Saturday, January 20, 2018

Sexual Harassment...Let's Talk About It

20 years since America's shock over Clinton-Lewinsky affair, public discussions on sexual harassment are changing

Juliet Williams, University of California, Los Angeles

Twenty years ago, major news outlets reported allegations that then-President Bill Clinton had a sexual relationship with a 22-year-old White House intern.

Looking back, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair heralded a sea change in political discourse by normalizing public discussion of sex acts. Today, it is hard to believe that esteemed presidents, from Thomas Jefferson to John F. Kennedy, were sheltered from public judgment by a code of decorum that conveniently regarded the subject of sex as beneath the dignity of political discussion. That all changed in the Clinton days when terms like “oral sex” and “semen stain” were catapulted from the domain of hushed whispers to front-page news.

Fast forward to today, and once again the man sitting in the Oval Office is dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct. As a scholar who has examined public reaction to political sex scandals since the Clinton days, this is hardly where I expected we’d find ourselves in 2018. Twenty years ago, it seemed plausible that difficult conversations spurred by revelation of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair – about issues ranging from sexual harassment to the nature of sexual consent – would lead to lasting changes in the way women and men conducted themselves in the workplace, and well beyond.

But how far have we really come?

Sexual harassment remains prevalent

The election to the presidency of a man who boasts of “pussy-grabbing” is an indication that we still have a long way to go.

Today, sexual harassment remains commonplace, despite legal protections and the introduction of anti-harassment training in many workplaces. Surveys report that between 25 percent to 85 percent of women say they have been sexually harassed at work. Even the most conservative of these findings indicate a widespread problem. For women in certain employment sectors – including male-dominated industries like construction or service jobs where workers rely on tips to earn a living wage – rates of sexual harassment and sexual assault are likely to be far higher.

The persistence of workplace sexual harassment is a powerful reminder that gender-based subordination pervades modern life. But that doesn’t mean nothing has changed since the Clinton era. Looking back, three differences between now and then deserve our attention.

Signs of progress

First, no longer are the only men held to public account for sexual misconduct those who represent us in the most literal sense – elected officials. Today, prominent figures in entertainment, corporate America, sports and academia are facing public scrutiny for their actions. Already this has led to serious professional consequences for some and may even result in criminal prosecution for others.

Stars wore black at the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards in solidarity. Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

There is, however, a risk that the scope of the problem will be minimized by the media’s focus on high-profile perpetrators and the mostly privileged, mostly white women who have drawn attention as victims. The notion that men made powerful by fame or wealth can abuse their power is easy to understand. But a person doesn’t have to be rich or famous to have power over another. The fact is that anywhere there are gender relations, there are power relations.

Second, as more accusations come to light, we are witnessing a shift in the terms of sexual discourse. In the past, the media has fallen into a Victorian-era vernacular when reporting on sexual allegations involving prominent men. Think about it: When is the last time you heard a modern-day journalist use a term like “adultery” or “chambermaid” outside of covering a sex scandal?

Now, the media faces sharp criticism for using the noncommittal term “sexual misconduct” when discussing legally actionable crimes, including rape. The shift to more explicit language is important because it helps counter the idea that there is something inherently shameful about naming sexual abuse for what it is.

Finally, sex today is being discussed in terms that are not just personal, but political. In the Clinton era, women like Gennifer Flowers, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky paid a steep price in terms of their own privacy when allegations of presidential sexual misconduct arose. At the time, it often seemed as if these women were the main story.

In contrast, today’s scandalous revelations are quickly leading to conversations about questions of gender equality that implicate all of us. Meanwhile, social media campaigns like #MeToo are drawing attention to the failure of the traditional media to make space for victims to speak in their own voices and on their own terms.

The ConversationTwenty years ago, millions around the world learned of a sexual affair between a president and a young intern. Two decades and countless sex scandals later, stories of sex and power are still roiling the public. This time, however, they are also galvanizing a broad-based movement with concrete demands for change. It’s been a long time coming, and I hope there is no turning back.

Juliet Williams, Professor of Gender Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Man of his Word?



Turns out the only campaign promises Trump plans to keep are the ones that attack women's rights. What did we expect? Here's a guy who has spent his whole life boasting about screwing women.  Looks like he finally has his chance to do it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Angry White Men...and Women


Those angry white women who came out in droves for Trump were there all along, but most of us didn’t see them.  Their stories and struggles were overshadowed by a drama where it simply was assumed that the part of the Angry White Voter—like most leading roles—would be played by a man.  And what happened is a stinging reminder that sexism isn’t just Trump’s problem: it’s all of our problem.

It's now clear that many women were not sufficiently moved by the idea of electing a woman president to cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.  For these women—who span the political spectrum—other issues took priority.  I suspect that for many of them, the things they consider to be really important aren't perceived as women’s issues at all.  That’s a mistake.  To take but one example, in a country where three-quarters of people earning minimum wage are women, why were coal miners and steel workers presented as the archetypal disillusioned worker?  The point we needed to make—but didn't—when talking about the stakes of electing a woman to the White House is that women's issues matter to all of us, not just those who happen to identify as feminists.

Of course, given that this election pitted the first woman major party nominee against a candidate who takes evident pride in being a male chauvinist, it’s not as if gender talk was completely absent.  And yet, the big headline turned out to be a gender bombshell that few saw coming: the pivotal role that white women generally—and non-college educated white women in particular—played in muscling Trump over the finish line.

