Since the series of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein broke the news, a plethora of other allegations have followed, and now it seems as if almost every breaking notification on our cellphones is another harrowing account of sexual misconduct. A proverbial “purge” of sexually abusive power players in Hollywood, newsrooms and Capitol Hill appears to be underway, and while it is welcomed, long overdue and hopefully cathartic for the alleged victims, it’s particularly overwhelming.
The pervasiveness of sexual misconduct and abuse of power is something that can no longer be ignoredm and it’s rightfully spurring national discussion. A time like this calls for the insightful input of thoughtful, empathetic and measured thinkers to help steer the conversation in a constructive direction. Enter Lena Dunham: the antithesis of all of the above.
Armed with an almost superhuman knack for saying all the wrong things at the worst possible times, and an obscenely misguided impression that the general public both desires and urgently needs her input, Dunham and her co-showrunner, Jenni Konner, decided to throw their hats in the ring by releasing a statement in support of longtime friend and Girls producer Murray Miller, who had been accused of raping actress Aurora Perrineau when she was 17:
During the windfall of deeply necessary accusations over the last few months in Hollywood, we have been thrilled to see so many women’s voices heard and dark experiences in this industry justified. It’s a hugely important time of change and, like every feminist in Hollywood and beyond, we celebrate. But during every time of change there are also incidences of the culture, in its enthusiasm and zeal, taking down the wrong targets. We believe, having worked closely with him for more than half a decade, that this is the case with Murray Miller. While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year. It is a true shame to add to that number, as outside of Hollywood women still struggle to be believed. We stand by Murray and this is all we’ll be saying about this issue.
The statement—unsolicited, smacking of condescension, childish, impulsive, lacking in grace and self-awareness—was quintessential Dunham. And in typical Dunham fashion, after receiving a barrage of backlash, about 24 hours later she quickly issued a public apology, chalking up her “misstep” to the well-intentioned naivete of a 31-year-old woman.
While the pushback she received was more than warranted and Dunham, per usual, serves as a perfect example of what not to do and say, it’s important to acknowledge that her and Konner’s reactions are not rare. Soon after Minnesota Sen. Al Franken came under fire for allegations of sexual misconduct, 36 women who worked on Saturday Night Live came out to defend Franken in a signed letter of solidarity for the show’s onetime cast member and current Democratic politician.
Saying they felt compelled to “stand up for Franken,” their letter stated in part: “We would like to acknowledge that not one of us ever experienced any inappropriate behavior; and mention our sincere appreciation that he treated us with the utmost respect and regard.”
Similarly, actress Brigitte Nielsen, ex-wife of Sylvester Stallone, went on record to defend him against the accusation that he raped a then-16-year-old girl in 1986 on the set of the movie Over the Top. Speaking to TMZ, Nielsen claimed that the incident could not have occurred because she and Stallone were “inseparable” at the time and no one was in their hotel suite but them.
One of the more complicated facets of acknowledging the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and the overwhelming multitude of victims is coming to terms with the pervasiveness of sexual abusers and our likely social proximity to them. Current events no longer allow us to pretend that these men are fringe cretins who linger on the outskirts of society. They are our husbands, fathers, friends, co-workers, brothers, cousins, boyfriends, exes, uncles, esteemed mentors and companions.
If statistics are to be believed and every 98 seconds someone in the U.S. is being sexually assaulted, it stands to reason that this is a country rife with both victims and perpetrators alike. It’s time to start grappling with the fact that some of the men in our lives—yes, even the ones who are kind to us, the progressive allies, the ones we hold dear—could be among them.
Understandably, a lot of us want to believe the men we hold in high esteem are “good” men. However “goodness” is a useless, flimsy metric for human character. Since the dawn of time, “good” people have always been capable of doing horrendous things at least once.
Furthermore, in an age when conversations about consent and sexual autonomy are more openly discussed and debated on social media platforms, many adult men are conceding to “growth” in understanding what can qualify as abuse or misconduct. It’s fair to ask the question: What of the women they encountered before this era of social-media-driven progressiveness? “Growth” does not happen in a vacuum, and it’s time to admit that there is a high likelihood of victims left in the wake of their ascent to “enlightenment.”
Even staunchly feminist women struggle with clinging to the useless ideal of goodness and have felt compelled to put their reputations and necks on the line to defend accused men who are prominent and important to their social circles. In 1998, Gloria Steinem (longtime friend and supporter of the Clintons) wrote “Feminists and the Clinton Question,” in which she cast doubt on the validity of several of Bill Clinton’s sexual assault/harassment accusers, asserting that even if all the various allegations were true, Bill Clinton was simply “a candidate for sex addiction therapy.”
While it’s easy to look at these women’s actions, which seem to conflict with their publicly embraced social and political ideologies, and shake our heads in disgust (and, please, shake those heads—it’s disgusting), the larger question we probably need to confront is, “How would I react when/if it’s my turn?”
Will we be compelled to rush to the front lines to offer our own personal anecdotes of exemplary behavior to combat sexual abuse allegations? When it’s not just the creeps out there but the men in our own world, will we choose silence? Or will we vocally support the alleged victims, as is the case with the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, who publicly stood with the nine women accusing his father, famed playwright Israel Horovitz, of sexual misconduct, with one of them alleging rape?
These are hard but important questions we must pose to ourselves during this serial outing of sexual predators. It’s not enough to simply condemn abusers; we are also now called to push this conversation forward by examining our own behaviors that may inadvertently enable or protect them and to check our compulsion to believe anyone absolutely incapable of sexual misconduct simply because of how wonderful a person they are when they’re in our company.
So feel free to grimace at the Dunhams and the Roy Moore defenders of the world because yes, they are a cringeworthy sight to behold. You may even consider yourself an ally to victims or be a survivor yourself; you might even parrot platitudes like “Believe women.” But also be sure to look inward and ask yourself if you’d apply that mantra to women whose accusations reach the men of your own threshold. You’d be surprised what “good” and well-meaning people are capable of when believing women becomes personally inconvenient.