The explosion of stories regarding sexual harassment and misconduct is unsettling, while it is also a sort of relief. Finally, this issue is getting some important attention.
We find ourselves in not really new territory. But, we are certainly in a strange place. Whose misbehavior is deemed vile and worthy of reproach? Whose misbehavior is loathed, yet without any real evidence to support claims of misconduct? Is it okay to ignore misbehavior if the accused simply sticks to denial? And, what about words and actions caught on tape, yet successfully classified as “boys will be boys”?
I very much hope that the current disturbing landscape will lead to meaningful conversation—making it clear to men and boys what is okay, and what isn’t, and for women and girls to know how to deal with harassment and misconduct, instead of suffering in silence, in confusion, or thinking that this is just how things are.
Part of what makes the current situation especially problematic is that we have a long-standing tradition of looking the other way, especially when men of power misbehave, and more than that, when we’ve too often been selective in our outrage. We’ve been distracted by inconsistent notions of what is “personal” and what is “public.” In the recent accusations toward more conservative men, for instance, there’s been an outcry that goes back to Bill Clinton’s misbehavior and misconduct. That’s a fair criticism.
I remember well when we were in the midst of that time. I remember well the strange conversations in which I found myself, where smart, thoughtful and reasonable people bought all that twisted business that Clinton’s dalliances were “private” and none of our business. I couldn’t disagree more—then or now. A white house intern. The oval office. It wasn’t private. Nor were the accusations of groping, sexual advances and even rape (that had even more evidence than some of the current crop of accusations). I was baffled that Bill Clinton somehow managed a “rescue” when no one else would be granted such treatment. How could good Democratic women—feminists—be so blind to the accusations of Clinton’s predatory behavior?
And, now we are in a sad and frustrating time with men in all sorts of positions of power, and all sorts of political persuasions, being accused of misconduct. Does this have anything to do with Bill Clinton not ever being forced to take responsibility for his misdeeds? Clinton was certainly not the first man with considerable power to take advantage of his place to satisfy his carnal lusts. But, Clinton signaled a shift in our culture and how our lives are lived. There were new ways of communicating and new expectations for feeding a public hungry for scandal.
Yet, there was, and still remains, the sense of a call for a reckoning. It may be too late for Bill Clinton to be held responsible for his disgusting, and likely illegal, behavior. But, women, and especially feminists, must take stock and must be willing to take an honest look not only at the current landscape, but the paths that have led us to this place, and the errors that have been made in supporting certain men, while vilifying others—usually based on political affiliation.
Morality may seem an old fashioned concept, but it’s one that could be useful at this time. If we could get past the notion that morality is simply a set of rules that are meant to interfere with our ability to have fun, we may discover that morals and morality possess, at their foundation, important concepts of the dignity of individuals and how we human beings should treat each other. You know, Golden Rule stuff. Love God and treat others as you would have them treat you.
Religious traditions and institutions are not without their own issues when it comes to the problematic treatment of women. This would be a good time for widespread and wide-ranging reflections on women and the treatment of women—by women and men, and women and men together.
The complex and difficult mess in which we now find ourselves demonstrates that a conversation regarding morality is not just for those who are prone to treat women as objects for their sexual fancies or for their need to express their power and influence. A conversation regarding morality is for all of us, including those who have an influence of their own and sometimes deem politics to be more important than the victims of misconduct.
We can do better, and we must. This opportunity must not be allowed to pass, with the notion that our work is done when at least some of the careers of perpetrators are in tatters. The problem is bigger than that. And, we must be bigger too, bravely examining the lessons of the past and the present, and seeking to pave a new path forward.