Sexual predators have been falling like dominoes lately. First one, then the other, then the other, in a steady cascade of mighty pillars tumbling down to earth to be soiled among us mortals.
If I had to put a finger on it, I’d say the avalanche began with Bill Cosby. Watching a man who was once a beloved father figure to millions become persona non grata felt something like losing one’s own innocence by proxy. Knowing his reputation as a womanizer who collected babes like some guys do baseball cards, most were probably less than surprised to hear Donald Trump boast about putting his hands on women’s genitals without invitation. Gawker broke the Louis C.K. story two years ago. But Harvey Weinstein? Kevin Spacey? For people outside the entertainment business, these revelations were shocking.
It’s been gratifying, yet bittersweet, to see accusations of sexual misconduct being taken seriously for the first time in what feels like forever. Women, and to a lesser extent men, have been tolerating, avoiding, ignoring and disregarding misbehaving uncles, teachers, classmates, colleagues, friends and randos for ages. Now it seems that not only can we stop grinning and bearing it, we can report the misconduct and people will actually take us seriously.
Where once we had no power, now we are all-powerful.
But, as Voltaire said, with great power comes great responsibility. If we’re going to ruin reputations with a word, we’re going to have to temper it with responsibility. ’Cause what we’re seeing now is, in some cases, straight-up mob mentality. Tear them down now; ask questions later. Lives are sure to be unjustly ruined before it’s all over.
I am glad, even relieved, that people are finally taking accusations of sexual harassment seriously. But I’d be lying if I said that the rush to judgment doesn’t give me pause, or make me wonder whether anyone can possibly make a sexual advance in a natural way without risking being accused of bad behavior. One unwanted sexual advance does not a predator make, though enough unwanted, aggressive sexual advances might.
So where is the line? And who decides the difference between making a pass and harassing someone? Is it in the nature of the relationship? If it’s your boss or a colleague, it’s not OK, right? Plenty of people have had non-platonic relationships with people they met at work. (Guilty.) Is it a variety of factors, including your relative ages, intellects, languages, whether you’re both single? Plenty of people have enjoyed congress with people who they either shouldn’t, or perhaps typically wouldn’t. (Guilty again.)
Is it just whether the person is receptive? If so, anyone who gets shot down is guilty of sexual harassment, including me. Yep, if that’s the measure, I’m guilty of sexual harassment, having been a lusty, drunken coed with a fixation on an unwilling partner in one particularly humiliating occasion. Should my career be ruined, my marriage crumble, my friends and family shamed to know me because I followed some guy I had a crush on around a party like an asshole puppy one night 16 years ago? Or is it just OK because, well, I’m a she and the person in question would have had no problem overpowering me had it come to that? (It didn’t, not by a long shot. And I did apologize. But it was still inappropriate.)
I don’t know where the line is. I can’t pretend to be the authority on when or how the line is crossed every time. I’ve been hit on by people I found less-than-attractive, even repulsive, or wildly inappropriate, and I’ve been hit on in situations where the power dynamics were such that the person should not have made an advance. I don’t believe that the vast majority of the people to whom I’m referring deserve to be ruined.
Over the past few years, I’ve had conversations with several different men who have been skewered in the court of public opinion because one person said they behaved improperly. For most, there was no corroboration, no opportunity for them to defend themselves. For all I know, they could be completely guilty, lechers who need to learn a lesson. For all I know, they could be completely innocent, victims themselves.
I don’t know what the truth is. And you don’t, either. In cases like Cosby’s, well, there is no doubt in my mind that he’s guilty. Weinstein, too, and countless others. But remember that not every single person who is going to be accused is automatically guilty.
We’re in the midst of a sea change about what constitutes appropriate sexual conduct. It’s great, it’s long overdue, and I’m glad women are empowered to be honest about unwanted contact. Let’s just not forget that in order to get from ‘how do you do?’ to ‘how you doin’?’, someone’s got to take a chance. That doesn’t necessarily make them a predator.