A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
First, for the record, let me tell you my story about another of those perversely creepy Hollywood predators, a sort of cut-rate Harvey Weinstein: the screenwriter and film director James Toback. As I read now of women he preyed upon year after year, I feel the rage that’s bubbled in the back of my brain for decades reaching the boiling point. I should be elated that Toback has been exposed again as the loathsome predator he’s been for half a century. But I’m stuck on the fact of elapsed time, all these decades that male predators roamed at large, efficiently sidelining and silencing women.
Toback could have been picked up by New York’s Finest when he hit on me in or around 1972. But I didn’t call the cops, knowing it would come to nothing. Nor did I tell our mutual employer, the City College of the City University of New York. I had no doubt about which one of us our male bosses would believe. I had already been labeled an agitator for campaigning to add a program in women’s studies to the curriculum. Besides, to any normal person, the story of what happened would sound too inconsequential to seem anything but ridiculous: not a crime but a farce.
I didn’t know Toback. I must have seen him at infrequent faculty meetings, but we taught in different writing programs. There was no reason for our paths to cross. Ever. So I have no memory of him until the day I flung open the door of my Chinatown loft in response to a knock, expecting to greet my downstairs neighbor, and in walked Toback. My antennae went up. How had he managed to get past the locked street door? I remember talking fast, trying to get him out of my place without provoking a confrontation. He agreed to leave with me — to go out for tea or lunch or some little excursion I proposed — but first he insisted on using my bathroom, from which he soon emerged naked. I remember the way he listed the many things he had in mind for me to do for him. Among them, one demand persists in memory, perhaps because it was at once so specific and so bizarre: that I suck and pinch his nipples.
I beat him to the door, furious at being driven from my own loft. I think I threatened to come back with the cops. Something scared him anyway. From a shop on the street, I watched as he left my building on the run, waddling away at top speed.
Reader, if you think that nothing really happened, then you are mistaken. This incident took place almost 50 years ago and though I hadn’t thought of it in ages — not until his name popped up in the media — the memory remains remarkably raw. I still want to see him marched naked through the streets of Manhattan and Los Angeles to the jeers and uproarious laughter of women.
At the time, Toback was no more than 25 years old, while I was nearly 10 years older, a thoroughgoing feminist, and luckily faster on my feet than him. But recent reports say that, in the 1980s and later, Toback routinely focused his attacks on very young women, some of them teenagers, using promises of film stardom (sound familiar?) to lure them into encounters that left them sodden with shame. He is now in his seventies and, although women have reported his predation several times in major magazines, he was still on the prowl last month and had never before been called to account for his actions.
What could be more despicable than this: that for more than four decades, while he and his kind were allowed to practice undeterred, he only got better at his game of assaulting women.
A Catalogue of Violations
Not long after my run-in with Toback, a university professor from whom I was taking a writing course came calling to discuss my “extraordinary work” and emerged from that same Chinatown bathroom in a similar state of nakedness. (Do they follow some instruction manual I’ve never seen?) By then I was writing and photographing as a freelancer for the travel section of the New York Times, an unpaid task that entitled me to receive midnight phone calls from the drunken travel editor detailing the things I might do for him to insure a “real job” with the Times. That’s when I became a freelancer elsewhere, always ready to cut and run. I’ve been a loner ever since.
I could tell you stories of other professors, editors, journalists, and TV hosts. But they would be much the same as those we read almost every day now as women go public with their own stories of sexual harassment and worse at the hands of powerful men in the film industry, major media outlets, Silicon Valley, and Congress, among other places. In response, almost every day come new denials, excuses, or half-baked apologies.
Some commentators are now reconsidering Bill Clinton’s record in the sharper light of the present moment. Others ask if the current “witch hunt” for sexual predators has gone too far. Expecting inevitable backlash, some recommend that women exercise restraint — as all of us have been taught to do for so many eons — lest some unsubstantiated accusation discredit the stories of thousands of women reporting #MeToo. I don’t share such tender concern for the reputations of men, especially not that of the president, the self-congratulatory pussy-grabber-in-chief whose followers seem to mistake his behavior for the norm, if not an aspirational ideal.
Discussion of these matters quickly becomes political, eliciting erratic, gender-bending partisan judgments. Some prominent Republican men called for former judge Roy Moore of Alabama, accused of harassing and assaulting teenaged girls when he was a 30-something assistant district attorney, to end his campaign for the Senate, while many Republican women in that state, including many who are presumably the mothers of daughters, continue to stand behind him.
