Twenty-six years ago, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judicial Committee about her experience with Clarence Thomas, who was undergoing an contentious nomination process for the Supreme Court.
One one side, Thomas was being held up as a victim of a “high-tech lynching” due to the fact that he was a black man being nominated to an all-white Court to replace Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first black American judge. On the other side were women who argued that, once again, men could do as they please to women in the workplace without consequence.
During her testimony, Anita Hill was grilled incessantly by an all-male committee who appeared to treat her as one would expect a sexist patriarchy to treat any woman who dared speak out against her treatment.
In an interesting bit of trivia, the chair of that committee was a senator from Delaware named Joseph Biden, and his biggest critic was a California Democrat from the House of Representatives named Nancy Pelosi.
The very next year, Bill Clinton would run for president amidst allegations that he had cheated on Hillary Clinton. Stories that he had forced himself (that’s what politicians called it back then when they would rape women, because rape was such an ugly word, and politicians did everything with dignity at that time) on other women wouldn’t surface until at least 1994, when Paula Jones would make her first public accusations. Clinton’s biggest campaign scandal were accusations he dodged the draft during Vietnam. We have to remember that this was back in a time when Republicans held military service as a near prerequisite for running for office, and before they decided that dodging the draft wasn’t such a big deal after we learned that George W. Bush just didn’t show up at all.
Then, in 1993, a young right-wing operative by the name of David Brock wrote The Real Anita Hill, a book which Brock now calls “character assassination.” In the book, Brock claims that the real motivation for Anita Hill coming forward with claims of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas was her desire to avoid embarrassment for committing an act of mistaken identity, and her raging quest for revenge against Thomas, for whatever reasons.
Brock’s take-down of Anita Hill was the prototype for all right-wing responses to all accusations of sexual misconduct against any Republican.
But, Brock’s mold wasn’t exclusive to just the right. When Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathleen Wiley came forward to accuse Bill Clinton of everything from indecent exposure to rape, the left sprang into action and accused the women of being white trash.
We could go on, but the point here isn’t to relitigate every accusation ever made, it’s to offer some context to what we’ve been witnessing about the treatment of women who come forward to accuse powerful men of sexual misconduct.
When Anita Hill came forward with her accusations, her integrity was challenged by the right by them claiming that she continued to work for Clarence Thomas even after these events allegedly took place.
When Juanita Broaddrick came forward with her accusations, her integrity was challenged by the left by them claiming that she continued to support Bill Clinton politically even after the alleged rape took place.
There is a certain strategical similarity to how politicians and their supporters respond when a politician is accused of sexual misconduct, but it’s not just that. It’s also how the media, and, by extension, we, respond as well.
On the November 17 edition of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Rebecca Traister argued that the context of accusations get stripped away, and the discussion about the imbalance of power is sacrificed so the discussion can become about political strategizing and score-keeping. Rebecca argued that every time such an accusation is made, the argument immediately becomes, “Should he resign?” and at that point, each team rushes to their corner to argue vehemently for or against resignation, depending on the affiliation of the person making the argument.
It’s a vulgar and cynical approach to an issue that has existed long before either the Republican party or the Democratic party came into existence, but we’ve made it political. And when we make it political, we never have to take responsibility for how any society treats women. When we politicize the issue, every accusation becomes nothing more than an attempt to damage the campaign of the accused, and the women become the bases that get trampled as everyone takes their turn trying to score a run. (I am not at all unaware of the irony of using a sports metaphor in a discussion about the marginalization of women.)
We never have to discuss why men feel so entitled to treat women as objects for our sophomoric, sexually frustrated externalizing of our misplaced Oedipal Complexes that a man like Al Franken—a man who, as a senator, has arguably made a strong effort to be as sexually egalitarian as any male senator has ever been—can jokingly grab a sleeping woman’s breasts and think he’s done absolutely nothing wrong…until someone tells him so many years later.
Another issue brought up during Bill Maher’s show was the fleeting nature of our fascination with this story. The story is a hot story right now, and the media can’t seem to talk about anything else—not the tax bill, not the Russian investigation, not the alarming increase in mass shootings, not even the sexual harassment story that was in the headlines before the latest sexual harassment story—at the moment, but this fascination will fade, and the time will come in the next couple of weeks—or until the next laser pointer news story breaks—when the media will just sort of shrug its shoulders and give up on the story.
We must continue to keep this story front and center. We must continue to talk about these issues even after the media decides it’s no longer “sexy.” But, while the media has it’s focus on sexual assault, we must be aware of the “Whataboutism” and the superficial “should he or shouldn’t he resign?” bullshit that permeates every media discussion on the issue. We must continue to make the discussion about the centuries’ long culture that treats women as little more than vessels for male genitalia whenever the notion to stick it somewhere strikes them.
This isn’t about who is worse, Harvey Weinstein, donald trump, Roy Moore, or Al Franken (it’s donald trump, just for the record); it’s about why each of those men didn’t for a moment feel that their behavior was remotely inappropriate, and it’s about why not a single one of the women they targeted felt remotely safe in coming forward immediately. It’s about power. It’s always about power. And it’s about time men lost their monopoly on it.