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When the “Weinstein Effect” Hits Washington

A wave of sexual misconduct revelations has sparked a cultural rebellion. But a political agenda is needed to effect lasting change.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Heather Lind, a 34-year-old actress, alleged on Tuesday that during a photo shoot four years ago, former President George H. W. Bush “touched me from behind from his wheelchair with his wife Barbara Bush by his side” and told her a “dirty joke.” Bush didn’t deny the allegation, instead apologizing to Lind in a statement through his spokesman: “President Bush would never—under any circumstance—intentionally cause anyone distress, and he most sincerely apologizes if his attempt at humor offended Ms. Lind.” When a second allegation emerged Wednesday, Bush spokesperson Jim McGrath stated: “At age 93, President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures. To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke—and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner.”

This news would have been massive just a month ago, given the prominence of the people involved and the seriousness of the accusation. Yet in the wake of recent revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein—more than 50 women have accused him of sexual misconduct, including more than half a dozen who say he assaulted or raped them—Bush is only one of many powerful men on a depressing list that’s growing at a dizzying rate. Vanity Fair calls it “the Weinstein ripple effect.” While stories about such men aren’t new, the Weinstein case has indeed been transformative event. Perhaps it was the celebrity of the women who came forward with stories, such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. Perhaps it was also our charged historical moment, in which America’s misogynist-in-chief has provoked a new wave of feminist activism. Whatever the cause, the Weinstein ripple is now roiling many industries and institutions; it looks more like a storm surge.

But how far will the surge go, and will it have a lasting impact? Will powerful men continue to be outed—and ousted—in 2018? Will it fundamentally change professional culture, making it safer for women? Is such a cultural shift even possible without first solving the gender imbalance in the workplace? The answers to these questions may lie with our nation’s capital.

Hollywood, of course, has been rocked especially hard by the Weinstein ripple. Roy Price, head of Amazon Studios, resigned after revelations that he had crudely propositioned a producer and ignored the complaints of an actress who had been harassed by Weinstein. The Los Angeles Times spoke to 38 women who accused director James Toback of sexual misconduct; his list of accusers now numbers more than 200. Nickelodeon fired Chris Savino, the creator of Loud House, after a dozen women alleged that he sexually harassed them. New allegations have also surfaced against Roman Polanski, Oliver Stone, Ben Affleck, Val Kilmer, and Weinstein’s brother, Bob.

But the Weinstein surge has been felt far outside of Hollywood. Scott Courtney resigned as executive vice president at the Service Employees International Union amid allegations of “sexual misconduct and abusive behavior,” and that he abused his power by promoting women with whom he was romantically involved. Vox Media fired its editorial director, Lockhart Steele, after longstanding sexual harassment allegations were made public in a Medium post. New Orleans–based celebrity chef John Besh stepped down from the restaurant group he founded after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual harassment. One could also add musicians Jeordie White (fired by Marilyn Manson after a rape allegation) and ex–Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile (women have accused him of “touching, kissing, and groping them without their consent”), as well as photographer Terry Richardson, who has been banned by magazine giant Condé Nast. There have been cases in Silicon Valley and academia, too.

The Weinstein surge is a cultural rebellion, and as such as been galvanized by the power of storytelling—of women coming forward and giving their version of events. Until now, a shroud of semi-secrecy covered an experience almost universally shared by women—casual workplace harassment—that rarely got discussed publicly. Frequently, such stories got shunted into the private whisper network, a form of protective gossip. What we’re witnessing now is a volcanic eruption after decades of accumulated pressure, these suppressed stories now being aired because a critical mass of women feel empowered—thanks to news reports, social media (#MeToo), and private listservs (the “Shitty Men in Media” list)—to speak up.

We might be witnessing the emergence of a new social norm, where harassers can no longer expect their lofty position to protect them, but there are limits to how much this new age of openness can fundamentally alter power relations. After all, one of the root causes of harassment is the entrenched economic inequality between men and women, which makes female employees vulnerable to coercion, sometimes of a subtle kind, by male employers. And there is little reason to think that this inequality is being addressed. As ThinkProgress reported on Wednesday, the gender wage gap widened last year. “Even improvements in the economy don’t help women get better-paying jobs, since those usually go to men, in part because of occupational segregation that pays women less when they are in fields dominated by women,” Casey Quinlan wrote.

