Every so often in the United States, a scandal erupts to temporarily demolish the country’s marketed image as a pioneer in gender equality and related rights.
The name of the current scandal is, of course, Harvey Weinstein – the millionaire Hollywood film mogul accused of sexual assault by an ever-expanding number of women, as his decades-long impunity appears to be coming to an end.
Weinstein, however, is merely the tip of the iceberg. In a recent New Yorker piece titled All the Other Harvey Weinsteins, actress Molly Ringwald writes about her own history as a victim of sexual harassment in the film industry, noting, “I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather.”
But at least meteorological discussions aren’t generally met with the shame, recrimination, and victim-blaming that so often attend accusations of sexual assault in a society plagued by the phenomenon.
As for the fate awaiting the perpetrators of such misconduct, Ringwald remarks, “And the men? Well, if they’re lucky, they might get elected President.”
Cue the soundtrack of the current US president, who is known for – among other antics – his endearing observations about “grab[bing]” women “by the p****”.
A long history
Sexual abuse and exploitation of women have long been interwoven with the very identity of the United States – and black women have often been particularly hard-hit, belonging as they do to not one but two categories deemed inferior by white male society.
Consider some lines from Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published in 1861, “[In] my fifteenth year … my master began to whisper foul words in my ear … If I knelt by my mother’s grave, his dark shadow fell on me even there.”
As is becoming clearer by the day, the ongoing problem of sexual harassment in the US spans the spectrum of professions, workplaces, and societal spaces - from athletics to the media to Silicon Valley to academia to the service industry to government agencies and so on.
Fast forward a century and a half, and there are still plenty of shadows. While straight-up slavery is of course no longer politically correct, the prevailing system of patriarchal capitalism continues to enable a commodification of women.
The toxic combination of money, egos, and power in male-dominated arenas like show business makes them natural settings for female objectification and the treatment of women as property.
And while Hollywood is by nature a spectacle, female oppression has also been normalised across other less-visible industries and in day-to-day societal dynamics.
Recent decades offer plenty of statistics from which to pick and choose. In 1979 and 1980, TIME Magazine tells us, “as many as 18 million American females were harassed sexually while at work.”
In 2014, the Daily Beast outlined the results of a study revealing that “sexual harassment and abuse of women are alarmingly widespread in science, technology, engineering, and math” – also referencing a 1993 New England Journal of Medicine study according to which “three-quarters of women medical students were sexually harassed during their residency.”
In an October dispatch for the New York Daily News, meanwhile, US attorney and academic Anita Hill writes that “45 percent of employees – mostly women – in the private workforce say they experience” sexual harassment. In Hill’s view, the US is a place where “bias gets baked into our policies”.
And she should know; in a much-publicised case in 1991, she stood up to then-US Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, whom she accused of sexual harassment. Thomas’ justiceship was nonetheless confirmed – another ironic feat, perhaps, for US “justice”.
Time to get civilised
As is becoming clearer by the day, the ongoing problem of sexual harassment in the US spans the spectrum of professions, workplaces, and societal spaces – from athletics to the media to Silicon Valley to academia to the service industry to government agencies and so on.
Glancing through my email archives, I am reminded of some of my own encounters with casual harassment. These range from the much-older US editor who messaged me while I was covering the Honduran coup in 2009 – “Do you think that if I came down to Honduras you might take me in your arms and begin a new level of relationship and collaboration?” – to the university professor in California who wrote, “I now look forward to sharing my own soulful renditions of ‘suck it now’ with you.”
The latter was a charming reference to my remarks on New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s infamous claim that Iraqis needed to “suck on this”, made shortly after the launch of the US war on Iraq in 2003.
Which brings us to another US institution associated with high rates of sexual violence: the US military, which is not only responsible for widespread rape in Vietnam, Iraq, and other battlefields but also serves as a forum for intra-military sexual attacks.
In May of this year, Reuters specified that “the US military received a record number of sexual assault reports in 2016” – a statistic the Pentagon had apparently managed to spin as “a sign of service members’ trust in the system.”
Obviously, there should be no trusting a system that ransacks countries, cultures, and human bodies – including domestic ones – in an arrangement that ultimately serves the financial interests of an elite male minority. (Of course, nobler alibis are regularly invoked for military destruction, among them the “liberation of women”.)
In pondering the current panorama, it’s perhaps useful to reflect on a passage from late US historian Howard Zinn’s acclaimed book, A People’s History of the United States, in which he discusses Native American tribes and other entities:
“Earlier societies – in America and elsewhere – in which property was held in common and families were extensive and complicated, with aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers all living together, seemed to treat women more as equals than did the white societies that later overran them, bringing ‘civilisation’ and private property.”
Given that capitalism itself has no place for human equality – predicated as it is on divisions between exploiters and exploited – it seems that the current question of how to fix the sexual harassment epidemic in the US will require some extensive out-of-the-box thinking.
Enough with the patriarchy. It’s time to get civilised.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.