Western men’s treatment of women (particularly the treatment of vulnerable women by wealthy and powerful male superiors) is in the news again. The implosion of Harvey Weinstein’s career, marriage and reputation came amid revelations that between 1990 and 2015 he had settled at least eight cases of alleged harassment out of court. His former political allies in the Democratic party have deserted him, just as three women have gone on the record of accusing the film mogul of rape. Even one of his own legal team has chosen to step down.
Weinstein joins a number of other prominent men repeatedly accused of sexually harassing women in recent years, including TV host Bill O’Reilly, Fox News CEO and founder Roger Ailes, and President Donald Trump. He also joins the likes of disgraced TV star Bill Cosby (accused of rape and sexual assaults) and Johnny Depp (accused of domestic violence) in the Hollywood pantheon of shame. These men have suffered different fates in response to the allegations against them; Trump still became US president, while Cosby is currently facing retrial in November for sexual assault.
Whatever the outcome of Weinstein’s own case, progressive researchers believe his story is only the tip of the iceberg, and that as with rape and domestic violence, sexual harassment is an under-reported offence. Liberal media outlets like the New York Times have called out Hollywood’s men over their silence in response to the Weinstein story.
Meanwhile in the wider world, hook-up app Tinder launched its new “Menprovement Initiative” to police male misbehaviour among its users. The Guardian went so far as to ask if even this was enough to protect women in the digital age. The judicial system here in the UK would seem to agree, with harsher sentences being passed down for sexual infractions and the head of the Crown Prosecution Service openly admitting she believes that many men acquitted in rape cases are not falsely accused.
There are many issues to unpack from modern narratives around sex, violence and gender; however I wrote all of the above to show how modern Western society responds to sexual crimes and even misdemeanors. It takes them seriously, so seriously that for probably the first time in recorded human history, such allegations can even fell a man as powerful as Harvey Weinstein without his being convicted of any crimes in court beforehand (while his own public admissions leave little doubt of his guilt, this is not always the case). Speaking as a heterosexual man however, I find it telling that the public call for stricter standards on sexual behavior focuses so relentlessly on straight men.
There is a sexual double standard.
Sex being the nebulous and controversial subject it is, it would be easy for me to highlight the inconsistencies in when and how society chooses to condemn men for their sexual advances (wanted and unwanted). But this is something of a blind alley I think, because every attempt to get sex from some other person is highly personal and contextual.
Behaviour that might be welcomed from one person is never going to be applied to all people without change or reservation. Simply put, a pass from an average man like myself is always less likely to be accepted than one from say, a male model. Nor do I want to talk about the inherent social tensions between men’s traditional roles as the sexual initiators and modern laws on sexual harassment, assault and rape.
Instead I want to challenge the mainstream narrative which says things like sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape are things which just happen to women and are only done by men.
On the contrary, while you wouldn’t know it from our prison population, from rape to domestic violence, the female gender is extremely well represented in recorded crime statistics. However a combination of good old fashioned chivalry and political pressure from pro-female politicians and campaign groups means women are less likely to be arrested for their misdeeds, and far more likely to be let off or punished more lightly than a man if they are charged and convicted.
I also know from personal experience (and the stories that family and friends have told me) that in less serious cases of sexual misbehavior, women just aren’t held to the same standards of public or private behavior which feminists and other progressive activists demand of men.
A year or two ago, a female relative once told me of a nightmare flight back from an overseas business trip with an older married female colleague, who started drinking heavily. Once drunk enough, the woman publically groped my relative’s breasts, tried to kiss her, stuck her tongue down her victim’s ear, and suggested they have sex. My relative left the company she then worked for soon after, so no complaint against her colleague was pursued.
From my own life I can think of numerous similarly unpleasant encounters I have had with women in public, from the bandanna wearing one who grabbed my crotch as I was walking towards a subway station in Berlin, to the drunken woman who accosted me in the road outside a pub one late Friday night as I came back exhausted from work. Refusing to ignore my lack of interest in her conversation, she followed me up the road cursing and accusing me of thinking she was a prostitute. I wasn’t in fear of my life, but I remember seriously wondering if I was about to be physically assaulted or have her drink thrown all over my expensive work suit. This stranger felt entirely entitled to my (male) attention and was grossly insulted when she didn’t get it; handling rejection did not seem to be something she was used to.
These examples are only anecdotal of course, but they highlight a truth that feminist groups like Everyday Sexism conveniently turn a blind eye to; as women have left behind the restrictions on their behavior imposed by the patriarchy of the past, they have started to behave more like men traditionally felt free too. At the same time, feminist activists have been camping to curb male sexual license, ‘banter’ and other types of anti-social or criminal behavior they feel are disrespectful to women.
