he recent sexual-harassment lawsuits filed against Fox News and its former chief, Roger Ailes, have prompted predictable glee on the left. Jane Mayer of the New Yorker used the news as an excuse to revisit Republican peccadilloes of the past 30 years—the “unending scandals of the scandalmongers,” she called them—and devoted lots of space to airing the grievances of an admittedly psychologically unstable former employee of Ailes. After cataloging the affairs and failed marriages of many Republican men, she smugly reminded readers: “The Clintons, by contrast, have remained married.”
Similarly, an indignant employee of the website ThinkProgress recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times denouncing Fox News as “a place where sexual harassers roam free, grabbing or ogling whatever they fancy, with consequences brought to bear only on the victims who speak up”—which sounds a lot like the Bill Clinton era, as a matter of fact, at least if your name was Monica, or Paula, or Juanita, rather than Hillary.
And the New York Times spent months researching a story about how Donald Trump treated the women who worked for his company and attended his Mar-a-Largo pool parties, clearly insinuating that he committed actionable harassment; they even published a follow-up piece devoted to reactions to the story, with helpful reader insights such as, “I need a shower after reading this.”
The narrative promoted in these stories and in popular culture at large is that the hypocritical, backwards right still hasn’t learned the lessons of the Anita Hill era. Indeed, NPR recently trotted out Ms. Hill, like a postfeminist Oracle at Delphi, to comment on the Fox News allegations and reflect on her role in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings 25 years ago (and which HBO recently made into a glossy film starring Kerry Washington). Hill gave herself credit for prompting so many “public conversations” about sexual harassment, scolded Fox News for giving Ailes a severance package, and reminded listeners, “I was treated very badly.”
Of all the unwelcome 1990s ghosts come back to haunt this election season, sexual harassment might prove the most difficult to exorcise. Since the era of Anita Hill and Bill Clinton, we’ve had decades of “public conversations” about sexual harassment—and what has resulted? We have less understanding, not more, of what should qualify as legally actionable harassment and what is and is not an acceptable level of misbehavior in the workplace and on college campuses.
Consider the ubiquitous sexual-harassment training workshop. It continues to thrive even though research by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and several independent academic studies have found that sexual-harassment-prevention training (a staple of the business world and the well-deserved target of pop culture parody) often has the counterintuitive effect of making men less likely to be able to identify harassment and more likely to stereotype women in the workplace.
Perhaps the most dramatic change in harassment culture since the 1990s is the role of the victim vis-à-vis the accused. The climate of the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas era was a litigious he-said, she-said; the present mood is simply J’accuse! Today, an accusation is all that is required to confer immediate cultural and political power on the person who makes it.
What was once scoffed at by sensible people as PC academic nonsense—feminist studies professors denouncing the ‘male gaze’ as a form of rape culture, for example—has now become mainstream.
One Washington Post reporter declared that President Obama had been inspired to launch the “It’s on Us” campaign because he “became alarmed at the idea of rape as a fixture of college life.” But is rape a fixture of college life? The reliability of campus sexual-assault statistics has been hotly debated for decades, given that much of the data is gathered through voluntary surveys with unacceptably small samples. We still don’t have a clear picture of the rate or severity of sexual assault on campuses. Nevertheless, activists claim that a “rape culture” is rampant.
This has contributed to a pernicious development. Our culture now regularly elides harassment and assault. What was once scoffed at by sensible people as PC academic nonsense—feminist studies professors denouncing the “male gaze” as a form of rape culture, for example—has now become mainstream. In the 1990s, female co-eds were given school-issued rape whistles to protect themselves and encouraged to participate in therapeutic “Take Back the Night” rallies. Today they can simply talk to credulous reporters, like the one at Rolling Stone who published a salacious and now thoroughly discredited story of a gang rape of a student by young men at the University of Virginia in 2014.
Or they can mimic Columbia University’s “mattress girl,” who turned a regrettable consensual sexual encounter into “performance art” by claiming rape and dragging a dirty mattress around campus, for which she received fawning praise (the woman’s supposed rapist was cleared of all charges by Columbia and is now suing the university). And pity the college administrator who suggests that female students take some personal responsibility for their safety by refraining from getting blackout drunk at a fraternity party on a Friday night. Such counsel is not to be considered commonsense advice; it’s victim-shaming.
In the media, fear-mongering stories, such as a recent piece at Slate outlining the many ways women are at risk of sexual assault by creepy men on long-haul flights, read like bad horror-film scripts (“Beware the Perv in 3B!”). A Huffington Post contributor wrote an “open letter” to the mothers of sons who might one day grow up to be predators: “Who are these ‘creepy men’ and where did they come from AND who in the hell raised them? The answer, unfortunately, is YOU.”
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the current climate is the case of Nate Parker, the writer-director-star of the forthcoming film The Birth of a Nation. Seventeen years ago, when he was in college, Parker was accused of rape. He was acquitted of all charges. Eleven years later, the alleged victim committed suicide. The story resurfaced just before the release of his new film, and Parker (who has been outspoken in his condemnation of rape and sexual assault) now finds himself in the crosshairs of activists who want people to boycott his film because he was acquitted of sexual assault decades ago.
Rape and other forms of sexual assault and harassment are serious crimes, and young people especially should be raised to know that they should promptly report them when they happen so the perpetrators can be prosecuted. But crime statistics show that, overall, incidences of rape and other sexual assaults are the lowest they’ve been in decades.
We live in weird sexual times: The BBC recently reported that young, porn-addled teens are more likely to seek medical treatment for erectile dysfunction than older men are; Anthony Weiner’s rabid sexting habit destroyed his marriage and his reputation without him ever actually touching any of his partners; and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach recently joined forces with former Playboy playmate Pamela Anderson to write an op-ed about the dangers of porn.
But our current cultural climate surrounding sexual harassment and sexual assault isn’t weird; it’s harmful. It undermines due process and encourages a view of men—especially young men on college campuses—as likely predators. The equation of harassment with assault weakens our ability to separate false accusations from true ones, and more serious behavior from misunderstandings. Worst of all, it encourages women to view themselves as victims-in-waiting in nearly every situation they encounter. It’s a siren’s lure.