Apparently “everyone knew” about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults and abuses of power. But when it came to speaking out, everyone was either too afraid or too invested or both.
Feminists argue that Weinstein is indicative of a “rape culture” and that our culture encourages or facilitates sexual assault by powerful men.
This is hard to gainsay in light of the infamous “locker-room talk” by the world’s most powerful man, whose own claims of having sexually assaulting women did little to slow his political ascent.
The “locker-room” defence means in effect that the President only claimed to sexually assault women because he wanted to impress a television host, and thought this was a good way to do it.
For his part the TV host regrets his involvement and wishes he had shown the strength of character to change the subject to something safer like ratings.
His job at the time was to connect with the celebrity of the day. If it had been Martha Stewart, for example, he would have talked about organic gardening. For Donald Trump, it was “hot women” and what a powerful man can get away with.
We’re often blind to the cultural influences that shape us. But it behoves us to examine ourselves and think carefully about our preconceived notions – to be honest about the limitations and oversights in our own thinking.
There’s a reason why Donald Trump bragged about assaulting women. There’s a reason why “everyone” who knew the vague rumours about Weinstein chose not to question or investigate.
Common sense and rape culture
Conservatives are typically wary of feminism, and feminist claims about “rape culture” often earn a knee-jerk response of scepticism.
Recently in Ireland, radio presenter George Hook was suspended – and roundly criticised – for questioning the moral responsibility of a rape victim in choosing to go to the hotel room of a man she had just met.
“Is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?” Hook asked.
Hook is only the latest public figure to raise the issue of personal responsibility in the context of sexual assault. Is it really such an unreasonable question?
When we hear about an awful crime our first thought is how we or our loved ones could avoid becoming victims ourselves. People look immediately to what they can control, and if there is any suggestion we can avoid becoming victims, not only of rape but of any crime, then it’s reasonable to ask “what could they have done differently?” and hence learn how we can avoid the same fate.
We live in a world full of crime and violence and vice. We might prefer to be safe and secure at all times, but since that’s not the case we should exercise prudence and try to minimise the risk to ourselves.
But when it comes to rape, such responses are met with accusations of sexism, “rape culture” and “victim blaming”. The argument is that instead of trying to teach women not to be victims, we should teach men not to rape:
“In cases where a woman was raped, a man was the perpetrator 98 percent of the time. And, in cases where a man was raped a man was the perpetrator 93 percent of the time. Instead of teaching women all of the various ways that they can avoid being raped, would it not be more effective to teach men not to rape?”
Maybe so, but in the meantime surely it’s just common sense to avoid situations that put you at danger not only of rape but any form of assault?
A societal double-standard
The goal of re-educating society is laudable but it’s also a long-term project and may be unrealistic. In the meantime, violent and vicious people still exist, and it’s up to us as individuals to do our best to protect ourselves.
I thought this argument was what people were getting at when they cautioned women to heed their personal safety, and not put themselves in vulnerable situations. It’s not “rape culture”; it’s just a realistic approach to personal safety.
But it turned out I was wrong. It turned out that society at large does have faith in our capacity to re-educate violent and vicious people – just not when it comes to sexual assault.
The proof came in the popular response to a series of “one-punch” assaults in or around pubs and nightclubs in Australian cities. A campaign arose with the intention of ending such attacks through a combination of public education, harsher sentencing, and even renaming the so-called “king hit” a “coward punch”.
Boxer Danny Green starred in a 2014 commercial and a number of organisations have arisen in honour of victims of one-punch assaults, hoping to raise awareness and contribute to social change.
So why did one-punch assaults earn an enlightened response to social change and influencing would-be perpetrators, while sexual assaults receive admonishments to personal conduct and the behaviour of victims?
Moral and societal norms
If we were consistent, we would take the feminist perspective seriously and start trying to educate and influence men not to sexually assault women, in the same way that we started trying to educate and influence men not to punch people in the head without warning.
Alternatively, if we were consistent we would tell potential victims of one-punch assaults to take responsibility for their personal safety. Do you know the best way to not be the victim of a one-punch assault? Don’t go out late at night to public drinking venues like pubs and clubs.
Don’t turn your back on potentially violent patrons. Keep your back to the wall and try to keep would-be aggressors in line of sight. Don’t do anything to irritate or annoy or provoke potential attackers.
No one made these kinds of suggestions publicly, because Australia has a deeply entrenched culture of late-night drinking at pubs and clubs.
Australians aren’t even that fazed by violence in these venues. It’s only in the case of one-punch assaults ending in disproportionate injury and even death of some victims that people decided such attacks were unacceptable.
Separate moral issues
If we view drunken sexual encounters with complete strangers as morally destructive and harmful to everyone involved, it’s difficult to separate this from the moral issue of sexual assaults occurring in that context.
But they can be separated, and the broader themes and problems described as “rape culture” can be taken seriously and investigated critically without altering our moral conclusions on the harms intrinsic to casual sex and intoxication.
Conservatives believe, after all, that our society and culture can be shaped and influenced for the common good. If it can be done – and be worth doing – with family values and the right to life, can it also be done, and worth doing, to engender respect for women and a culture that regards sexual assault as abhorrent?
If young men can be taught not to “coward punch” each other, can they also be taught not to sexually assault women?
But that might, as feminists have pointed out, run afoul of very powerful men for whom sexual assault is an entitlement and a talking point.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He blogs at zacalstin.com