The Kevin Spacey Allegations, Through the Lens of Power

The sexual-assault accusations against the actor are part of a broader social reckoning with the dynamics of abuse.

Kevin Spacey at the 2017 Tony Awards
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The accusations against Kevin Spacey this past week have, among other things, presented a challenge of categorization. After the actor Anthony Rapp accused Spacey of making a sexual advance at him in 1986, when Rapp was 14, more men came forward to allege predatory behavior by the actor. There have been two other accounts of encounters with teenage boys in the ’80s. Eight House of Cards staffers told CNN they saw the star grope and harass crew members.

Spacey has so far given a hedged apology to Rapp, denied one other allegation, and is reportedly now seeking “evaluation and treatment.” If the stories are true, do they simply add to the tally of Hollywood letches revealed since Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual harassment and rape? Does this scandal require a discussion of homosexuality because Spacey came out as gay in his apology to Rapp? Or is the issue adults preying on minors?

One of Spacey’s accusers, an unnamed 48-year-old artist, has his answer. “He is a pedophile,” the man told Vulture’s E. Alex Jung in a wide-ranging and disturbing interview published Thursday. The man says that when he was 14, he had an ongoing sexual relationship with the then-24-year-old rising actor. At first, the accuser was a consenting participant (or, as much as a minor can considered to be one), but he says the relationship ended when Spacey attempted to rape him. “Mr. Spacey absolutely denies the allegations,” a lawyer for the House of Cards actor told Vulture.

It was Spacey’s hedged apology to Rapp, which included the line “I choose now to live as a gay man,” that pushed this particular accuser to finally come forward with his story: “He is spinning it, right? ‘Oh, people like gays now. ... I’ll say I’m gay and I will betray my whole community and do something else that conflates pedophilia with male homosexuality.” Taken with Rapp’s story and the testimony of another anonymous person in the entertainment business who says he woke up with Spacey on top of him when he was 17, the allegations seem to most urgently point to child molestation.

That analysis is complicated by the other Spacey stories in which the age of consent wasn’t the problem—consent was. The crew members Spacey allegedly harassed during House of Cards were most likely adults. The director Tony Montana was in his 30s in 2003 when, he says, Spacey grabbed his crotch and followed him into the bathroom at a bar. A then-19-year-old U.K. bartender says Spacey flashed him in 2010. The actor Roberto Cavazos wrote on Facebook that Spacey, as the artistic director of The Old Vic theater in London from 2004 to 2015, “routinely preyed” on colleagues: “It seems the only requirement was to be a male under the age of 30 for Mr. Spacey to feel free to touch us,” Cavazos said.

The chain reaction sparked by the downfall of Weinstein has crossed industries and identity groups, highlighting the many ways that men in positions of prominence are able to routinely commit sexual offenses against women, against other men, and yes, against children. But treating the “Weinstein moment” as one singular story makes it harder to clearly see each uniquely damaging form predation can take. It is possible—and perhaps essential—to look at Spacey’s case through more than one lens. It is about gender and masculinity. It is about adults and children. It is about sexuality. It is, in all cases, about power.

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The accuser who spoke to Vulture was not the only queer person outraged by Spacey announcing he was gay in the same statement in which he said his 1986 behavior with Rapp might have been “deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” Many observers suspected Spacey announced his sexuality to divert attention from Rapp’s story, as my colleague James Hamblin wrote Monday. And by tying his coming-out to the accusation, he also risked enforcing the harmful myth that gay men go after minors. Wrote Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, “How dare you implicate us all in this.”

Yet insisting that sexuality be left out of the conversation makes it harder to talk about whether the gay male world has its own kind of Harvey Weinstein problem. On Monday, when Rapp was still the only public accuser against Spacey, I spoke with Michael Bronski, the author of A Queer History of the United States and a professor of gender and sexuality studies at Harvard. He questioned whether the criticism of Spacey’s statement was crowding out a more important discussion.

“While I understand the backlash, I have a bit of a hard time understanding why it’s so prominent,” he said. “Until now, the evidence has been so much on Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly. I wonder if people in the LGBT community aren’t upset that this reflects badly on gay people, when we’ve been so happy to say, ‘look at these horrible straight men doing it.’”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that in the United States, “lesbian, gay, and bisexual people experience sexual violence at similar or higher rates than heterosexuals,” as the Human Rights Campaign summarizes. The numbers: “26 percent of gay men and 37 percent of bisexual men experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 29 percent of heterosexual men. … 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared to 21 percent of heterosexual men.”

The abuse and rape statistics for women of any sexuality are higher than for men of any sexuality—a problem that the recent wave of Weinstein-related revelations have helped to highlight. But same-sex and opposite-sex harassment share some aspects in common.

“Sexual assault at its heart is not about sex, it’s about power,” Bronski said. “In the heterosexual world, generally across the board, women have less power, so it is a gendered dynamic of men against women. In the gay world, it’s all about different variations of power: ‘I’m 26 and you’re 14.’ ‘I’m a big butch guy, and you’re smaller.’ If two gay guys are at a bar and one of them is drunk, he has less power because he’s not in full control of his senses.”

In the case of the Spacey accusations, a range of power dynamics is clear. When Spacey allegedly harassed Montana, the aggressor was firmly in the superstar tier and the aggressed-upon still an up-and-comer. The House of Cards crew members all depended on Spacey for their livelihood. And the Vulture accuser sheds light on a specific nuance of consent in gay sex: The alleged attempted rape happened when Spacey tried, for the first time in their relationship, to top him.

The other stories of same-sex harassment to emerge in recent weeks also center on hierarchies that can apply to any gender. “I’ve had my ass grabbed by older, powerful men,” James Van Der Beek wrote on Twitter. “I’ve had them corner me in inappropriate sexual conversations when I was much younger. … I understand the unwarranted shame, powerlessness & inability to blow the whistle. There’s a power dynamic that feels impossible to overcome.” Terry Crews implied that his race gave license to a “a high-level Hollywood executive” who groped him: “‘240 lbs. Black Man stomps out Hollywood Honcho’ would be the headline the next day” if Crews had fought back, he said.

What to make of Spacey positioning himself as a suffering closet case, referencing other “stories out there” about him that have been “fueled by the fact at I have been so protective of my privacy”? People can reject any excuse-making implied in that statement while also recognizing how the closet—and the stigmas that forge it—can wreck lives. In 2004, Spacey lied about being mugged in a park at 4 a.m. Was that, as had been speculated, from a disastrous cruising attempt? It is objectively wrong to expose oneself to a bartender and then offer an expensive gift, or to follow someone into the bathroom. But gay history has provided lenses—explanatory, not exculpatory—that reveal the possibility that these were acts of desperation, born in repression.

If homophobia is relevant in this story, it’s less because of what it might have done to Spacey than what it did to his alleged victims. Rapp said he didn’t report what Spacey had done to him at the time because he was struggling with being gay himself and wasn’t ready to have a conversation about it. Montana said he suffered PTSD from the harassment, and his comments are laced with socially prescribed shame. “I never talked to anyone about it except for therapists,” he told Radar. “It was an emasculating thing for someone to do to me.”

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In the most serious Spacey allegations, the significant power differential is age. People can argue about the propriety of serially pursuing much younger grown-ups, but the Vulture accuser is particularly lucid on the monstrousness of targeting adolescents. Asked whether he now believes he was capable, at 14 or 15, of being in a relationship with someone 24 or 25, the man replied: “No. What you need in a relationship, any relationship, involves a power struggle. But you have to start from some kind of equal footing. And a 15-year-old is a child. Everything is already off-kilter. You’re taking from somebody to get this thing you want.”

Spacey’s alleged interest in teens, as with so many of the post-Weinstein scandals, seemed to have raised the question of a systemic problem in the entertainment industry. After Rapp’s accusations of Spacey were published, the name of the director Bryan Singer began trending on Twitter because Singer has for years fended off allegations that he has sexually exploited young, even underage, actors. Meanwhile, the 2015 documentary An Open Secret, about Hollywood powerbrokers abusing boys, was rereleased online in recent weeks, and has been viewed millions of times.

