H is for Harassment
Let’s stop parsing apologies and condemning individuals and instead examine the culture that produces the behavior
Cookie Monster made some serious allegations earlier today against the late Jim Henson and fellow Muppet, Kermit the Frog. The beloved googley-eyed sugar-monger took to Twitter with his furry fingers to describe his shocking ordeal in a series of emotional tweets. “Dey made me crawl across floor, beg for cookie dough while Henson touch himself,” he wrote. “Frog took video dat he watch while screwing pig. H is for Harassment, is good enough for me, too.”
H is also for “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” The above isn’t meant to negate anyone’s experiences or trauma, but rather to parody the news cycle. Enough already. When will we learn that publicly shaming people doesn’t change behavior? Nor does critiquing their apologies when they offer them, and this is an area in which we’ve grown exceedingly harsh. We harp on the language they use, the things they didn’t cover, the perceived lack of authenticity. We don’t get to decide how people apologize for things; rather, we get to determine if we forgive them. The collective message coming from the social media masses these days is that there is no forgiveness when people make mistakes that qualify as sexual misconduct. Facebook has become the modern equivalent of the town square. In it, we’re stoning people to death.
Before I go any further, I want to make a few things clear: I do not think it’s good practice to take advantage of people. I agree that women are often treated badly in professions all across the board of life, and Hollywood, in particular, is a hotbed of sexual misconduct. I also don’t think it’s okay to molest children—not in the slightest. But the term “molest children” is now widely used to include things that aren’t quite “molesting children.” And I certainly don’t think it’s okay to go around raping people.
Increasingly so, however, all of these behaviors have surfaced as prominent aspects of the human condition. And while the issues at hand in the recent onslaught of harassment allegations may seem cut and dry, a look under the hood reveals a much more complex network of elements at play.
Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power. The jury is out on whether this is a re-worded version of something written by Oscar Wilde or an idea contained in the writing of sociologist Robert Michels, but the bottom line is that it rings true. Sex and love are two very different things, although they are often thought to be (and actually are, in certain kinds of relationships) expressions of one another. The ways in which we assume power over one another—the commerce of power, if you will, in sexual relationships—aren’t as simple as we want to believe. Human sexuality has always been depraved; that’s part of what makes certain kinds of sex “hot.” We seem unwilling to address this.
I don’t find Harvey Weinstein attractive, despite my propensity for bearish men. I also tend not to find well-connected people with money all that attractive simply based on their stature and/or what they might be able to do for me in the world. But if I ended up at his house or in his hotel room under whatever premise and he produced his penis, I would probably stick around. It wouldn’t be about wanting to be intimate with him, so much as it would be out of curiosity: What does his penis look like? How does he go about pleasuring himself with it? Does he shoot a big load? What are his odd little sexual quirks—is he going to ask me to whisper things to him that aren’t sexually interesting to me but somehow get him off? Maybe things about trains, or boats or planes? Who knows. But I’d be curious. If it was Louis C.K. producing his penis, I would definitely stick around. And, according to the record, he’d at least ask me first. Afterward, walking away from the situation, I might or might not feel I made the right choice. I have never found people—not just men, but all of us—to be trustworthy with regard to sex, so I don’t think I’d be blaming him for weaknesses that are inherent to our entire culture. And I certainly wouldn’t be blaming him for something that plagues his entire industry. He is merely a bloated symptom of a much larger problem. And that doesn’t make his behavior acceptable or earn him any sort of pass. But we’re so busy staking out moral high ground and being outraged, we’re not looking at how we got to where we are.
If I were a struggling actor and sex with Weinstein (or any of these guys—Polanski, Louis C.K., Spacey) was presented as a hoop I needed to jump through for the sake of my career, I can’t say what I’d choose. But it would be a choice. And what I hear people saying about this and countless other scenarios cropping up is that it’s a horribly unfair choice. I agree. But unless someone is being threatened with bodily harm, I would still say it qualifies as a choice, albeit a potentially expensive one. Here’s the thing: This is about the industry in which you’ve chosen to pursue a career. This is the fact for Hollywood. All the naiveté in the world isn’t going to convince me that people aren’t aware of this. And so, to me, this issue becomes one of priorities. If you’re unable to stomach the unfair choices that a career in Hollywood entails, maybe it’s not for you. This is the sad truth. Folks that star in movies and television reach a point in their careers where they earn unspeakable amounts of money. Apparently, this is part of what getting there costs. And no, I don’t think that’s right. But I do think that’s the way it is. Coming forward and shaming someone to the point of attempting to erase their career isn’t going to change these power-play behaviors that are so deeply ingrained in our culture and our psyches. It will merely drive them further underground. Because sex really is about power, whether we’re handing it over consensually or it’s being yanked from us—the commodity remains the same. Maybe it’s time we stop assigning such a high value to it. Perhaps that will help defuse the bomb.
