A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology
by Max S. Gordon
“The sins of the fathers. They just fucked it all up. We had the best family. We had it all. We had it all in our hands. He just pulled us through the wringer. Narcissistic….He took it from his father, who took it from his father, who took it from his father. Let’s break this curse. So it won’t fall on our daughter, and her daughter, and her daughter. Won’t let this sink into her DNA.”
— Björk — “Sue Me” from Utopia
“You’re daring. You’re different in the woods. More sure. More sharing. You’re getting us through the woods.
It takes one to begin, but then once you’ve begun, it takes two of you. It’s no fun, but what needs to be done, you can do, when there’s two of you.
If I dare, it’s because I’m becoming aware of us, as a pair of us, each accepting a share, of what’s there. We’ve changed. We’re strangers. I’m meeting you in the woods.
Who minds? What dangers? I know we’ll get past the woods. And once we’re past. Let’s hope the changes last.”
— Stephen Sondheim, “It Takes Two”, from the musical Into The Woods
(This essay contains descriptions of rape and sexual assault.)
In 2014, I wrote an essay entitled, “Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence.” At the end of that year, Bill Cosby was in the news daily after several women claimed that they had been raped by the comedian. In order to incapacitate them, they alleged, he had drugged them prior to the assault. What I found incredible at the time, and what inspired the essay, was that as more and more women came forward, I kept meeting people who continued to insist that the allegations against Cosby could not be true. In fact, several of the men and women I spoke with refused outright even to consider the possibility of his guilt.
The accusations against Cosby were news, but they were not new. Some of Cosby’s accusers had been speaking out for decades, trying to engage those in the media and law enforcement who would listen. A settlement had been reached between Cosby and at least one of the women. A deposition had been taken as part of a civil suit. For years, several stories about Cosby had been covered in the media, but seemed to have no staying-power. People preferred their mythology. The bitter irony was that the contemporary conversation about rape and Cosby was ignited, not because of newfound sense of justice for victims of assault, but as the result of a male comic making a joke about Cosby in his stand-up act. When a writer in the audience filmed a clip of the show and reported it online the following day, the story went viral.
As weeks and months went on, the number of women who claimed to have stories about Cosby multiplied almost exponentially, but it still didn’t put a dent in the unshakeable resolve of his most ardent supporters. And I’m not referring here to a healthy skepticism — “innocent until proven guilty” — or an unbiased desire to “wait and hear both sides” (which was impossible to do because Cosby wasn’t speaking to the media at all), but an absolute refusal to acknowledge that he could have committed the crimes. Along with this impenetrable denial, came a furious contempt towards the women who came forward.
The reactions towards Cosby’s accusers ranged from those who considered them killjoys and party-poopers — Cosby, it was reported, was planning a return to television and now the deal was off the table — to those who saw them as gold-diggers, liars, and worse. I was told that the accusers wanted “money, “fame”, “to bring a good man down”, but no one wanted to explain why anyone would bother, when victims of sex crimes are often humiliated publicly and stigmatized for the rest of their lives. Why would these women lie when to come forward so often meant being shamed by the public, a public that, in many cases, was still in love with Bill Cosby, and had joyous memories of his professional triumph, The Cosby Show? Actress Rose McGowan told a reporter one of the reasons that prevented her from coming forward about her allegations of rape against Harvey Weinstein: “I didn’t want his name next to mine in my obituary; his name doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as mine when I’m dead.” If you doubt this stigma exists, consider the obituaries one day of Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill.
Some of the responses to Cosby’s accusers went beyond distaste or indifference and extended to outright cruelty. Because some of the women claimed to have been violated during the Sixties and Seventies, they were seniors when the allegations resurfaced. Comments on social media disparaged the women’s physical appearance and their “desirability”, as if that had anything to do with the veracity of their claims. Even when it seemed clear that there had been a consistent modus operandi, and that the women’s stories corroborated the others, there were still those who believed that a “campaign” had been orchestrated against Bill Cosby, and that the women knew each other, synchronized their stories, and had been paid by some nefarious entity to destroy him. When Bill Cosby entered a courtroom in early June of this year for criminal sexual assault, more than fifty women had come forward. I wanted to ask the Cosby supporters holding signs outside the courtroom, “Even if you really believe that half of the women are lying, what about the other twenty-five? Can they really all be lying? And why?”