Ironically, too often this has created a new social double standard whereby Western women may now behave in ways that would be condemned if they were done by Western men.
Popular culture holds up a mirror to what society finds acceptable and unacceptable and we can see the behavioural double standards at play in even the most achingly politically correct books or TV shows. For example, Netflix hit “The Good Place” has an impeccably diverse central cast and supporting actors, with Kristen Bell’s hard-drinking barfly Eleanor Shellstrop battling it out with (spoiler alert) Ted Danson’s demonic architect Michael (who inevitably appears in the human form of an old white male, since this show wears its progressive politics pretty transparently on its sleeve). Eleanor drinks, swears, and once belts her dim male sidekick Jianyu (played by Manny Jacinto) in the face when his stupidity gets too much.
I doubt in 2017 that a TV show would play a scene where a hard-drinking man slaps a stupid female character for laughs, but this moment captures a truth about how some women really do feel free to behave toward men today.
However it seems true to say that heterosexual men today generally do not face the same pressures that women’s highly publicized struggle with sexual harassment in workplace has shown. Female team leaders, middle managers or CEOs are not constantly being reported in the media for propositioning their straight male employees for sex (a cynic might suggest that this is because most women do not struggle with finding receptive heterosexual male partners, but with finding the male partners they are receptive too), or at least not for unwanted sex. While sexual affairs between female guards and male prisoners, or between female teachers and male students do happen and are <a href=”http://nypost.com/2017/08/30/teen-says-juvenile-detention-center-used-inmates-as-sex-slaves/”?problematic, their settings do not count as typical work environments in my opinion.
The feverish plot of Michael Crichton’s Disclosure novel aside, women still do misbehave in the workplace, but for different reasons. Working my first job out of university, I was given the nickname “Stallion” by my then female line manager, who found it amusing to refer to me that way in front of others. Another memory of that office was an afternoon discussion among the older women of how much they would all like to have sex with Twilight star Robert Patterson and what parts of his body they liked best. And as a teenager there was the very overweight woman at my work who enjoyed hugging younger male employees and crushing them headfirst into her bosom; a teenage waitress from the same area as me taunted me in front of colleagues about my then being a virgin compared to her own more active social life, and was never disciplined.
The overwhelming personal impression I have had from women when they have engaged in unprofessional touching or other workplace misbehaviour around me is that it is driven not by lust, but by the need to feel important, desired or the center of attention. Any sexual behaviours used as part of such bullying is merely intended to humiliate the recipient with their own undesirability rather than coerce them into sexual activity in the way that women report Weinstein and similar predators like him behaving. A woman is less likely to behave this way in a business, but it was fairly common for girls to behave like this in school and sixth form when I was young. I have several vivid memories from my time in secondary school of trying to enter the library and of threading my way through a pack of girls who found it amusing to stand in my way, pouting, stroking parts of my body unasked, and pressing their breasts at someone shy and easily embarrassed; something to consider when reading the next media story on how teenage boys are sexually mistreating female students is whether or not anyone has asked the unpopular boys how they have been treated by their female counterparts.
Our society is not good at recognizing patterns of female sexual misbehavior because our investigations are still set up with the assumption they are there to find and identify male “creeps.”
It is slightly better at recognizing statutory rape of boys by women than it used to be, but is frequently blind in many other ways. These include the use of sexual aggression to bully boys and men, the leniency with which it treats female banter or sexual remarks in the workplace compared to men’s, and the lower levels of arrests, sentences and conviction rates for female offenders compared to men, especially in cases of rape or domestic violence. Any attempt to get women’s rights groups to focus on these issues meets ferocious resistance from activists, who are conditioned to think in terms of men as the enemy here.
In my own life, myself and others have experienced plenty of incidents of female misbehaviour which, were I a woman, would be classified as sexual harassment or worse. But these incidents go undetected because they are never reported and recorded. Instead they are shrugged off or brushed under the carpet, much as the same treatment of women used to be.
Consider how few incidents of male misbehavior the average woman still does not report after years of reforms; then consider the situation for a man, in an unreformed environment, with his own behavior under the microscope because he belongs to the gender which is seen as worse and where the “Women are Wonderful” effect remains a barrier to his credibility.
I feel sympathy for the female victims of Harvey Weinstein and I hope any woman who has been raped by him gets justice.
But whenever I go online and see articles like this piece in the Guardian, I feel my lip curl in a sneer, because I know we live in a country where a newspaper would never publish the opposite headline.
Feminist activists have changed a lot of norms over the past fifty years, but they may not be ready for the way the inescapable logic of those new standards (designed for men) will come to apply to women’s behavior. It will be interesting to see how hard they fight against it.