This is why I bristle when people make the distinction that rape is about power. Yes, of course it is. But, again, all sex is about power. In largely unspoken exchanges, we volley power between our sexual partners. It is sometimes passed in gentle and loving ways. Increasingly over the last 50 years, however, the commerce of power in sexual relationships is less about love and trust and more about the thrill and danger of the direct opposite: It’s a burglary. A wanton theft. The gentle loving exchange isn’t as stimulating to our twisted, stressed minds any longer. Many of us become bored, sexually, in our committed relationships and go astray looking for other, less loving things. And here’s where the pornography comes in: Rape fantasy is one of the most frequently used premises for pornographic encounters. Bending peoples’ will, changing their minds from “no” to “yes, please,” or flat-out violating them while they whimper are all extremely common elements of video clips both straight and otherwise—and are easily accessible for people of all ages, completely free of charge, all over the internet. Anyone that watches pornography on a regular basis will tell you that after a while, you start looking to make the fantasy real. Sometimes role-playing is enough to scratch the itch. Sometimes it’s not. People rape for all sorts of awful reasons, no doubt. It is the extreme far end of the aforementioned theft—a violent home invasion. But seeing this sort of behavior play out again and again in pornography is confusing for even the most right-minded individual.
Running alongside this is the way that we sexually parade ourselves in front of each other. So-called “plumber’s butt” is actually in fashion. “Butt-crack peekaboo,” as I’ve come to call it, is a part of our everyday visual landscape, as are entire asses—cheeks out and hanging over the waistline of the pants which sit belted at the upper thigh, barely contained in a pair of underwear. Guys walk around at half-mast in sweatpants or in trousers so tightly tailored that we can all see the ridge that denotes the head of their penis. Modern living places us in a heightened state of tension, to the point that we no longer can naturally relax, and we are perpetually being sexually stimulated by total strangers everywhere we go. This is the environment in which we are experiencing a surge in the incidence of sexual assault. We walk one another right to the edge of a cliff and then shame those who fall off.
And it’s not necessarily about gender, either. There’s no denying that women are most often the targets of sexual misconduct, but the Kevin Spacey scenario shows how this can happen to anyone. The reaction to Spacey really shocked me. The LGBTQ communities were so quick to skewer him, to disown him, reject his queerness and invalidate his contributions to his field. Soon all past episodes of House of Cards will be edited to include a hologram of another actor in his stead. We seem unable to separate the artist from the art, which is disappointing to me for such a highly evolved group of critical thinkers. Perhaps we’re not as bright as we’d like to believe.
We’re also not being honest about a few things in our condemnation of Spacey. Nobody likes to talk about this, but 14-year-old boys have sexuality. And 14-year-old gay boys are often secretly wanton of sexual attention from older men. Not always, but often. Granted, everyone is different, and I’ll spare you the Greco-Roman history lesson, but suffice to say there’s enough grey area there to warrant a second look. The initial accuser, Andrew Rapp, said Spacey picked him up and carried him, then laid down on top of him. So, he made a sexual advance. But like a bad game of telephone, people on social media were soon calling it rape. That is not rape. It’s an unwanted advance. People make them all the time, especially when they’re drunk. Does that make it right? No, but it’s far from unusual.
Another accuser fully admitted to engaging in an ongoing, consensual sexual relationship with Spacey when he was an early teen and Spacey was in his 20s. He said he was thrilled with the attention and enjoyed the sex. It was only in a later encounter that he claimed Spacey got aggressive, resulting in a rape allegation. The described behavior does indeed sound like an attempted rape, but we don’t know anything about the sexual dynamic between them other than what the man says it was. To me, it sounds like he was a young teen looking for a loving relationship with an older man and Spacey was trolling for dick—an unfortunate discrepancy, but also one that plays out in our culture constantly. Which doesn’t mean that what Spacey did was okay, but my problem with all of these incidents is the pile-on rush to judgment. You condemn Spacey on the one hand, surf Tumblr for rapey twink porn on the other.
The sexual behavior of powerful men across all industries, our president included, is out of control. The exchange of sexual power, as I’ve described it, has become distorted to the point where people feel it’s okay to grab what they want. I would never posit that it’s okay to do that to someone unless it’s already an understood part of the established sexual dynamic between partners. But our world—LGBTQ and otherwise—is spilling over with mixed messages about sex and sexual boundaries. We’re breeding a culture of rapists and molesters, and that’s really what we should be talking about here. Not about whether we like the way so-and-so’s apology was worded or if his show is going to get canceled.