It was an open secret in Hollywood, and it’s all too public now. This month’s reporting by the New York Times and the New Yorker has seared the alleged misdeeds of movie producer Harvey Weinstein into the national consciousness.
Actually, “misdeeds” is too genteel a word to describe the ghastly allegations of rape, sexual harassment and sexual assault levied against Weinstein by women from all walks of Hollywood, including some of the most successful women in the movie business. The stream of outrages shows no sign of letting up. Each day since the story broke, more women have come forward with accounts of abuse or close escape at Weinstein’s hands.
The revelations are horrible. The allegations are painful to read, and the evidence is nauseating to listen to. And having waded through a flood of similar scandals in our recent past—Cosby, Ailes, O’Reilly, among others—we’re desperate for a path out.
Perhaps the disgust and fatigue help explain the rush to identify the one rule that can end it all for good. If we can just find the right charm to ward off sexual impropriety, some seem to think, we’ll never have to face this discomfort again.
Too bad it’s not that easy.
As a response to this particular scandal, some have proposed blanket applications of what has been referred to as the “Mike Pence Rule,” after the vice president’s stated policy against eating alone with a woman who isn’t his wife or attending an event featuring alcohol without her.
“THINK,” tweeted former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka on Tuesday night. “If Weinstein had obeyed @VP Pence’s rules for meeting with the opposite sex, none of these poor women would ever have been abused.” Others go in for variations on this One Weird Trick to prevent sexual assault: We need a more formal office culture, suggests Business Insider columnist Josh Barro. We need checks on how men and women interact professionally, says New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.
It’s not that these suggestions have nothing to recommend them. Drawing clear lines around professional interactions might make sexual misconduct easier to spot, for instance, or make it harder for an aggressor to create an obviously coercive situation.
But they also aren’t enough. Rules about how many people should be present at a mixed-sex meeting might stymie the opportunist harasser, but they won’t be enough to stop determined predators—of which there are many. And overbroad guidelines on where men can interact with women, and how much, close off opportunities for women and make it easier to blame them when things still—inevitably—go wrong.
Sexual predation is a much bigger, more complicated and more systemic problem than can ever be solved by instituting one good guideline. Despite how comforting it would be to say we’ve found a quick fix, we can’t just flip the switch, breathe a sigh of relief and look away. To create real societal change, we’ll need to keep our eyes trained on instances where we’ve failed, even though we would prefer not to. Rather than just setting up new rules and hoping they’ll take care of the situation for us, we’ll have to change the ways we think and live.
What does that look like? It might start with viewing women as people. We might move away from rhetoric suggesting we remember to value their experience only when they are our (or somebody else’s) daughters, sisters or wives. It would continue with teaching bystanders, especially men, to speak up when they see other men behaving badly, and to resist giving any leeway to the bad but brilliant to share in their power. It also means listening to women when they share their experiences—and even seeking them out, rather than discounting them or asking why they didn’t come forward earlier. And in the long term, it means teaching our sons, especially, how to treat others as equals.
These aren’t novel solutions; they’re an ongoing grind. But the truth is, no quick fix will ever be enough. The work will be never-ending. But it has to be done.