So, what with all the revelations and recriminations about sexual harassment, misconduct and assault, is 2017 shaping up to be a watershed year for women’s rights, gender equity and social justice?
As a man, a husband and a father of daughters, I would like to think so, but somehow I kind of doubt it.
On one hand, it’s a great thing that women are publicly demanding that powerful men be held accountable for their sexual misdeeds and inappropriate behavior. On the other, I’m not always so sure what being held accountable means.
I get a little uneasy when accusation equals conviction. Then, too, the range of behaviors being rebuked runs from the obviously criminal to the just plain creepy.
How are we to equate comedian Bill Cosby’s going to court for allegedly drugging and sexually molesting women with comedian Louis CK’s being tried in the court of public opinion for asking women if he can pleasure himself in front of them with comedian Al Franken’s being asked to resign from the U.S. Senate for pretending to fondle a sleeping woman? Not funny, not funny, not funny.
But not all criminal.
The use of economic and political power to force unwanted sexual advances on young women and men is wrong in each and every case, of course starting with loathsome casting-couch lothario Harvey Weinstein. And this form of perversion is clearly nonpartisan, as it was the apparent M.O. of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at Fox News, Charlie Rose at PBS and Michael Oreskes at NPR.
But what to make of a celebrity like Kevin Spacey trying to use his fame to get sexual favors? Isn’t every rock star in history guilty of that? I also found it strangely unsettling that Spacey was accused of putting the moves on a young man who was above the age of consent and that the young man’s mother, rather than the man himself, was on national TV making the accusations. Spacey said he didn’t remember the alleged incident, but he didn’t deny it either. Something odd there.
Deny, deny, deny. That seems to be working for President Donald Trump and Judge Roy Moore, as dozens of women accuse them both of sexual misconduct. That’s the primary reason I doubt we are witnessing a watershed moment for women’s rights.
If Trump and Moore can get away with (and, worse, get elected despite) taking advantage of young women and children by simply denying it, and Franken can be vilified for far less, then we are not really making any meaningful progress.
Franken admitted his inappropriate behavior, apologized for it and asked for forgiveness. If that’s good enough for Leeann Tweeden, it’s good enough for me. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Trump and Moore to apologize.
Partisanship rears its ugly head in these ugly matters whenever Republicans revert to the “whataboutism” for which they have become infamous. What about Bill Clinton? What about Hillary? What about Benghazi? What about? What about?
If you watch Fox News, you might think Bill Clinton was currently on trial for sexual misconduct that actually happened 20 years ago. It’s as if all Republican sexual aberrations are defensible because Clinton lied about having sex with a consenting adult. What you might not know if you watch Fox News is that Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about having sex with that consenting adult.
At some level, I’m afraid most men are dogs, sniffing around and prone to stray. Political history alone is filled with powerful men who have been accused of sexual transgressions – Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman, Warren Harding, John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush. Even Jimmy Carter, probably the most moral man to serve as president until Obama came along, confessed to having lust in his heart.
I believe the women, but what we need to get right as a society – along with what behaviors are inappropriate – is what role due process should play when someone is accused of sexual impropriety. We can’t keep sweeping it under the rug the way Congress has done by paying out $17 million in secret settlements, but we can’t allow accusations to be prima facie evidence of guilt, either.
Ultimately, this is a time for men to listen and learn. We must take our cues from the women in our lives. Then maybe we’ll make enough progress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment after 40 years, finally elect a woman governor of Maine and a woman president of the United States.
Until these things happen, exposing male chauvinist pigs will only be a media circus.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.