Given this persistent disparity, the Weinstein surge might prove temporary. Men might be more restrained for a time, fearful of the professional cost for bad behavior. “[W]ith the Weinstein fallout, and the List, we saw men actually becoming afraid of what they did or did not do (and honestly, if they didn’t feel any fear, they were deluded),” Leah Finnegan wrote at The Outline. “If there’s one thing to learn from the endless morass of emotions that has been the past few weeks it’s that it’s good to make men feel fear, and this is something women absolutely have the power to do, even if it has to come anonymously, and in aggregate.”

But if the power imbalance in the workplace remains unchanged, then so do the very conditions that enable sexual harassment. “Could this be the rare moment when change happens seemingly overnight?” Katha Pollitt asked in The Nation. Her answer is cynical one:

But that’s what people expected after Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her, and that was over a quarter-century ago. Thomas got his seat on the Supreme Court; Hill was famously vilified as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”; her nemesis Joe Biden became a feminist darling by sponsoring the Violence Against Women Act before going on to become vice president; and harassment continued as before. More recent malefactors have done all right too: Bill Cosby got a hung jury; Roger Ailes lost his job at Fox News but got $40 million to go away; Bill O’Reilly lost his job at Fox after he and the network spent $45 million in settlements over the years, but he has appeared on Hannity and is one of the most popular writers in the country.

It’s possible that Pollitt is too cynical. While Cosby and O’Reilly have not been punished as much as they should be, they’ll never regain their cultural prominence. An the Thomas hearings did help build the case for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which gave victims of sexual abuse the power to claim emotional as well as economic damages and the right to a trial by jury. But Thomas is indeed a useful reminder of how a transformative moment can also still leave abusive structures in place—especially in our public institutions. In the private sphere, companies have a real incentive to punish harassers, for fear of lawsuits or brand damage. Such incentives don’t necessarily apply in Washington. It’s not just that political power is overwhelming in male hands—less than 20 percent of Congress is female, and Trump is running one of the most male-dominated White Houses in decades—but there’s little evidence that sexual misconduct carries a disincentive.

Polling suggests that voters treat sex scandals of any sort as a lesser indiscretion rather than a firing offense. Historically, voters of both parties have been willing to forgive even serious allegations of misconduct against politicians, as the unimpeded careers of Trump, Ted Kennedy, and Bill Clinton attest. It’s notable that the political figures who are being caught up in the Weinstein surge are either long retired, like Bush, or local figures. Theoretically, politicians could be held accountable by either the electorate or by donors. But the example set by Trump in the last general election makes such accountability seem remote. After all, here was a man running for the highest office in the land, receiving maximum scrutiny, with more than a dozen serious allegations against him, and who had been caught on tape boasting about committing sexual assault—and yet, he maintained the support of the Republican base and big donors. The lesson from 2016 is that as long as a politician looks like they can win elections, they aren’t held accountable.

Washington, then, provides a test case for whether the Weinstein surge will be lasting or whether it will just deluge parts of the private sector (media, Silicon Valley, and academia), taking down prominent figures but leaving an insecure policy legacy. If we see a wave of congressional staffers come forward with stories about abuse, and Congress holding them responsible, that will mark a real change. Similarly, if the Republican Party starts taking the abuse allegations against Trump seriously, that would be evidence of a genuine transformation. Neither seems likely. Roll Call reported in February that “Congress has taken no steps to tighten its controls [over sexual harassment] even as the issue has exploded again into the national arena with high-profile alleged perpetrators.” And the Republicans are more interested in investigating Obama-era cases than any of Trump’s misdeeds, not least his connections with Russia and potential obstruction of justice.

Can the Weinstein surge be culturally transformative if there’s no real change in power relations at the workplace? New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg rightly argued that the Weinstein case shows we need more women in positions of power:

Obviously, female bosses can be abusive and can create cultures where abusive behavior toward underlings is tolerated. But women may face less harassment at companies with fewer straight men at the top. Research “shows that when workplace power disparities are gendered (e.g., most of the support staff are women and most of the executives are men), more harassment may occur,” says a 2016 study of sexual harassment from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Claire Cain Miller recently wrote in The Times, “In interviews, women in companies with many female or gay executives were more likely to say one-on-one relationships had never been an issue for them.”

The wave of accusations of sexual misconduct throughout professional culture is truly harrowing, and shows that the problem won’t be solved by punishing a few miscreants. But the Weinstein surge is also a rare, heartening moment in the Trump era, one that gives hope for genuine progress for women—so long as we take advantage of it. There’s been an important shift in how we talk about and address male aggression, but without a political agenda to codify solutions into law, this rebellion will fall short. Cultural change without the backing of state power is inherently limited. The question is whether today’s anger and empowerment can fuel a more radical push to make workplace equality a reality.