Monday 22 July 2019

Power and harassment can be traced right back to behaviour in childhood

The current wave of sex scandals has its roots in the way men and women see each other, writes Donal Lynch

Spidey sense: Actress Lea Seydoux wrote about sexual harassment and abusive comments from Harvey Weinstein. She agreed to meet him, even though she’d worked out what he was like
Spidey sense: Actress Lea Seydoux wrote about sexual harassment and abusive comments from Harvey Weinstein. She agreed to meet him, even though she’d worked out what he was like
Harvey Weinstien
Jessie Jackson
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It was late Thursday night when a friend texted to say that Louis CK was the latest man caught in a sex scandal. "He was genuinely funny. Soon there won't be anything left on Netflix," she grumbled, and it was hard to disagree, but, to be fair, the scandals have been at least as riveting as anything in the cinema at the moment. Anyway who needs Hollywood when we've had our homegrown orgies of outrage to keep us going during any lull in international proceedings.

There is an exhilarating feeling of catharsis about it all; that this was coming for a while, that many of the figures involved had their comeuppance long overdue.

Each new story seemed to represent a toady class of windbag brought low by social media renegades. It was hard not to be squeamish about some of it - on Twitter the debate is shaped with all the calm respect of a public stoning - but it's been described as a revolution and all revolutions begin in exaggeration.

We have seen rape, sexual assault, bullying and mere social unpleasantness all lumped together in the same pile. There is both shock at the pervasiveness of the problem and deep denial that there could be anything psychologically wrong with the celebrities involved beyond being randy perverts or bullies. And in the news and opinion pages we have seen a newly visible type of society described, one made up of perpetrators (men) and victims (mostly women).

It's still possible perhaps, that this sickness runs to all levels of society but it has so far appeared most conspicuously in politics and the entertainment world.

The only theme common to most of them has been the huge success of the man involved, the very high social standing, and the element of unwanted touching or sexual talk. Power and sexual harassment seem to go together very often - maybe it's time to ask why this is.

The sociologist Warren Farrell says that this kind of sexually aggressive behaviour has its roots in childhood. The way society is set up, he suggests, socialises boys to be 'mini-rapists' and girls to be 'mini-masochists'.

This sounds like fanciful, extreme language but he means we basically think that men should initiate relationships and women should be won. He does interviews with teenage boys, who talk of the pressure to impress and the paralysing fear of rejection, and girls who deal with the efforts to gain attention without appearing obvious.

The effect, Farrell says, is that young men protect themselves from the pain of rejection by turning women into sex objects. Women in turn objectify men along completely different lines, usually to do with success and status.

The result is often a situation where a powerful man accumulates a reputation as a sleaze but still seems to have a steady supply of young women in his orbit - a common theme to many of the stories we have heard over the past few weeks.

The actress Lea Seydoux, one of Harvey Weinstein's earliest accusers, wrote a piece for The Guardian on the lead-up to the sexual harassment and abusive comments he subjected her to.

"When I first met Harvey Weinstein, it didn't take me long to figure him out," she wrote. "We were at a fashion show. He was charming, funny, smart - but very domineering. He wanted to meet me for drinks and insisted we had to make an appointment that very night. This was never going to be about work. He had other intentions - I could see that very clearly."

Despite this insight, later she meets him in the lobby of a hotel where she notes he has a "lecherous" look. Then: "He invited me to come to his hotel room for a drink. We went up together. It was hard to say no because he's so powerful."

Should a woman have to choose between her ambition and her spidey sense? No, but perhaps a little realism is required, too.

When Grace Dyas spoke to Claire Byrne last week, she touched on this theme, describing her early friendship with former Gate Theatre head, Michael Colgan, how charming she found him, and the things she turned a blind eye to.

She wrote that she "accepted his objectification. I put up with it even though I knew better… I liked him. I forgave him for it".

Would she have accepted or minimised this kind of talk and behaviour from a man who had no power or influence? She says that she viewed Colgan as a potential career opportunity - "I wanted a gig" - and ambition and friendship were blurred as she "drank with him late into the night in members' clubs and fancy bars".

It was brave and transparent of Dyas to give this context and also hugely revealing. Perhaps, when the cull of sexist old men is over, part of our transition to a new and healthier relationship between the sexes will be helping young women to have the self possession not to feel compelled to be dazzled by power or status and to realise that seeing a man mainly in those terms is itself a type of objectification. Being famous or successful doesn't excuse anything.

Even more importantly, young men will also have to learn that someone who has to be overcome is not worth having.

Everything from the movies (no surprise there) to the bestselling male-targeted dating manual of our time - The Game - hammers home the message that women have to be pursued, cajoled and won.

Whether we like it or not, it's a short hop from that way of thinking to grabbing or groping, especially when you add in the opportunities that power brings.

Millions are spent on campaigns about consent, but perhaps what's needed is a really pop culture alternative to these pervasive messages of what men and women expect of each other.

In their song Second Generation Woman, the band The Family sang to men about a better way to do things:

Last thing you gotta do is talk her into loving you

No need to

She knows when the time is right

Comes to you without a fight

She wants to

She wants to

As each new male star is engulfed by scandal - civil rights hero Jesse Jackson is the very latest - films and TV series are removed, edited and cancelled and for the moment it is satisfying. Perhaps a little bit further down the line we might see that the answers to this sea change are in the beliefs we all carry.

Seeing each other as humans, rather than mere sex objects or success stories -that will be the real revolution that follows the #MeToo outrage.

Sunday Independent

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