When I came to these shores 55 years ago, I was struck by the comfortable and amicable relationship between men and women in the work place. The men and women worked, laughed, teased, and got along well. I naively assumed the Western society has eliminated the evils of sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. Of course I was comparing America with the society I had come from where young girls were taught at an early age to avoid talking to men because they have only sex on their minds.
So the recent avalanche of revelations about mighty and powerful men forcing themselves on women was an eye opener. The tsunami of revelations has swept away some powerful men such as Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Al Franklin, Charlie Rose, and many others. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of forcing women into nonconsensual sex by powerful men permeates every segment and every layer of our society. Even President Trump is heard saying vulgar things about women on the Access Hollywood tape: “Grab’em by the pu--y. You can do anything.”
Has the society failed in its premise to protect all citizens from exploitation? While the simple answer is “yes,” the larger story is much wider and touches on the status of women in the society, biology, sexual permissiveness, and the failure of the society to define boundaries between sexes.
The #MeToo phenomenon has taken the country by storm. Every day we hear about yet another male monster who has taken advantage of vulnerable women. Sometimes these allegation come in real time, while others are revealed after a significant lapse in time. In some cases, a man may not be in the wrong and a woman may not be telling the whole truth. In this climate of distrust and paranoia, if we take every allegation at face value, then we face a bigger problem. When allegations of criminal acts like sexual coercion or rape are decided in the court of public opinion, it does not do justice to either sex.
We have come a long way from the old male cliché that if a woman says “no,” she means “maybe.” And if she says “maybe,” she means “yes.” “No” is no and “yes” is yes and there should be no ambiguity between them.
It has been said that most women in their lifetime would have experienced sexual harassment. In a recent interview, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court, recounted how her professor at Cornell University handed her a test examination in chemistry that was, in fact, the same exam that she took the next day. According to her, “I knew exactly what he wanted in return.” That was, according to her, just one of many examples.
Has the pendulum swung from one extreme to the other? Perhaps.
Let us take the recent case where a young woman accused comedian Aziz Ansari of forcing himself on her. It was reported that she was a willing participant, on some level, to the sexual activity. She had second thoughts the following day, however, and later went public. While the story has many holes, it has the power of destroying a career.
A society has the moral and legal obligation to protect its citizens from sexual exploitation by crafting appropriate laws. But we have the laws and as the recent events show the laws are useless unless the victim is willing to blow the whistle. And still, as we have seen in the cases of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, the whistle blowers were the ones who got side tracked.
Would teaching boys from an early age to respect the other sex have an effect? Perhaps not. Rare is the mother who does not teach her children to respect the opposite sex. Can the work environment be made safer? Most businesses and institutions have zero tolerance for sexual exploitation. But what happens after hours is beyond their control.
There is really no effective way to stop the Weinsteins of this world except for the women to strongly declare “no” and walk away, and, thus, put their careers on the line. And that is not an easy thing to do.
If the current revelations of sexual exploitation and the fall of some powerful men would give pause to some would-be perpetrators and prevent sexual assault, we should consider that a success.
S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo. His column appears every other week in The Blade. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.