subordinate. This is the beginning of the end of male hegemony.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.
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