In retrospect, it was a stunning oversight—and ironically, one that reveals a deep disregard for women as members of our polity, even among those who claim to know better.  From the earliest stages of the campaign, as the pundits fumbled to explain the unexpected rise of candidate Trump, the dominant narrative emerged: that this would be an election pitting angry white men—guys aggrieved that a comfortable perch in the middle-class no longer can be counted on as their birthright—against the rest of us (who presumably aren't as aggrieved because this privilege was never ours to take for granted in the first place).  This story made sense, except that it failed to account for the formidable political power of all the mothers and wives and daughters living alongside those angry white men.

Could it be that even those of us who think of ourselves as “getting it” when it comes to gender still fell into that age old habit of paying attention to the man in the room while treating the women around him as if they simply don’t exist?  The reality is that Trump got elected because of voters who are angry and white.  And just because some of those angry white people also happen to be women doesn't mean they should have been written off or taken for granted—or that their votes wouldn't count just as much as their male counterparts' surely did.

Of course, this election was determined, as virtually all elections in this country are, not just by those who did vote, but also by those who didn't.  And the reality is that Clinton wasn't able to get enough people to the polls, particularly in those Rust Belt states where the Democratic base had been so energized by Bernie Sanders just months before.

The question we have to face now isn't why so many Democrats preferred the idea of a Sanders presidency to a Clinton presidency: that's an easy one. The hard question is why so many people couldn't bring themselves to vote for Clinton once it was determined that she would be the nominee. This is the question I find myself coming back to again and again as I think about all those Bible Belt conservative women who must have been gritting their teeth so hard their gums bled as they cast their votes for Trump.  But cast their votes they did.

I'd like to think the takeaway message here is that disgruntled Democrats are by-and-large a more principled bunch than their Republican counterparts.  And maybe that's true.  But I can't help wonder why it is that the idea of supporting Hillary Clinton struck so many voters as somehow beneath them—as if supporting her candidacy would constitute a singular abdication of moral standards, rather than registering as just another instance of the perennial electoral tug-of-war between principle and pragmatism.  Did people hold Hillary Clinton to a higher standard, judge her more harshly, or just experience a widely-acknowledged visceral dislike of her because she's a woman?  We'll never know for sure, but I'd like to think this election will be a chance for each and every one of us to think long and hard about why gender remains such a problem in this country, and what exactly it would take to convince us that now is finally the time to do something about it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The New Politics of Nudity

I had the chance to chat yesterday with a reporter from USA Today about Trump, Kardashian, and the new politics of nudity.  Check out the story here.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Slut-Shaming 2.0: Monica Lewinsky is a Media Whore!

See my comments on Al Jazeera America regarding the hubbub surrounding Monica Lewinsky's return to the public spotlight.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Miley Cyrus Mans Up


Miley Cyrus has been roundly trashed for her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night.  The Los Angeles Times reports that the media reaction to her hard-core act “veered between disgust and sadness.”  Predictably, conservative commentators condemned Cyrus for her decidedly un-family friendly act.  Even Brooke Shields, guest hosting on the Today show, called the performance “a bit desperate”—tough talk from someone who paved the way for tweeny-bopper sex symbols everywhere as a 14-year-old Calvin Klein model.

Just what was so shocking about Cyrus’ performance anyway?  Sure, she was barely wearing any clothes, but that hardly distinguished her from the crowd (although I’m sure the clam-clad mer-babe Lady Gaga was pretty annoyed being upstaged by a Disney girl).  And the twerking?  That’s hardly the stuff of outrage these days.  But couple those gyrations with a giant foam finger-phallus, and things definitely started to feel weird. 

So was it Cyrus’ show of unbridled female sexuality that caused the problem? That’s the view of feminist commentators who have risen to defend her against a tidal wave of finger-waving slut-shamers. But I’m not so sure.  As much as I believe in defending the right of women to strut their stuff, I’m not convinced that’s what Cyrus’ performance really was about. 

If you ask me, the act wasn’t a declaration of female sexual agency; it was an indictment of male sexual entitlement.  That night, Cyrus let loose a searing parody of dominant masculinity so cocky it made Robyn Thicke’s feel-good porn schtick look downright prim.  In contrast, Cyrus offered a plucky challenge to the status quo assumption that men get to play the role of sexual agents and women accept their role as sexual objects.

Talk about a blurred line.

None of this is to say that Cyrus’ performance is beyond rebuke.  Several commentators have expressed well-founded criticism of the disrespectful deployment of black women’s bodies as mere props in Cyrus’ circus act.   In particular, the now infamous “ass slap” struck many as an unapologetic exploitation of racist stereotypes.  But if Cyrus’ performance that evening is taken as a sendup of dominant masculinity, the positioning of black women in the act reads somewhat differently.  As a male impersonator, Cyrus was enacting—but hardly endorsing—the everyday intertwining of sexism and racism. And that should make us uncomfortable.  But let’s not be content with criticizing the messenger, lest we lose sight of the message. 

Cyrus came to the Video Music Awards and broke the cardinal rule of music videos: sexual exploitation should be sexy.  Instead, she made it icky.  Well, good for her.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Petraeus' Secret Weapon: The Apology

See this recent BBC News report in which I argue that Petraeus delivered a lethal strike to his detractors by issuing his "preemptive apology":
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20318194