‘I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different’ Harvey Weinstein told the New York Times after news of his chronic sexual harassment broke. ‘That was the culture then.’ Actually, no it wasn’t. The mores haven’t changed much. Your power did.
I once worked in an environment where this sort of thing was rife – a university, where most of the students were women and most of the teachers, men. The students were in the full flower of youth and the teachers, well, were not. But they had something more potent. The authority and aura that go with scholarship sometimes suffice to bring young students tumbling into a lecturer’s lap; but for those who lack charisma or charm, there is plain power. They determined grades, they assigned scholarships, they controlled promotions. And enough of them were ready to use that power to impose themselves on reluctant young women that it became what Weinstein called ‘the culture.’
I recall one day, working in my office, when I heard a rapid knock at the door. It swung open, one of my female students stepped inside and closed the door behind her. At once, she began complaining about ‘that greasy old man’ who had just tried to press himself on her, when who should open my door but the man in question.
One of my superiors, he had come to discuss a routine academic matter when, upon seeing the young woman, he stopped. He smiled at her, turned to look at me, and with eyes that communicated his displeasure, said we’d talk some other time.
Nothing further was said or done about the matter. After he left, I suggested to my student that if she wanted to make a complaint, I would back her up. She said it wasn’t worth the trouble. Besides, she’d suffered worse at the hands of others of my colleagues, one of whom once cornered her in his office after closing the door, then pressing up against her and telling her ‘I want you and you know you want me.’ Trying to inject a bit of levity, she winked at me and added it was ironic that the one lecturer she and her classmates wanted to make passes at them was the one who wouldn’t do it.
In fact, I was not alone. Many of my colleagues did not partake of this culture. But they generally kept their heads down, because nothing could be gained from publicly opposing the old boys’ network. Once, after I had called out a colleague on an unrelated matter, a senior member of staff pulled me aside and said ‘you realize your career here is now over.’ He proved prescient. I never got another promotion, research grant or sabbatical. As another female student told me one day in a tutorial, ‘you know they hate you; it’s because the girls like you.’
Some women played the game, and if they got ahead, often became part of the structure which maintained this power imbalance. ‘Lighten up,’ they’d counsel young women who did complain, ‘it’s just boys being boys.’ One of my students even reported being raped, and was brought up on the floor by a senior woman in administration for tarnishing the institution’s reputation by complaining publicly about it. ‘We could have sorted this out ourselves’ she admonished the young woman, who ended up leaving the university.
But here’s the thing. I never recall anyone actually justifying this behavior. When the topic of sexual harassment arose in faculty meetings, everyone said the right things about how inexcusable it was. Those who harassed students always made sure to do so in situations where they were alone with them, so that any complaint would turn into a he-said-she-said testimonial before a sympathetic jury. And on the rare occasions when a man was openly challenged about his behavior, invariably, he denied it in the most strident and righteous terms, not infrequently marrying it to a profound declaration of devotion to his long-suffering wife.
Which is to say, all the perpetrators understood they were doing something wrong. They did it only because they could. Things gradually began to change only when the institution got its first female principal. The culture of harassment didn’t stop. But men knew they had to be even more discreet once they feared women might get a hearing at the top.
Sorry, Harvey. The culture didn’t change. Instead, women mustered the power and courage to speak out. Over the last few years, we have begun to see men who once thought themselves untouchable getting dragged into the court of public opinion, and even hauled before the courts. We’re probably just seeing the start of this, because as I can attest, Hollywood isn’t the only place where this has been endemic.
If the day comes that some faculty meetings grow uncomfortable, I, recalling the young woman who came to my office that day, shaken and distraught, won’t shed too many tears for the men who find their world suddenly upended.
My new book, Twilight of the Money Gods, got its UK release this summer: ‘Imagine one day you went to a cash-machine and found your money was gone. You rushed to your branch, where a teller said that overnight people had stopped believing in money, and it all vanished. Seem incredible? It happened, and it could happen again.’