At the same time, Democrats parse which of Bill Clinton’s accusers to believe and which not. And who hasn’t thought again about Clarence Thomas? He was elevated to the Supreme Court by an all-white male Congressional committee despite the thoroughly credible testimony of harassed law professor Anita Hill and the accounts of many other women, similarly violated and ready to testify against Thomas, but never called. Given his long misogynistic history on the court, isn’t it time to look at his testimony again? Did he commit perjury to gain his seat? And if so, what’s to be done about his consistent judicial record inimical to the common interests of women?
It’s Not Just Sex
Little or none of male harassment and predation is truly about sex, except insofar as men weaponize their sad libidos to pin women to the floor. Monstrous men commit what’s called sexual harassment and sexual assault not because women are irresistible but because they can’t resist the rush of power that rises from using, dominating, degrading, humiliating, shaming, and in some cases even murdering another (lesser) human being. (Sexist, not sexual, may be a more accurate adjective.)
Often — especially when the woman is better looking and more talented or qualified than her assailant — he gets an additional powerful kick from having “taught the bitch a lesson.” A smug sense of power (“When you’re a star… you can do anything”) colors the phony apologies of accused predators. (“It was never my intention to leave the impression I was making an inappropriate advance on anyone.”) Though a man may be truly sorry to be found out, it’s next to impossible for him, after that blast of solid-gold supremacy, to pretend to even a particle of remorse.
The times call for accusations to be scrupulously accurate. Yet it’s misleading to think of sexual harassment and sexual assault as separate and isolated indignities when in real life one so often segues into the other. Such terms arose in the course of intensive work by feminists of the so-called second wave, which is to say feminists like me who began work in the 1960s and 1970s. One of our tasks was to expose and document the extent of violence against women in the United States. At that time, misogyny emanated from the pores of patriarchal men, poisoning the very air we breathed. We found overwhelming the violence such men committed against women and girls of all colors who did not conform to their notions of decorative and deferential “femininity.”
The fact that male violence methodically constricts female lives is so appalling that most women simply couldn’t acknowledge it. Psychiatrist Judith Lewis Herman, in her landmark study Trauma and Recovery (1992), described things as they were at the time: “Most women do not… recognize the degree of male hostility toward them, preferring to view the relations of the sexes as more benign than they are in fact. Similarly, women like to believe that they have greater freedom and higher status than they do in reality.” Beneath the revelations of sexual harassment and assault today lie the same hard-rock foundations of male hostility that Herman described a quarter century ago.
To document male violence and depict how it works in daily life, second-wave feminists tried to break it down into its component parts: discrimination and domination — psychological, sexual, and physical — in the home, the schools, the workplace, the church, the courts, the prisons, and public life. We wrote the history of male violence against women, while exploring its effects at that time and its future prospects. Our generation produced groundbreaking books on patriarchy (Kate Millet, Sexual Politics, 1970), rape (Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will, 1975), sexual harassment (Catherine McKinnon, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, 1979), pornography (Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, 1981), the battered women’s movement (Susan Schechter, Women and Male Violence, 1982), men murdering women (Diana Russell, Femicide, 1992), and feminist consciousness (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, 1993). I wrote a history of American women who did not conform: Women Who Kill (1980). For countless women of my generation, this documentation and the movement for change became our life’s work.
The next generation of women thought differently. Many younger women, even some who call themselves feminists today, were persuaded by the hostile counterattack against the women’s movement (meticulously deconstructed by Susan Faludi in Backlash, 1991) that we uptight “man-haters” had wildly exaggerated the violence women face. They, on the other hand, proudly proclaimed their youth, intelligence, ambition, and control of their own lives. They would not be victims or feminists either. We knew how they felt, for we had felt that way, too, when we were young. Then they went out to work and met the monsters.
To understand what actually happens to women, you only have to listen to or read any of the accounts pouring forth right now to denounce “sexual harassment.” The stories are laced with fear about immediate physical threats and, more pointedly, with anger and despair about the potential demolition of their jobs, future careers, and life as they had envisioned it for themselves.
From the stories of individual women, it’s clear that predators violate the neat categories of feminist scholarship, shifting seamlessly from harassment to coercion to physical assault, rape, and worse. The “sexual” strategies exposed by these repetitive accounts are similar to those described in police reports on battered women, seasoned prostitutes, and women subjected to incest, trafficking, rape, and femicide. These are stories of the lives and deaths of millions of women and girls in America.