It couldn’t be a right-wing conspiracy this time, because, to hear Cosby speak to black audiences during his “call-out” tour in the early 2000s, he sounded pretty right-wing himself. It had to be something else. After the outpouring of support for Roy Moore from Republicans, I needed to understand where this devotion towards alleged perpetrators of sexual violence came from. Why do men continue to protect other men who rape, and what does it mean when the support of alleged rapists comes from women, women who may at some time have been violated themselves?
“Bill Cosby, we haven’t forgotten you.” — Wendy Williams
After I wrote my essay that December, I personally heard from several women who alleged experiences of sexual assault by Bill Cosby. Some would later appear in the public eye and others are people you will never hear from. One woman’s family told her story for her. She is deceased and they will never come forward publicly, but it mattered to them that someone knew what had allegedly happened to her and that she be remembered.
If you watch the interviews and read the articles from that time, you will see the courageous statements the Cosby survivors made, even when the general public withheld the support for survivors we see today, and held them at arm’s length. They were expected to justify themselves. In her piece, “Bill Cosby Sexually Assaulted Me. I Didn’t Tell Because I Didn’t Want To Let Black America Down”, published in The Washington Post, Jewel Allison bravely explained why she hesitated as a black woman to speak out against him.
She wrote, “Telling my story wouldn’t only help bring down Cosby; I feared it would undermine the entire African American community. When I first heard Andrea Constand and Tamara Green publicly tell their stories about being drugged and assaulted by Cosby, I wasn’t relieved; I was terrified.” Allison was aware that, as black men deal with racism and injustice in America, her confronting Cosby wouldn’t be seen as an act of women’s liberation, but as black betrayal. And she was right. If you want to know where people really live in America, read the comments section online. While Allison had her supporters, in the discussions I followed, many men, and women, were outraged. Theirs was a vociferous tribe, to say the least, who wished the Cosby survivors, black and white, had just kept quiet, and who insisted on defending Cosby’s legacy, even when it required them to discard the truth.
A seventeen-year-old aspiring actress at the time she alleged Cosby raped her, Barbara Bowman was one of the first women to go public with her story. She wrote in The Washington Post in 2014, “In 2004, when Andrea Constand filed a lawsuit against Bill Cosby for sexual assault, her lawyers asked me to testify. Cosby had drugged and raped me, too, I told them. The lawyers said I could testify anonymously as a Jane Doe, but I ardently rejected that idea. My name is not Jane Doe. My name is Barbara Bowman, and I wanted to tell my story in court.”
Artist and activist Lili Bernard can be seen in news footage from Cosby’s trial, engaging with crowds outside the courtroom, many of whom are aggressively trying to shout her down. She attempts to have a dialogue with them, but continues to be met with derision and anger. And as one of Cosby’s most compelling accusers because of her history with both the criminal and civil charges against him, Andrea Constand’s personal story and relationships appeared everywhere in the media. It could be argued that at one point her life was under more scrutiny than Cosby’s. Former Playboy bunny and actress Victoria Valentino, interviewed by The Washington Post during the trial, recalled the testimony of one of the survivors and the emotional reaction of the women inside the courtroom. “We’re hoping to show a shift in rape culture in our society,” she said. “This is for the future.” And it is almost inconceivable now in the post-Harvey Weinstein age, that Don Lemon actually asked Joan Tarshis just three years ago why she didn’t bite Bill Cosby’s penis when she claimed he forced her to have oral sex.
When Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of The New York Times were interviewed by NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air about their investigative reporting on Harvey Weinstein, they acknowledged that many of the women who accused Donald Trump prior to the election felt the way I assume Bill Cosby’s accusers may also feel: excited by the speaking out occurring now, but disappointed that in far too many cases they faced overwhelming resistance by the public, or simply weren’t believed at all.
The difference may be Harvey. The most obvious conclusion is that famous predators often choose to victimize people they assume are isolated and without wealth or connections; they rarely go after those who have resources, money, or the ability to retaliate. Weinstein chose both. He allegedly assaulted many young actresses at the beginning of their careers, “unknowns”, but he also harassed women who came from famous families, who were rising stars themselves, or who had famous partners. It can’t be denied: the allegations against a perpetrator mean something different in our society when the victims’ names are Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino and Angelina Jolie, rather than a woman whose name we don’t recognize: a teenager who served Roy Moore at a family restaurant, or a “bunny” who worked for years at the Playboy club serving Bill Cosby. Karen Attiah, Global Opinions Editor for The Washington Post, told NPR last weekend that one of the reasons that R. Kelly is often excluded from mainstream conversations about sexual violence is because his alleged victims are all black women.
