While I regard the house-cleaning in Hollywood as largely salubrious, purging the industry of sexual predators and empowering women in other fields to call out sexual misconduct, there are signs that these movements are going a bit too far. This overstepping is taking two forms: men who have been boorish but are not guilty of sexual assault are also being demonized, and men who have been accused of misconduct but have either been exculpated or have denied it, without any evidence corroborating the accusations, are being driven out of their jobs.
What it boils down to is the subject of this post: there’s a continuum of bad behavior, ranging from rape and sexual predation on one hand to bad and fumbling (but not illegal) sex on the other, but this isn’t being recognized, and is in fact those who point it out are vilified. There’s also a continuum of perceived guilt based on how many accusations there are and whether they’re independent and consistent.
At the far spectrum, where the behavior is multiply attested, consilient, and criminal, are the acts of people like Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, and the U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. A bit toward the other end of the spectrum are cases like that of Woody Allen, who hasn’t been convicted of anything but where we have evidence of child molestation that I find disturbing and moderately convincing.
At the other end, an example of legal boorishness is Aziz Ansari, whose behavior in an assignation led to his demonization as well as to a form of “revenge porn” in which his accuser described in detail how hamhanded he was sexually. (See the stories by Bari Weiss in the NYT, Elizabeth Breunig in the Washington Post. Ashleigh Banfield (former CNN anchor and now anchor of HLN, a spinoff of CNN), made a powerful video spread by both venues:
Close to Aziz, but going a bit toward the Weinstein end, is Garrison Keillor, who has been wiped from history, and fired from several gigs, over what he claims was simply touching a woman’s bare back, with no other claims corroborated. Al Franken is even more toward Weinstein, but not nearly as bad; nevertheless, he had to resign from the Senate.
I’m not the first to note that the MeToo and TimesUp movements have created a climate that may lead to unjust demonization and firing, though I emphasize again that there was plenty of injustice reaped by the women assaulted by the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and other predators.
What I want to talk about, though, is the almost Cultural-Revolution-like penitence that some people are being forced to show—even though they did nothing wrong—simply because they tried to say that that there’s a continuum of “badness” of behavior, not simply a bimodal distribution at 100% (Harvey Weinstein) versus 0% (Tom Hanks).
After Weinstein had gotten his just deserts, but the accusations were spreading to others, Matt Damon expressed some reservations about the conflation of different forms of sexual misconduct or behavior:
“I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior,” he said. “And we’re going to have to figure out — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”
“All of that behavior needs to be confronted, but there is a continuum. And on this end of the continuum where you have rape and child molestation or whatever, you know, that’s prison. Right? And that’s what needs to happen. OK? And then we can talk about rehabilitation and everything else. That’s criminal behavior, and it needs to be dealt with that way. The other stuff is just kind of shameful and gross.”
Well, that sounds reasonable, but in this climate to say that some forms of behavior are worse than others, and some not even criminal, is taboo. Many women were furious at Damon’s words, and the actor Minnie Driver was the most vociferous. As the Guardian reported:
Driver was discussing comments by Matt Damon, whom she once dated and with whom she starred in the Oscar-winning 1997 film Good Will Hunting. In an interview with ABC News this week, Damon said alleged sexual misconduct by powerful men involved “a spectrum of behaviour”.
Damon said there was “a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation. Both of those behaviours need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.”
He added that society was in a “watershed moment” and said it was “wonderful that women are feeling empowered to tell their stories and it’s totally necessary”. But he said: “We live in this culture of outrage and injury, that we’re going to have to correct enough to kind of go, ‘Wait a minute. None of us came here perfect.’”
In her first response to Damon, Driver wrote on Twitter: “God God, seriously?
“Gosh it’s so interesting (profoundly unsurprising) how men with all these opinions about women’s differentiation between sexual misconduct, assault and rape reveal themselves to be utterly tone deaf and as a result, systemically part of the problem.”
Driver’s response to Damon was shared widely on social media, alongside that of the actor Alyssa Milano, who said: “There are different stages of cancer. Some more treatable than others. But it’s still cancer.”
On Saturday, Driver told the Guardian: “I felt I desperately needed to say something. I’ve realised that most men, good men, the men that I love, there is a cut-off in their ability to understand. They simply cannot understand what abuse is like on a daily level.
“I honestly think that until we get on the same page, you can’t tell a woman about their abuse. A man cannot do that. No one can. It is so individual and so personal, it’s galling when a powerful man steps up and starts dictating the terms, whether he intends it or not.”
I don’t think that’s fair to Damon. First of all, while it’s imperative that we listen to how women feel about this issue and what they’ve experienced, it’s not solely women’s purview to assert that there’s no distinction between degrees of bad behavior and criminal behavior. After all, that’s encoded in laws—laws often made by men. Milano’s statement about “cancer” isn’t helpful given that some types of “cancer” are like the accusation against Aziz Ansari: bad behavior but not criminal or immoral behavior. What is happening in areas like this is that men and women are trying to figure out out good ways to negotiate the concepts of consent and sexuality, but haven’t yet done that, so that regret for bad but consensual sex by either party can morph into accusations of criminal misconduct.
This is going to be a difficult dialogue, and I’m not sure how it will be resolved. I don’t think, for instance, that one should ask, as some colleges prescribe, for permission to do every single thing that furthers an act of sex.
But the dialogue will happen, and it’s good to have it. What’s not good is to get enraged about statements like Matt Damon’s.
But, in fact, the pressure on him became too great, and so, though he didn’t have to wear the Cultural Revolution’s cone hat or bear a sign around his neck, he might as well have. Read this article by clicking on the screenshot (from HuffPo, of course):
Note that there’s a “right thing to say”. And apparently Damon said it:
″A lot of those women are my dear friends and I love them and respect them and support what they’re doing, and want to be a part of that change and want to go along for the ride, but I should get in the back seat and close my mouth for a while,” Damon said of the “Time’s Up” movement during an appearance on the “Today” show.
“I really wish I’d listened a lot more before I weighed in on this,” Damon continued. “Ultimately, what it is for me is that I don’t want to further anybody’s pain. With anything that I do or say, so for that I’m really sorry.”
He could have expressed sorrow and support for victimized women from the outset, but when doing so now, must add the required contrition: that he should have shut up. But he shouldn’t have, for what he said was not invidious. And if anybody’s pain is “furthered” by pointing out that there are distinctions between things like rape and touching someone’s back, well, that is their issue, for it’s important to recognize these distinctions, especially in a climate like today’s.
As for what will happen as the next generation figures out how to have sex, I have no idea. I’m just glad I’m not in college right now.
In an ideal world, all consent would be enthusiastic. In an ideal world, people would also be able to disagree with one another without calling each other sellouts, snowflakes, self-loathers & fanatics. And there would be no spinach bagels.
— Emily Nussbaum (@emilynussbaum) January 17, 2018
h/t: Grania (for the tweet) and Orli