The mounting and increasingly disturbing allegations against Hollywood mogul and Democratic donor Harvey Weinstein have opened the floodgates to a veritable tsunami of gleeful commentary from conservatives and MAGA-ites, to whom Weinstein provides delicious, long-lasting political ammo. It will never quite land as long as an admitted sexual predator leads the Republican party, the Secretary of Education removes protections for victims of sexual assault, and the HHS is led by people who don’t believe in contraception, but that’s not stopping anyone.
“I’ve known Harvey Weinstein for a long time,” Donald Trump told reporters on Saturday. “I’m not at all surprised to see it.”
One reliably evangelical argument that’s emerged is more or less the following: that sexual assault is inevitable, that gender segregation might be a good solution, and that liberals are hypocrites for pretending otherwise.
In March, if you can remember that far back, the Washington Post dug up a number of memorable anecdotes about the relationship between Karen Pence and the Vice President, one being that Mike Pence does not dine alone with women who are not Mother and doesn’t drink alcohol at events that she is not also attending. This prompted a raft of commentary about the damage this attitude inflicts on women both professionally and otherwise, well-articulated over at the New Yorker by former Jezebel staffer Jia Tolentino:
At play here are two basic evangelical ideas. The first is complementarianism, which finds beauty in the idea of men and women holding rigid, separate roles: men lead and women provide support for men. In complementarianism, women are intended to find worth and agency through obedience and submission. There are plenty of women, as well as men, who believe that this is a fundamental truth about human life, and they are free to do so—but when that conviction is allowed to shape public policy the result is a repressive and theocratic state. The second evangelical idea here is that Pence and his fellow hard-liners are simply making the most honest attempt possible to reckon with human sin. The problem is that women always end up bearing the burden of that reckoning. If we are framed as temptresses, our only power is sex.
After Weinstein was reported to have taken advantage of business relationships to feed his sexual appetites, the bright example of Pence and his wife seems to have experienced a resurgence.
“In Light of the Weinstein Situation, Let’s Re-Visit Mike Pence’s Rule About Meeting With Women Alone,” a headline from conservative pundit Erick Erickson suggested. Erickson—who agreed with Pence’s dinner rule back when the news broke and also, un-relatedly, once defended Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” concept by comparing it to Claire McCaskill’s Obamacare vote—has a radical thought: why not just save ourselves a whole bunch of trouble and keep men and women separate?
The media and the left savaged Mike Pence for his principled stand, but they will never run stories about Mike Pence sexually harassing women. They’ll never run stories about women unsure whether Pence was propositioning them or if they were reading too much into something. And Mike Pence’s wife, who is the most important person in Pence’s life, will never have to worry about his fidelity.
Meanwhile, Harvey Weinstein is supposedly off to sex rehab clinic. The man who joined the Women’s March and pretended to be the feminist and was lauded by all the people savaging Mike Pence turned out to be the monster they projected onto Mike Pence.
In other words, the problem is not that men do these things, really; it’s that liberals won’t accept the reality that men do these things and adjust accordingly. (It’s worth noting, also, that the model/actress Cara Delevigne says she was not alone in the room with Weinstein when he allegedly assaulted her— but again, this sort of solution rarely rests on the preferences or lived experiences of actual women.)
On Tuesday, Josh Barro at Business Insider published a Weinstein-inspired article that, while more nuanced and genteel in its argument, had a similarly restrictive outcome that does not involve teaching men how to not be predators (Barro switched to the Democratic party last year). In the article, he proposed “more formal office cultures” as a potential solution to the reported problem that men spooked by sexual harassment scandals are avoiding solo meetings with women. Perhaps if work environments were less “fun,” Barro suggests, and restricted “after-hours social activities that blur the lines between business and leisure,” there would be fewer opportunities for “appearances of impropriety,” and also fewer opportunities for would-be harassers to prey on their women colleagues.
Barro isn’t wrong to say that Weinstein took advantage of workplace norms, or a lack thereof, to confuse his alleged victims’ sense of propriety; his assumption that removing this external framework would fix anything, however, is highly questionable.
Stronger norms of professional behavior, more formal office cultures, and clearer separations between the personal and the professional could reduce opportunities for sexual misconduct while also discouraging problem drinking and otherwise making professional life healthier for industry participants — men and women. Formal norms about how colleagues interact make it harder for a harasser to act like his behavior is “just the way things are done in the industry.”
Across industries and throughout the relatively short period of history they were allowed to hold jobs, women have been harassed at work—it happens during field expeditions in Antarctica, in hospital rooms, at the Department of Justice, in the U.S. military; it also happens quite a lot over email, or, say, via secret Facebook pages. This argument assumes both that men fundamentally can’t control themselves around women and that the fix for this lies in, what, uniforms? Rules against socializing together? “Stronger norms of professional behavior” don’t matter for shit when even people whose job it is to explain things can’t address the underlying problem.
Across conservative media and social networks, Weinstein is also being used as an avatar of the legitimate ongoing failures of the Democratic party—a failure to live up to their stated ideals, a failure to resist the influence of big donors, a failure to stand up for women when it counts. Trump-land’s gleeful takedowns of Democratic hypocrisy and the empty gestures of its Hollywood backers have been particularly stunning: Kellyanne Conway, who asserted that Trump “respects women” in the aftermath of the “grab them by the pussy” tape, has tweeted sanctimoniously about Hillary Clinton’s failure to immediately disavow Weinstein; Donald Trump, Jr., who once said “if you can’t handle some of the basic stuff that’s become a problem in the workforce today, then you don’t belong in the workforce,” is now vigorously retweeting Rose McGowan.
These responses to the Weinstein scandal have landed clumsily because they reveal two completely incongruous stances of their own: that male violence and female temptation are immutable facts of life, and that Weinstein is an evil aberration whose crimes have been ignored by the Left.
And ultimately, this speaks more to the nihilistic surreality that has overtaken the conservative movement than anything else. The victims in this are lost, reduced down to their rhetorical value (though as my colleague Stassa Edwards wrote one year ago, conservative men have been performing this exercise for some time). In this new, hopelessly tangled moral universe, hypocrisy is only real when a liberal demonstrates it, and sexual assault only resonates when a liberal commits it, because nothing actually matters beyond the argument at hand.