How to isolate the perpetrators of harassment: shame and credibility
Sexual harassment in Hollywood, in Westminster, in the American Senate, in several European political parties… Women come forward in waves to declare that they too have suffered harassment in the last twenty or twenty-five years, and some people are scandalized, not by the predatory practices of characters like film producer Harvey Weinstein, but by the attitude of their victims. The Spanish writer and singer Mario Vaquerizo has broken his own silence on social media. Sick of the ‘politically correct’, he has decided to resort to the politically abject. ‘Harassment is very bad, but it’s also bad to consent to harassment’, he writes. He shares out the blame equally, and gives this advice to victims: ‘Don’t come out with this twenty-five years after it happened’. In other words: shut up.
Amid the death rattles of the cultural hegemony of the white male, it is very useful when some say things that many others are thinking. The denunciations of harassment on a massive scale, and references to incidents spread over time, should lead any mind not overly contaminated by machismo to the conclusion that what we have here is a structural question, established at the heart of professional life. If there had been just one or two cases, we could have attributed them to the character of the perpetrators, but this long list of accusations obliges us to study underlying structures of power, structures that are not immediately apparent. To study: this is too much. It’s better just to label those who have suffered these practices as ‘stupid girls’.
The truth is precisely the opposite. For decades the costs of any complaint about a perpetrator of harassment fell upon the victim: the well-known idea that ‘she must have done something’. For centuries acting, for women, has been considered a profession for whores, as the League of Professional Women of the Theatre in Spain complained very accurately in a recent statement. To complain publicly of having been the victim of harassment meant not only losing professional opportunities, but also being portrayed as the person responsible wholly or in part for the offence: suspected of having provoked it (‘if you hadn’t been dressed like that…’), of ignoring the loose and easy-going ways of the entertainment business (‘if you hadn’t chosen this profession…’) or deserving to be ashamed for having consented to it (‘did you tell him to stop…?’). In the worst cases, such as that of Weinstein, victims have also been threatened and followed. Now, these women’s words are pouring out, because the consequences of their denunciations are finally falling upon the authors of the crimes. At last. It has taken a lot for us to reach this point, but the largest association of producers in Hollywood has now banned Weinstein in perpetuity. Twenty years ago this would not have happened.
This is an enormous advance. Sexual harassment, despite its name, is not a matter of sex, but of power. It has nothing to do with the work of prostitutes. Major Zaida Cantera was the victim of sexual harassment within the Spanish armed forces. She faced the consequences of making a complaint alone; she suffered further harassment at work for doing so, and eventually had to leave the army, her vocation and her means of making a living. She was brave, and faced up to the one battle for which she had not been prepared. However, we should not have to ask women to come out of the metro each morning like heroines ready to confront a monstrous boss. We need to break up the complex mesh that tolerates, minimizes, facilitates or forgives sexual harassment, and which is woven together in work places and in society.
Two factors make sexual harassment especially odious as a form of abuse of power: silence and impunity. There have been emotive declarations of ‘mea culpa’ from figures such as Quentin Tarantino, with the admission that ‘I knew enough to do more than I did’. Weinstein’s victims were frequently called to meet him in a hotel at night, but his behaviour was also visible in the studios during the day. The perpetrator of sexual harassment who imposes silence does not generally repress himself in the sight of others, encouraged as he is by his impunity. Over and beyond the question of legality, social tolerance of harassment is based upon subtle mechanisms: the extra credibility enjoyed by men, a conception of relations between men and women in terms of domination, and atavistic associations of sex with a hunt (as in the case of the five young men who gang-raped a woman during the San Fermín festival in Pamplona, who called themselves la manada, ‘the pack’).
This tolerance develops out of a mechanism of power that was well explained by Machiavelli: princes can permit themselves certain forms of behaviour that, even though they may appear immoral, will gain them ‘security and well-being’. This represents a two-sided privilege: one gains access to an asset in short supply (women), and is not judged morally for doing so. Through their behaviour the perpetrators of harassment obtain not only the sexual experience in itself, but also an enormous degree of symbolic capital: the confirmation of their power, the validation of their masculinity represented, for a man, by having many women at their disposal, and an increase in their prestige among other men. Changing these cultural incentives is a slow process, but they have already begun to come apart. It is of urgent importance to replace complicity – and even admiration – with mechanisms that will make the perpetrator ashamed. Human nature being as gregarious as it is, shame has always been an effective means of repression. Now it has to change sides.
I do not wish to suggest, even by insinuation, that all men with power commit harassment, but rather that, as has been demonstrated throughout history, unrestricted power tends to generate abuses. The secret lies, therefore, in restricting this power, through the criminal law, employment law and social measures; from a legal point of view, by making it easier for victims to make complaints, rapidly and discreetly. Companies, for their part, should avoid any practices that could prejudice the career of a woman who makes an internal complaint in any way. They would similarly do well to include harassment and the freedom of women in their assessments of well-being at work. Quantifying the loss of talent caused for companies by a working environment that is hostile to women would also be very useful as a means of gauging the financial costs that perpetrators of harassment load upon the annual reports of their businesses.
As a society, lastly, we have to be ready to give women credibility, instead of making them suspects. In a bar in Tijuana, in one of the regions of the world most hostile to women, women are advised to look for a waiter and ask for the Medio mundo (‘Half the world’) cocktail if they feel they are being harassed. It’s a discreet way of sounding the alarm, and lets women know that they are not going to be judged. The name seems especially beautiful to me, because the one half of humanity cannot feel unprotected if the other half is prepared to believe them.