With men who are in the public eye, we must always return to the question of mythology. Unlike Bill Cosby, who was in American homes for close to a decade with The Cosby Show, who grinned his way into our hearts one delicious pudding pop at a time, the average American never had a rapport with Weinstein. We definitely have a rapport with his movies, but you don’t have to look at Weinstein when you watch Shakespeare in Love or Pulp Fiction. When he wins at the Oscars as the producer for Best Picture, you tolerate him because of a job well done and it’s his night, but you wait for him to get off the stage because 1.) he’s unattractive and 2.) you want to get back to the “real” stars.
But something is changing in the ether. Like Cosby, Kevin Spacey is a “real” star, we loved to hate him on House of Cards, and he is considered to be one of the greatest actors of his generation. But Spacey, unlike Cosby, and despite our myths about him, has faced a censure, both professional and public, that is unprecedented. It is unclear, when House of Cards goes back into production, whether he will even be allowed back on the set to finish out the arc of his character, Frank Underwood. Ridley Scott, in order to prevent his film All the Money in the World from being stigmatized and dismissed because of Spacey’s presence in the film, has famously reshot his scenes with Christopher Plummer now in the role, weeks before the film’s release date. When Anthony Rapp described his experience of allegedly being approached sexually by Kevin Spacey after a party when he was 14, the overwhelming indignation wasn’t at Rapp for coming forward or “ruining” the House of Cards franchize, but at Spacey and his now notorious un-apology which also included an ill-timed coming-out speech.
Gretchen Carlson, considered by many to be a pioneer because of her sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes of Fox News, told Jake Tapper of CNN that one of the deep frustrations about assault in the workplace is that with bosses like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer, who has also been accused, not only are the women who work for them afraid to come forward and face retaliation, many of them leave their professions altogether. There is a wasteland in America of talented women’s careers, women who, after the trauma of sexual violence by their bosses, decided, “I’m done”, or someone else decided they were done for them. Carlson goes on to explain that the recent response to Lauer,— that his accuser presented her experience of assault to network higher-ups and Lauer was fired almost on the spot — is also unprecedented, like the Spacey dismissal, and would not have happened a year and a half ago when she filed her suit against Ailes.
Weinstein, as reported by Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker, allegedly intimidated his victims to such a degree that he even hired private investigators and retired members of Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to destroy their credibility. But perhaps it is Weinstein who should be concerned. Uma Thurman, iconic star of the Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, tweeted on Thanksgiving Day to Weinstein, a producer on the film, “You don’t deserve a bullet.” She seemed, in that moment, to be channelling her character from the film, The Bride, who systematically and patiently hunts down the people who betrayed her. Unlike Cosby’s accusers, who may often have felt that they were constantly on trial in the court of public opinion, it is Weinstein, and alleged perpetrators like him, who are now being held to public account and expected to justify themselves.
Images of Rose McGowan recall Sinead O’Connor when she ripped up the picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, and Joan of Arc. The women and men who support her ferocious determination to hold Weinstein accountable for assault are now called Rose’s Army. The #MeToo movement, created by activist Tarana Burke, continues daily to remind survivors, “You are not alone.” When Harvey Weinstein came after Lupita Nyong’o in the press, the only one of the survivors to whom he chose to respond personally — he may have assumed she was more vulnerable than the others as a woman of color — Rose McGowan defended Nyong’o. She sent a message to Harvey through the media: “If you come for one of us, you come for all of us.” When I read that over the phone to a friend of mine, an incest survivor, she shouted out loud and began to applaud. Perhaps we have reached a new day.
One of the women I profiled in the earlier piece, a white female comedian whom I met at a party and who had been deeply inspired by Cosby, surprised me at the time by defending him so vigorously she actually left me speechless. I remember thinking at the time, You shouldn’t be a comedian, but a defense attorney. We sat together for a half hour on a couch in the corner, and I gave her all the reasons I believed that Bill Cosby was guilty of sexual assault.
After weeks of arguing with people, I had sharpened my material. If he was innocent, why had he agreed to settle the civil suit? Why had so many women come forward with the same story? Why hadn’t he given any interviews, why was he trying to control the press? Why this? Why that? I went on and on; and methodically, sipping her wine, and without shifting once in her seat, she shot down every single one of my arguments. I left our conversation mystified and bewildered: it was one thing to hear sexist assholes defending Cosby on talk-radio, but it was quite another when a professional, college-educated artist seemed to feel no empathy or allegiance to the female survivors, at all.
