We shouldn’t have to do this, but we have to do this. And we will have to do this, over and over again, until it stops.
We shouldn’t have to demonstrate the gut-stabbing scale of the problem. We shouldn’t have to say, ‘we are not shocked,’ or ‘this shit is endemic,’ or ‘Harvey Weinstein is not a monster, or an aberration.’ We shouldn’t need to point out that ‘this doesn’t only matter, Matt Damon, because you have daughters. It matters, because, murky though it seems to you, we are all, every last one of us, human beings.’ We shouldn’t have to argue about whether we are worth respecting. We shouldn’t have to fight to go about the world without fear. We shouldn’t have to endure every big and small act of contempt, slowly accreting in our bodies. That familiar nauseating boot to the stomach, the stab of shame, hollowing us out on the inside, reminding us that no matter what our mothers told us, there is still some man more powerful than us who thinks we need to be put back in our place.
We shouldn’t need to do this, but we are doing this. And we are doing this because it is what we can do. We cannot stop men raping us. We cannot stop men using their power to try and belittle us, or bully us, or jerk off into plant pots in front of us. We cannot snap our fingers and change a culture when a chunk of the most powerful people in that culture do not want it to be changed. But we can do this. We can pool our voices and begin to smash the silence locked in place by the conspiracy of disbelief, and by the interests of some men in sustaining that disbelief. We can make something wilfully obscured, finally, after far too long, start to show itself.
At the turn of the century, in Vienna, as Freud started sketching out psychoanalysis, he stumbled into the epidemic of sexual trauma among women. Many of his patients, young women whose bodies had begun to speak what they could not say, because it would not be heard, reported their abuse. At first, Freud was inclined to believe them, but as the scale slowly revealed itself, he became incredulous. And so ‘the seduction theory’ was born in its stead. He couldn’t countenance what many still cannot countenance. That this goes on, day in and day out, year after year, and leaves virtually no woman untouched. That our injuries vary by degree but not in kind. That the greatest incidence of PTSD is found amongst women in peacetime, not men in wartime. That the rumours of hysteria’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
Who knows if this is a watershed. Most women are not shocked by what we learned this week, although every brutal detail is still shocking. But what is maybe different this time, coming on the heels of so many other times, is some shift in the willingness to hear, and so, in the willingness to speak. So listen to us. Listen when say we are not shocked because Harvey Weinstein, and all the other Harvey Weinsteins, exist and are allowed to exist because our culture is steeped in rape. (And please, swallow down your defensiveness long enough to hear me out, because the quality of life of half the human species is on the line). And what I mean by that is this. When I, or Emma Thompson, or any other woman with her eyes half-open says the abuse of women is endemic, we mean not only that is common, routine and normalized, but that it being so is not an accident. We mean that Harvey Weinstein is not a fricking accident.
To change this we need more women in power, of course. But more than that, we need to change how we understand power, and how we raise men to incarnate that power. We need to know, and really believe, that strength is not the same as domination. We need to stop teaching boys, when barely out of diapers, that their social survival depends on an absolute denial of all that humiliating, debasing sissy stuff, on ferreting out every last scrap of purported feminine weakness. We need to stop thinking that the measure of a man is how well he can bully the world into giving him what he wants, or that he cannot be blamed for raging when another part of the world, who just happens to be her own person, doesn’t want what he does.
We have to understand that locker room talk is not just locker room talk. That it is not an accident that men bond over our debasement, and that it is not inconsequential when the men who don’t, say nothing. We need to understand that many men assume, with more or less awareness, that their needs matter more than ours, and they are entitled to have them met. That women exist as resources for their pleasure, and to be talked about as objects of their pleasure, and that when we are less compliant than the silent, yielding earth, they have every reason to feel aggrieved. That it is our fault we make them want us, and then refuse them what they want. That we are asking for it. That they can’t help themselves. That they have every right to punish us for our insubordination. That they have every right to punish us, in fact, for being people.
We need to ask why men learn that to be a man is to be invulnerable. Why we teach them to hold dependence, and empathy, and openness to others, in contempt. Because no man – or woman for that matter – is an island. Every one of us have needs, and wants, and bleeds when we get hurt. Every one of us is sometimes dependent and sometimes vulnerable. And when we want to touch, and be touched by, another human being, we are always dependent, and always vulnerable. In such moments, we are at the mercy of another’s want, entirely. And any attempt to coerce the free offering of that want is an abuse of power, or force, or opportunity. An abuse that functions by refusing to recognize the existence of the other person. An abuse that operates as intentional annihilation.
For men like Harvey Weinstein – a man whose whole being tends to bending the world to his will – not getting what you want also cannot be countenanced. It would be a humiliating and emasculating admission of the insubstantiality of his own omnipotence. The very existence of beautiful women who don’t want to fuck you becomes, to such a man, an affront to his real and fantasized dominion, a forced confrontation with the vulnerability of his own human desire and dependence. And such a confrontation demands retribution. It is wrong to say that sexual violence is not a crime of desire, but it is, above all else, a crime of aggrieved entitlement and narcissistic rage. A crime that happens when men’s imagined invulnerability collides with the reality that their needs must be met by another person who can say no. A crime of refusing the existence of another as a limit of one’s own power, of enforcing one’s will by erasing someone else’s, as punishment for the insolence of them having one at all.
Maybe this is a watershed, and not just another moment of collective, paralysed horror. Maybe this time we will join our voices and people will actually hear. Maybe it is worth us saying, in a blaze of radical hope, that this has to stop. But unless men learn to live within the limits of their power, and within the vulnerability of their own desire, Harvey Weinstein will be just one more man in an endless, immemorial line, another livid scar on women’s self-worth and on our souls.