Books Magazine

After Weinstein: How Do Good Things Come From Bad Things?

By Litlove @Litloveblog

As ever, it’s Radio 4 that tipped me over the edge. I’ve thought often of writing about the complex fallout from the Harvey Weinstein affair, because I feared that in the rush of comments and allegations following on from it, the argument would get lost in all the arguing. And indeed, this morning the Today programme featured two women talking over each other – three if we include the interviewer, and I just couldn’t bear the mess and the muddle of it any more.

I think we have to be clear on our intentions. If we are to get any useful social change from the publicity around Harvey Weinstein, we need a clear goal to aim for, one that is easily understood and doesn’t try to cover everything from an unwelcome pat on the knee to rape. Given that we aren’t talking legislation here – we’re in the gray area of behavioural politics – it has to be something with clear, measurable parameters.

So let’s return to Harvey Weinstein and his misdemeanours and what was properly wrong about them. It seems to me that we are dealing with a clear abuse of power, in which a man in a gateway position uses his status and authority in order to oblige women to submit to him. And this seems to me the age-old issue that makes women feel cornered into a sexual exchange they don’t want: where a clear imbalance of power exists that is then exploited. I wonder if we might think of it as sexual blackmail. If a man has a hold over a woman of any kind – because he pays her wages, or determines her career progression, or is willing to use his greater physical strength, or because they are in any situation where a woman cannot easily protest without fearing real, problematic reprisals – then sexual approaches within them are clearly wrong.

So, sexual blackmail needs to be eradicated where there is an imbalance of power. But this has difficulties of its own. In my experience, when people work hard to gain positions of power, they often want the trappings that go with them, and it can be hard to persuade them that they are a bad idea. We live in a society where we are strongly encouraged to give in to our feelings – that’s essentially what post-truth means: that we’ve given up on reason in order to give precedence to how we feel, and I’ve written before about the way being right is an emotion. Well, my experience of men who try it on is that they feel completely entitled to do so and are not interested in giving up their preferred habits. And we also know that shame – the great weapon of social media – is horribly counter-effective. Shame is such an overwhelming emotion that it tends to entrench people in their own justifications, because once shamed they feel like victims too, and the only way forward for their stability is to insist there was no wrong-doing. If we want sexual blackmail to go away, then how are we actually to achieve this?

It seems to me that the issues arising from Harvey Weinstein are all about the basic, and terrible, problem of human helplessness. One of the great existential problems that cannot be cured is the problem of our helplessness in the face of so much: illness, death, war, accident, economic collapse, natural disaster. But perhaps most of the everyday helplessness we face concerns the problem of love.  The people we like so rarely like us back, the wrong people pursue us, friends treat us with casual carelessness, lovers leave us amid bitter recriminations and the world, in general, refuses to recognize us for the good that we do. We all need love. But some days it can feel like we are quite helpless in our quest for it – or at least for the right kind of love. A lot of the stories I’ve heard from women lately seem to concern situations in which friendliness, companionship and solidarity would have been very welcome from men, but then they found themselves on the receiving end of lust instead, which out of context feels hostile rather than caring.

But I also think that much of the male behavior that we are complaining about is caused by male helplessness in the face of their own need for love and affection. I mean, why else would you force a woman into a sexual relationship? You would have to feel that your own charm, your own attractiveness would never be sufficient in itself. For me, the male sexual predator is the man who is in despair about his own innate loveability. He has given up on it, in favour of the emotionally empty conquest. And then there’s the man who stumbles into saying or doing something awkward and ill-timed and ugly, because he doesn’t know how to manage the emotional process involved in getting a woman to care for him, doesn’t believe he can ever get the hang of it. I suppose I’ve heard a lot lately about how vulnerable women feel, but I don’t think we’ve spoken enough about why men behave the way they do, and I believe there are important reasons. I think it’s very tempting for men to take advantage of their power because they don’t believe they can get love any other way.

So I think we need to think a lot more about our helplessness when we come together as men and women. Though men thinking about the helplessness they feel in the face of their emotions…? Well, it’s a tough ask. But what of women and their feelings of helplessness? Well, when I look back over my own awkward and unwelcome encounters (and like every woman, I’ve had them), I see myself desperately clinging onto silence and politeness because I wasn’t sure how to behave, and I thought I had a lot less power in the situation than I did. I believed only in the efficacy of social power – status and authority and age – and I didn’t see that such a thing as personal power exists. But one’s personal power is terrifically effective in awkward social situations. I can’t think of a single instance that I could deem sexual harassment that wouldn’t have been easier for me to deal with if I hadn’t just opened my mouth and verbally stood up for myself, confident in my right to do so. The thing about helplessness is that it makes us feel like we deserve to be protected, that we should have some sort of insurance policy to turn to when someone bumps into our personal space and does us harm. But that search for protection keeps us children. We grow up by developing our own personal resources, our own inner strength, our own self-belief. It’s hard, I know, and it feels like we shouldn’t have to do it. But it doesn’t do us any good, in the long term, to fool ourselves that life is – or ought to be – any easier than it is. Where there is a case of sexual blackmail, then we have the absolute right to call foul. But where we have our own power to fall back on, I think we should learn to use it.


Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog