Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Frida Ghitis writes that more and more prominent men are revealed to have abused their power and to have harassed women
The key question is whether a culture that condones this kind of behavior will change forever, she writes
The perpetual battle to stop men sexually attacking, abusing and harassing women appears to have reached a turning point. But what are the chances that we will, indeed, score a lasting victory; that anything will truly change? After all, we’ve been here before, even recently, and nothing changed.
The best news in this seemingly-Sisyphean struggle – in which we push this slimy rock up the hill, only to see it roll down again – is that, for once, we are seeing enough perpetrators at the same time to know that this is not a partisan matter. It’s not partisan or racial or limited to any nationality.
In the end, it may be the spectacular downfall of Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood mogul and prominent supporter of the Democratic party, that winds up making the biggest difference.
That’s because until intrepid journalists and courageous women managed to tear down Weinstein’s protective wall of silence and intimidation, some may have dismissed the avalanche of scandals involving powerful and famous sexual predators as an assault against Republicans, or against the current president, or against Fox News, the television network that most fervently serves as his base of support.
Now we have news about Mark Halperin, a prominent MSNBC contributor and former ABC political director, his trail of alleged sexual harassment also catching up to him in the current wave of revelations. (Halperin denied accusations that he grabbed a woman’s breasts and pressed his genitals against others, but has apologized for “inappropriate” behavior.)
The sexual harassment of women by men in power knows no political party, no race and no nationality. It’s not about politics at Fox, or racism and Bill Cosby. And it’s certainly not just an American problem.
Remember Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, who was all but certain to become president of France, when a 32-year-old Guinean maid at the Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan said he sexually assaulted her? The criminal case was ultimately dropped, but DSK, as he is known, settled with his accuser, and faced a barrage of further scandals.
Or, former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, capping a brilliant political career with a stint as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, when a staffer accused him of “grabbing her behind.” He claimed it was a friendly gesture, but an investigation found, “a pattern of sexual harassment.”
The problem is prevalent and widespread. Just ask the millions of women in scores of countries who posted #MeToo on social media. (Me too, by the way.) When the meme spread, a common question was, “Is there any woman who has not been sexually harassed in one way or another?”
The history of men abusing women is as old as time. So is the history of women – and some decent men – trying to figure out how to stop it.
One of the most disheartening moments in that struggle came late last year, when the entire country heard then-candidate Donald Trump brag in the “Access Hollywood” tape, “I just start kissing them…I don’t even wait,” adding the now-infamous confession that he likes to “Grab ‘em by the pu—y.” The admission seemed to lend credence to accusations by a dozen women, including Summer Zervos, a former contestant in Trump’s show “The Apprentice,” who accused Trump of kissing her “very aggressively,” and touching her genitals. Trump denied the allegations (he said his taped comments were “locker room talk”), and she is now suing him for defamation.
Despite the evidence and the parade of accusers, Trump became president, and the allegations didn’t seem to matter.
Women are often in an impossible position to fight back, risking vengeance, skepticism and potentially career-ending consequences, and this is not limited to facing powerful men in Hollywood or New York. Women endure the same treatment from less prominent figures in big and small towns, and businesses of every kind.
The consequences of resisting can be professionally, and sometimes physically, devastating. Consider Rudi Bakhtiar, who saw her career dreams shattered. She alleged that she turned down the sexual advances of Fox’s Brian Wilson and reported him to HR. Wilson denies making unwanted sexual advances toward Bakhtiar. And Fox declined to comment on the case.
The problem is not only the men who abuse their power to seek sexual gratification. The perpetrators are not just the men pushing themselves on women, ogling them lustily during the course of business, forcing them to cross their legs suggestively under Lucite news desks. The problem extends to a culture that has seen the abusive behavior as acceptable.
And the less blatant and the less famous are everywhere, with most people tolerating their actions. A culture that sees nothing wrong with relentless unwanted flirtation, and one that tolerates harassment and assault persists.
Consider the decision by Fox News to sign Bill O’Reilly to a new $25 million contract, just after O’Reilly paid a whopping $32 million to keep one of his alleged victims quiet. At least half a dozen settlements with his accusers cost the Fox star and his employers millions more, according to The New York Times, for settlements over accusations that include engaging in a “non-consensual sexual relationship.”
O’Reilly should have been criminally investigated and if the evidence sustained it, been prosecuted, not rehired. Would a company sign a man accused of a serious crime after paying off his accuser? Only if it didn’t think what he did was truly objectionable.
The culture of sexual abuse at Fox has been replicated in other places. But now that Weinstein and Halperin, along with other prominent figures are squinting in the withering glare of unwanted publicity, maybe others will think twice before acting, or before looking away at the sight of inappropriate behavior.
When Anita Hill spoke out against Clarence Thomas, the atmosphere changed in many workplaces. She helped push the rock up the hill a bit. It rolled back, but not all the way to where it started.
This time, with so many cases, and so many women saying #MeToo, and more than a few men saying they will also speak up, there is a good chance that this oldest of all battles will be won by women and their allies. But the war, undoubtedly, will continue for a long time, leaving many casualties along the way.