We said goodnight, and I had to acknowledge that the people who supported Cosby weren’t unthinking idiots or monsters, but were real people, black and white, male and female, straight and gay, who chose not to believe these women. While the survivors were beating back the masses and defending themselves daily in the media, Cosby’s supporters were comfortably getting on with their lives, and because of their support, so was Bill Cosby.
Several months later, Cosby was back in the news, and I ran into the same woman at a bank downtown with her wife. I had been thinking about her, but had no phone number or other way to contact her; and here she was. I was dying to hear her reaction to the news. This was several weeks after Cosby’s deposition from his civil suit had been released. In it, Cosby acknowledged that he had knowingly given Quaaludes and alcohol to women in several of his sexual encounters, yet never admitted any formal culpability and wrongdoing. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times which published excerpts from the deposition, Cosby got the now-banned sedative from his doctor — he had seven prescriptions. He admitted that he knew at the time that giving the drugs to other people was illegal, but Quaaludes were used as a party drug. This deposition was used to settle his civil suit with Andrea Constand.
When she saw me, we both smiled in recognition. I waited until she finished using the ATM and then we stood outside in the sunshine. “I’ve been thinking about you,” she said.
“I’ve been thinking about you, too.”
She looked a bit embarrassed, and we both laughed. “I guess I don’t feel exactly the same way I did when we spoke at the party, after what he said in the deposition. I’m not sure I’m prepared to say he’s guilty in every case that came forward, but it does seem like something happened that shouldn’t have. I don’t think I would defend him in quite the same way, if we had the same conversation today. I’m still trying to figure out what I think about it all, actually.”
We stood for a moment in silence. If there was any pettiness in me or desire to say “I told you so”, it was erased when I concentrated on the look on her face. She seemed almost to be in physical pain as she considered the loss of a man she deeply respected, and I realized this was deeper than just an argument with two sides, there were emotions involved here, a trust violated, and grief. At the same time, her loss of innocence was just beginning, while Cosby’s survivors had lost their innocence years ago, not to Cosby, but to a doubting, ungenerous public, which refused to give them the dignity of belief.
We discussed another comedian she admired, Whoopi Goldberg, and the way Goldberg had defended Cosby on The View, when the allegations were most charged, and then later when Beverly Johnson had come forward. Whoopi was indifferent at best, antagonistic at worst; and her attitude must have offended viewers and threatened ratings, because the producers of the show finally made the decision to have Whoopi sit alone on stage speaking with an attorney to answer her personal “questions” about the allegations, days before the deposition was released. The whole thing had a staged, contrived quality with all the subtlety of two kids who’ve been fighting forced to say “I’m sorry” in the principal’s office. Goldberg finally conceded that, yes, it did sound like something had happened. It was a bizarre affair, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who didn’t believe any of it for a second.
Before she excused herself to leave for an appointment, my friend left me with a final thought: “You know, I’ve personally changed my mind about what happened,” she said, “but I know there are people out there who will never believe any of this is true. Never. Even if this goes to trial, and he one day gets up on the stand and has a moment of conscience and decides to tells the jury, I did it, there will still be people who will assume that he is just an old man, worn down and bullied into admitting something that he didn’t do. Even if he pleads guilty, and pays all the victims restitution, they will say that he had to if he wants to get on with his life.”
Now she was examining the haunted look my face. “What I’m saying is, people don’t care whether he is innocent or not anymore, if they ever cared. They just want to preserve their hero, and that runaway train will never be stopped. At this point, not even Bill Cosby could change their minds about Bill Cosby.”
“It’s not about, ‘Oh let’s teach the women to learn how to prevent sexual assault.’ No, let’s teach our sons, our brothers, our nephews, our husbands, our uncles, our fathers, the neighbors kid, to not rape. To be respectful. And no means no.” — Victoria Valentino
Recently I spoke with one of the women who alleged she had been raped by Cosby.
We’d exchanged an e-mail or two in the past, but we had never had a converstation before. I’d seen her on television interviews and documentaries — you probably have too — and on hearing her voice, I registered what I have to remind myself over and over again when discussing Cosby and assault; these events happened to real people — your best friend, your sister, your roommate. The woman I was speaking with wasn’t reading from a script, or auditioning for a mini-series. She wasn’t a media “personality” with an agent and a publicist. People interviewed on television can seem a little unreal at times, as if their pain were just part of another performance to judge, another “reality” show; you change the channel when you are bored, you watch when you are entertained. I found it impossible to reconcile the cruel names she had been called and the ugly motives assigned to her, with the kind voice that greeted me on the other end of the line.
