On Dec. 4, during a Tribeca Institute screening of the 1997 film “Wag the Dog,” “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver and actor Dustin Hoffman had a heated discussion about the sexual harassment allegations against Hoffman.
I empathize with Hoffman. I am appalled by any grown man hitting on a 14-year-old; but, hey, it’s happened to me repeatedly since I was 12. I relinquished (I refuse to say “lost”) my virginity at 14. My best friend in middle school was sexually promiscuous, which everyone (including me) either disregarded or gossiped about. At least three of my high-school friends were severely hit on or had affairs with married men. Just 200 years ago, girls as young as 12 could be legally wed in Britain and Europe (Spain’s legal marrying age was only increased from 14 to 16 two years ago). I figured it was just a part of life, toughened my skin, and tried not to make bad decisions.
“I’m no Gennifer Flowers,” I told a nervous professor days after I’d allowed him, drunkenly, to put me in a compromising situation. I knew I could handle myself, though I began thinking I was a magnet for these kinds of encounters. The “Me Too” campaign changed my mind.
I’m not making excuses. I want serious consequences for anybody abusing his position of power to force or solicit sexual acts from anyone else. But it was and IS a different time than we all want to believe.
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We should not indict every man accused of sexual harassment without deeply considering the context of his actions. The situation will be improved far less by the number of powerful or well-known men we shame than by admitting this simple truth: Our SOCIETY supports sexual harassment.
Sex is a powerful force, especially in men. This does not excuse unacceptable behavior, but we should not expect that men (or women, for that matter) can just will themselves to cut it out if we demand it.
When I was a developing adolescent, men frequently commented on my appearance, some more gentlemanly than others, and some putting their hands on my hip(s) or patting my behind. Although there may have been an uncomfortable moment or three, I could always walk away. In fact, like my female friends who found themselves in similar situations, I was generally flattered. Indeed, many of us dressed and behaved in ways that encouraged precisely this kind of attention.
I’m not blaming the victims here. I’m just saying nobody should be surprised by the situation, given the immense value we place on sexual desirability. Look through any magazine in the grocery store or turn on any television drama or movie Humans learn by imitation, for God’s sake.
Now that society no longer considers women to be inferior to men, we women – we Americans – must stop securing our financial futures and reputations at the expense of standing up for ourselves and one another. I know that this is a big ask.
The very air around us vibrates with sound waves carrying lyrics like, “Let’s put it into motion/ I’mma give you a promotion/ I’ll make it feel like a vacay, turn the bed into an ocean.” Even when the language isn’t explicit, most songs on the radio are about sex, excessive drug use, and partying. Even my teenage kids think the lyrics suck; they listen because it’s the only option, or they insist the music is good even if the lyrics aren’t. And who can blame the music industry? The American people WANT sex, excessive drug use, and to party ’til the cows come home. But what the American people need are boundaries.
It is no freak of nature that we judge members of the opposite sex by their physicality and treat them accordingly. We also cannot deny a man’s (or woman’s) drive to have sex with appealing members of the opposite sex. This is how nature ensures our survival as a species. In acknowledging these very human traits, we can and should impose appropriate and effective boundaries that protect everyone’s rights not to be objectified, much less sexually harassed or assaulted.
We must also remember that our recovery is a collective effort. Every one of our realities is determined by our combined perception of what is best for our survival as a species and, therefore, what is socially acceptable. The good news is that the time for complacency is over, which means our daughters (and sons, for that matter) may never have to say, “Me Too.”