One of the principal pleasures of Mad Men, on rich display beginning with the pilot episode, was looking at all of the crazy things people used to be able to do in offices: smoke, drink, and—if they were male—grope and corner and sexually humiliate the women, who could either put up with it or quit.
It’s just about impossible to imagine someone lighting a cigarette in today’s hyper-sanitized workplace; anyone with liquor on his or her breath at midday is usually targeted as a massive loser or frog-marched to human resources. But to look at the shocking and ever-growing list of prominent men recently and credibly accused of acts ranging from sexual harassment to violent rape is to realize that abhorrent treatment of women is alive and well in many American workplaces.
Every day seems to add another man to the list, and precious few of them have flatly denied the accusations. The strangled, vague, blanket apology—intended not to rile up any other potential accusers, leaving plenty of maneuvering room if the charges end up in court—has become an art form.
How many women will find some kind of justice for terrible things that have happened to them at work? And how many women won’t ever have to face such things because of this profound episode? We don’t know the answer to either question, but we do know this: There is a gathering sense that all of this has just gone too far. It was fine in the beginning, when a handful of Hollywood monsters were brought to account. But as the tide keeps roaring onto the beach, depositing flotsam of all kinds, the sentiment has begun to turn. It seems that this is just too many women saying too many things about what has happened to them, and something needs to be done about it. The approaches are various: It’s a witch hunt; it’s a sex panic; it’s destroying good men’s careers.
One reason the “witch hunt” argument falls flat is that the person advancing it, on behalf of Harvey Weinstein, was Woody Allen. Asked about Weinstein, he told a BBC reporter, “You … don’t want it to lead to a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself. That’s not right either.”
It seemed a pretty long way down the ladder from the violent rapes described by Weinstein’s accusers to jail time for a winker, but Allen introduced early-on an important theme: scale.
Obviously there are terrible acts that God and man frown upon, but was every little unwanted bit of sexual energy directed at a woman—within the naturally romantic and flirtatious environment of an office—going to cost him his job? This led to the sex panic argument.
Advanced by the progressive, mainstream press—a notorious redoubt of mashers and grabbers—it started with The New Yorker asking the question, “When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?” and fretting that we might be on the verge of a “war on sex.” Two days later, the first of Al Franken’s two accusers came forward and it was clear that if a man apparently forced a wet kiss on you and took a sexual gag-photo of the two of you while you were asleep, you were going to have to walk it off. “Is This a ‘Sex Panic’ or a National Moment of Reckoning?” asked Salon, deciding that it was actually both. Poor Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times could barely contain her anxiety over wanting to be on the right side of history about Al Franken. On November 16, the paper published her column saying that he should be drummed out of the Senate, but then she had a bad weekend, apparently—had she said the right thing? Or the wrong thing?—and ran a second column in which she worried she was “participating in a sex panic.”
Saying there’s a sex panic on the grounds that women don’t like having their asses grabbed is the 2017 way of calling women frigid. In the 1950s, the woman who slapped a man’s face for an unwanted grope was mocked for not being sexually open, for being uptight. Now she’s accused of participating in a “sex panic.” But it’s all the same thing across the generations: When women stand up to say “keep your hands off of me” there’s a good chance they’ll be called prudes. Saying there’s a sex panic is a fancy way of saying that women’s bodies don’t completely belong to them the way their cars do. Someone can damage a woman’s car in a very small way, and insurance companies take it seriously and pay for the repair. She owns that car, and has every right to protect it. But if someone grabs her butt without her permission, she needs to lighten up. What is she, a frigid bitch?
In the America of earlier generations, one thing that silenced women who wanted to report unwanted sexual acts was how important it was not to damage a man’s career, his reputation, his family. Was one unpleasant event really enough to cause so much trouble to a respected member of the community, to a breadwinner? The importance of men’s careers has also become a part of the new resistance. After the first Al Franken accusation, Joan Walsh wrote a piece in The Nation in which she urged readers to remember that Franken was “a champion of Planned Parenthood,” and also “a committed feminist,” which was helpful for those of us who didn’t know that committed feminists sometimes—allegedly—jam their tongues down unwilling women’s throats.
I remember—a very long time ago, because I’m old now, and blessedly free from most male sexual aggression—the first time I was groped. It was a crowded bus, a hand came out of nowhere and what happened was so shocking to me, so intimate and wrong, that I stood there stunned. I wasn’t even angry yet; I was just mortified. Afterward I started telling people, expecting that they would be outraged on my behalf. But the response was very different—the weary, way-of-the-world instruction: That’s how it is. Even my mother, who had taught me so carefully from such an early age and in so many ways that my body was mine, was hardly riled by the story. “Bastard,” she said, when I told her, and that was it.
You learn early on, if you’re female, that your body mostly belongs to you. But if you are going to make a big fuss every time a hand grabs you on a crowded bus or train, every time a man forces a wet, unwanted kiss on you, you’re going to become something men really don’t like: bitter. And so you come to accept that for the most part your body belongs to you. But in a small way a little bit of it belongs to the men of the world. And I am reminded of the ancient words that washed over me in the churches of my childhood and the college chapels of my late adolescence, in the cathedrals and outdoor masses of my early life on my own: This is my body, which is given up for you.