Behind all of them is the deafening sound of a silence that has persisted throughout my long life. But these past weeks have been startlingly different. By now, we — both women and men — should have heard enough to never again ask: “Why didn’t she come forward?” Let this be our own “open secret.” We all know now that a man who assaults a woman does so because he can, while a woman who comes forward, even with our support, is likely to be violated and shamed again — as were the women who came forward to accuse presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.
None of this is new, though we tend to act as if it were. Just last week, for instance, I heard three young women radio reporters explain that women back in the 1970s or 1980s accepted “unwanted male attention” in the office and in life “because that’s just the way things were.” (Harvey Weinstein offered the same excuse: “All the rules about workplaces and behavior were different. That was the culture then.”)
Please, can we get this straight? Back in those ancient times — the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s — we did not accept violence against women in the workplace or any place else. It’s true we hesitated to report it to employers or the police, because when we did, we had to watch them laugh it off or send us packing. But we did call it out. We named it. We described it. We wrote books about all forms of violence against women — all those “man-hating” books that these days, if anyone cares to look, may not seem quite so obsolete.
We worked for change. And now only 40 or so years later, here it seems to be. Los Angeles Times reporter Glenn Whipp broke the story of James Toback’s predation based on the complaints of 38 women. Within days that number had grown to 200. By the time I emailed him my story, the number reporting Toback assaults had hit 310. In a follow-up article, Whipp mentioned that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit wanted to hear from women Toback had attacked in their jurisdiction. I called and left a message, making good my threat to bring in the law after only about 45 years.
For the first time, someone other than my best friends might listen. Somebody might even call me back. But today, as I write, New York Timesreporters Megan Twohey, Jodi Kantor, Susan Dominus and their colleagues describe in hair-raising detail “Harvey Weinstein’s Complicity Machine,” a catalogue of “enablers, silencers, and spies, warning others who discovered [Weinstein’s] secret to say nothing.” With their collaboration, Weinstein, like Toback, has preyed upon women since the 1970s.
The Times reports that among Weinstein’s closest media pals is David J. Pecker, the chief executive of American Media Inc., which owns The National Enquirer, a gossip rag whose reporters Weinstein could use to dig up dirt on his accusers. Reportedly, Weinstein was “known in the tabloid industry as an untouchable ‘F.O.P.,’ or ‘friend of Pecker.’” It’s no surprise to learn that another predator who shares that untouchable F.O.P. status in the tabloids is Donald “grab ‘em by the pussy” Trump.
The question is unavoidable: If serial sexual predation disqualifies a man from being a film producer, screen writer, movie star, network newsman, talk show host, journalist, venture capitalist, comedian, actor, network news director, magazine editor, publisher, photographer, CEO, congressman, or senator, why shouldn’t it disqualify a man from being president of the United States? Shouldn’t sexist serial sexual assault constitute an impeachable high crime or misdemeanor?
We may find out. Time magazine passed over the president as its “person of the year” to name instead the “Silence Breakers” — the brave, outspoken women who inspired the #MeToo campaign. Pictured on the cover along with actress Ashley Judd and pop star Taylor Swift is a Mexican strawberry picker, using a pseudonym for her safety. Her presence and the arm of an unidentified hospital worker seated just out of the frame signal that we might yet learn how this cultural awakening is playing out in ordinary America for women working in the far less glamorous worlds of fast-food chains, nursing homes, hospitals, factories, restaurants, bars, hotels, truck stops, and yes, strawberry fields.
So where do we go from here? This train has left the station and rolls on. In some photos of those smart young relentless women journalists at the Times, I’ve noticed that their footwear tends not to stilettos, but to boots, which as every woman knows, are good for marching and for kicking ass. That’s promising.
But since I’ve traveled this route before, you’ll have to excuse me for thinking that when this big train passes, it could leave behind a system — predators, enablers, silencers, spies, and thoroughly entrenched sex discrimination — not so very different from that of the 1970s. And if that happens, no doubt those lying dead on the tracks will prove, upon official examination, to be female.
Copyright 2017 Ann Jones. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission.
Ann Jones is the author of several pioneering feminist books, including the classic Women Who Kill, Everyday Death, Next Time She’ll Be Dead, and with Susan Schechter a handbook for women who made the mistake of marrying predatory and violent men: When Love Goes Wrong. She is also the author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story.