But Spacey’s example also raises the specter of a false systemic problem, a truly harmful myth: a link between homosexuality and child molestation. Sexual abuse of children is statistically more commonly perpetrated by men against girls than against boys, and it often happens within the family home. Yet the cultural bogeyman of the gay child predator is longrunning, visible as recently as this year, in Australia’s same-sex marriage debate. In the U.S., Bronski said, “it really begins in the ’20s with J. Edgar Hoover consciously writing editorials attacking gay men for being sexual psychopaths.

“If that’s the burden of history,” he added, “you don’t want to deal with that. But the reality is, Kevin Spacey [may have] acted in a criminal way with a 14-year-old, and you have to deal with it.”

Common psychiatric wisdom holds that pedophilia is a diagnosable mental condition, a notion the Vulture accuser recognizes in his interview: “It is in your brain. That’s one of the tragic things about it for those people.” He talked about turning 25 and trying to understand what Spacey and the accuser’s older cousin (who he said also preyed on him) saw in boys like him a decade earlier. “I couldn’t conjure up the desire,” he said. “It was nauseating to think of having sex with them, and that was, I think, certainly when I understood, on a very deep level, these men were fucked up.”

The discourse around pedophilia often centers around whether it is rooted in desire itself, or in a lust for power (it also involves a debate over whether “pedophilia” is the correct term when the targets are adolescent—a debate that is, morally, irrelevant in this case). The allegations against Spacey suggests that both can be possible. Acting upon urges toward children is, fundamentally, taking advantage. When he was in his mid-20s, Spacey wasn’t yet famous and wasn’t that powerful. But to a young teen curious about the acting world, it likely felt quite otherwise.

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Though the myriad revelations that followed Weinstein’s downfall have largely been about men preying on adult women, Spacey’s allegations nonetheless seem deeply familiar in this moment. Many of Weinstein’s accusers, too, were much younger than him, and many stayed silent, too, because of his media influence. Just in the space of a few days, Spacey’s name has been joined in the headlines because of new accusations against other movie titans, and comparing those cases with his is a queasy but illuminating exercise.

In one of the most troubling anecdotes this week, the actress Natasha Henstridge says she fell asleep on the director Brett Ratner’s couch and awoke to find him forcing himself on her. Spacey, too, has been accused of approaching someone who was asleep: Note the simple power dynamic there. Both men’s reputations had been a punchline around town, as well. Spacey’s rumored taste for young men was a running gag on the sitcom Difficult People, and a dark joke on Family Guy. At The Hollywood Reporter’s 2016 Women in Entertainment breakfast, Tina Fey told the crowd, “Brett Ratner is here. In his defense, he thought this was a thing where you could eat breakfast off of 100 women.” (Ratner has denied all allegations.)

The writer Anna Graham Hunter has said she was serially harassed by Dustin Hoffman when she was working as an assistant on a 1985 TV production of Death of a Salesman. Her essay for The Hollywood Reporter is essential reading, featuring a stomach-turning collection of letters Hunter wrote from the set. She told of Hoffman making lewd comments, grabbing her, and quizzing the then-17-year-old girl about her sex life. Her youth was, as in the stories about Spacey, a major factor: “My heart aches for the awkward virgin with the bad hair who had only been kissed three times in her life, laughing as the man her father’s age talked about breasts and sex.” (Hoffman apologized and said he felt “terrible that anything I might have done could have put her in an uncomfortable situation.”)

For Hunter, as with many of the women who have come forward, the offenses she details were enabled by a larger climate of sexism. Hoffman’s alleged harassment was out in the open on set, and Hunter’s supervisor, a woman, reportedly told her to laugh it off. Hunter also recalls being harassed by guys in high school, and by another older actor after the Hoffman incident. “People use the term grooming to describe what sexual predators do with children so they can reap the benefits, but what if they groom us so other men can reap the benefits?” she wrote. “At 49, I understand what Dustin Hoffman did as it fits into the larger pattern of what women experience in Hollywood and everywhere.”

As for Spacey, if he is guilty of what he has been accused of, he took advantage not of male privilege over women, but of other advantages. One factor was, it appears, age. Another may have been a culture of silence around homosexuality. His wealth and status deeply mattered, too. In all cases, he stands charged with abusing power and demonstrating a moral disengagement that, America has been reminded of late, is shared by countless other men.