How 2017 Forced Us to Reckon with Sexual Abuse and Hold Perpetrators Accountable. Photo Courtsey of Getty Images.
In 2014, former American Enterprise Institute Research Associate Caroline Kitchens penned an opinion piece for TIME, condemning activists for creating hysteria around rape culture, claiming it doesn’t exist in “twenty-first century America,” citing RAINN’s criticism of Obama administration Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Although Kitchens uses RAINN’s definition of rape culture to uphold her point, she insists that it doesn’t exist in the U.S. today.
On October 1, 2017, YouTuber Blaire White uploaded a video discussing her experience when she was raped. White didn’t discuss the specific details about her rape, but she explained what it taught her. One of the key messages she drew from her experience was what she referred to as the politicization of rape:
“A big reason why I never hopped on the feminist bandwagon of the United States being a rape culture is because I was raped. Every single person I have ever chosen to open up to about this thing that has happened to me has been receptive, supportive, expressed wanting to enact revenge on behalf, and if I lived in a rape culture, I don’t think that would be the case. In a rape culture, I would be the one getting in trouble for being raped. Head on over to the Middle East and see how they treat their rape victims.”
After October 5th, both these pieces of commentary would start to age poorly.
The New York Times and The New Yorker would report that Harvey Weinstein not only raped and sexually abused women in the industry for decades, but he also hired private investigators to stalk and gather information on women and journalists who planned to expose his abuse. Weinstein had also threatened to ruin the lives of his accusers. It was an open secret; the media resurfaced pop culture references to give the public some framework.
On 30 Rock, Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) alluded to Weinstein sexually assaulting and harassing her. In 2013 during the Oscar nomination announcement for “Best Supporting Actress,” Seth MacFarlane joked “Congratulations you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein,” which was met with laughter.
At the 2014 GLAAD Media Awards, Weinstein joined the stage with Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence sarcastically congratulated Weinstein on the birth of his son. “Harvey gave us just we needed. Another…him. If he’s anything like his dad, he’s going to be relentless, passionate and just about the best mentor an aspiring actor could ever hope for.” In response, Weinstein ribbed her for not thanking him at the Academy Awards.
Last week, The New York Times reported on sexual misconduct allegations against Louis CK, in which five women stated he would masturbate in front of them and during phone conversations. Louis CK admitted the allegations were true, in a particularly cringe-worthy apology.
This time, the story was not particularly remarkable. Similar to the network that protected Weinstein, comedians did not make an effort to confront Louis CK. According to Vice’s Megan Koester, when she attempted to ask male comedians at the Just For Laughs festival about allegations against Louis CK, they all shut her down. Not only did they shut her down but she was told the question was “getting complaints,” and a livid executive approached her with demands.
“Red faced, he informed me that JFL [Just For Laughs] is a ‘family’, that Louie is a member of said ‘family’, and that I could ask my question on ‘my turf’, but that this was ‘our turf’,” Koester wrote. “This wasn’t ‘that kind’ of red carpet, he informed me, it was a ‘friendly one’, and Louie was a ‘friend of the festival.’ Were I to ask the offending question again, he said, I would be ejected from the carpet.”
Such allegations are not just limited to the “liberal Hollywood elite.” In late October, The New York Times reported that 21st Century was always aware of sexual harassment complaints against former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. The report focused on the sixth and largest known payout, where O’Reilly agreed to a $32 million with a former network analyst. After the settlement, Fox News renewed O’Reilly’s contract. The network company also admitted that it had always known about the analyst’s complaints; which included repeated harassment and rape. Such a workplace culture won’t come as a surprise, though. Last year, former Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News founder and CEO, Roger Ailes. Roger Ailes would resign shortly after that. O’Reilly was fired in April of this year.
The list of predators in the media industry grows every day, with George Takei being the most recent individual added to the list. In some circles, a list of “shitty media men” has been passed around amongst women within the industry, calling out various coworkers for interactions as awkward as “weird lunch dates” and actions as serious as rape.
Allegations are also not limited to “admirable” figures within the media. Earlier this year, Netflix released the docu-series The Keepers, exploring the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik who taught at Archbishop Keough High School and a pattern of sexual abuse of a priest by the name of Joseph Maskel. The events happened to the victims in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. But it’s important to remember that many of these women are still alive, and they still remember what happened to them in vivid detail. All of them affected by what happened to them and were terrified of what would happen to them because of Father Maskell’s network within the City of Baltimore. The documentary also revealed the Baltimore archdiocese settled with multiple victims, and the high school where the events occurred would shutter by the end of the 2016-2017 academic year.
The documentary drew attention to rape culture within the Catholic church, a very Western religion, reminding the public of a not-so-secret problem: the protection of priests who sexually abuse children. The documentary revealed that rather than removing priests like Maskell from the institution, they would either be sent to treatment or shuffled around the city.
The documentary created outrage, with thousands of petitions demanding the archdiocese release Maskell’s files, documenting his past of abuse. The archdiocese ultimately refused, claiming it would not provide anyone closure.
On a surface level, it might be easy–and comforting– to want to agree with Kitchens and White. After all celebrities like Weinstein and Louis CK have been forced to reckon with both their past and present and lost their careers in the process. The Keepers humiliated the Baltimore archdiocese and ultimately, the Catholic church.
It’s important to note, though, that women in the entertainment and journalistic industry had their careers threatened and sometimes ruined when they dared to speak out. The women featured in The Keepers are private figures who masked their identities under Jane Doe when they initially sued the archdiocese out of fear.
Pointing to atrocious human rights violations should not be the baseline, and personal support systems should not be anyone’s baseline for acknowledging how Western civilization discusses sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape on a national level. Rape culture is merely a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse.
By cracking jokes about Harvey Weinstein being a predator, Hollywood normalized and trivialized his frequent abuse of power.
By threatening a reporter, Just For Laughs trivialized Louis CK’s behavior, which was in fact, very serious. When comedians refused to acknowledge it, especially when they likely knew, they inadvertently stated that his behavior was okay, or not worth addressing.
By knowing about Bill O’Reilly’s history of sexual abuse and allowing him to pay off settlements and renewing his contract, 21st Century greenlighted his behavior and only dismissed him when he threatened their bottom line, ultimately normalizing his behavior. When Gretchen Carlson’s former cohorts guffawed at the idea that conservatives had sexual abuse patterns, they trivialize the abuse in their own workplace.
By doling out settlements, shuffling sexual predators around Catholic schools and churches in Baltimore, and wringing their hands when the public demanded answers, the church not only showed an act of cowardice, but they once again normalized the history of sexual abuse against minors in the church.
Dissenting voice against the idea of rape culture has become a bit more silent, but it would be naive to think that the public has turned it around in the 21st century, and is prepared to talk about sexual abuse and the culture that allows it to happen. It is my hope, though, that this year has taught us to listen when people who have nothing to lose open up about something as traumatic as sexual assault and rape.