When I asked her about her reaction to Harvey Weinstein and all the people coming forward, she shared how excited she was. She then reminded me that the Weinsteins of the world are not the only abusers, that it is important to support all the violated women and men, not only those assaulted by famous people.
“I know there are women out there, working in restaurants, standing for hours behind the counter in stores, or cleaning people’s houses every day, who deal with the same thing I had to deal with. This doesn’t just happen with celebrities, this happens everywhere, and we need to talk about it on every level.
“I also suspect there are many other women who were harmed as I was by Bill Cosby, but who won’t come forward, and I understand that. In their cases, they may have children, a family they feel they have to protect, or they may still fear retaliation of some kind. Maybe they don’t want to be scrutinized and have their entire lives all over the paper, or walk into a restaurant and have a stranger walk up to them and call them a liar as I have. They’ve made their choice and I respect that. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that they aren’t still out there suffering somewhere.
“When you think of someone in the public eye who had access to people for several decades, it’s not inconceivable that there could be a hundred victims, or many more. And maybe not all of them were raped, as I was, but some form of assault may have occurred. Every story is different.”
I asked what it had been liked for her several years ago to be interviewed on TV, when the coverage of Cosby and sexual assault had been in the media almost every day. “It’s strange sometimes, other people’s reaction,” she replied. “One day I was walking into a mall and a man ran up to me and asked if I was that women he saw on television. When I told him I was, he was thrilled, and at one point I thought he was going to ask me for my autograph. I walked away thinking, ‘I didn’t go on television to be famous or recognized on the street. I was raped. I went on to talk about something that happened to me so a man could be brought to justice and others who were facing the same thing wouldn’t feel so alone.’
“But he wasn’t interested in that conversation: to him I was just the “Rape Lady”. He didn’t understand my reaction, but I still have to exist in the world when they turn the cameras off. Coming forward was a choice I made, but it’s hard when something like that happens.”
When I asked whether most people she met in public responded in that way, she admitted, “There is a positive side too. A woman walked up to me while I was standing in line at the airport, and she said, ‘You go and get that bastard!’ and I was truly grateful for the support. I really needed to hear that at the time. When I saw how angry she was, it helped me get closer to my own.
“I didn’t always feel angry, by the way; it’s interesting to me that anger comes up now after all these years have passed. After it happened, I’m sure there was some anger, but what I most remember feeling at the time was shame. In fact, that’s pretty much all I felt. I would ask myself: how could I be so stupid and allow this to happen to me, what had I done to be in this situation, why didn’t I know better? It seems like a cliche, but I guess it’s a cliché because it’s true: I felt humiliated and embarrassed, and like it was all my fault. That feeling lasted for years, I know for some it never goes away. After years of talking about it and healing, I’m starting to feel really angry at what he did. And I think that’s a good thing, don’t you?”
We ended our conversation with the intention to speak again one day, and I told her how much I admired her courage in coming forward. I think one of the reasons we, as a society, reacted to Harvey Weinstein as we did, and why he was shut down so quickly when the allegations surfaced against him, was because of the visibility and tenacity of Bill Cosby’s accusers. At least part of it has to do with the sheer, unprecedented power of their numbers. To my knowledge, there has never been a group of women this large to come forward publicly about sexual assault in U.S. history.
Add to that mix whatever happened psychologically to all of us after the Cosby deposition was released: for those of us who truly believed in Cosby’s innocence and defended him for months, years, even decades, we finally had to acknowledge, after we read the excerpts, said under oath and in his own words, that if he lied before about giving women drugs for sex, then there a very strong possibility that he lied about everything, and that the allegations were true. As Cosby was a father-figure to so many of us every week on his show, finding out that “Dad lied to us” may have forced us to grow up.
When Weinstein came along, a patriarchal figure of a different kind, we decided collectively, even if unconsciously, that basically we’d had enough of this shit. The women who came for Cosby, fifty and more, created a watershed moment, a point of critical mass which, along with the allegations against the President after the Access Hollywood tape, tipped the scale and brought us to this place; where more victims are taken seriously, and where there exists the possibility for real change.
Several weeks ago, I was in the hot tub at a bathhouse with a group of gay men. There were about six of us of different ages and types; one guy was young, wire-thin with Flock-of-Seagulls Eighties hair; another man, bald and wearing several silver rings and clearly the elder amongst us, made me think of legendary gay activist Larry Kramer and Act Up. Another was covered from head to toe with tattoos. The mustachioed man on my right recalled a lumberjack returning to his cabin, putting his snow-covered boots up on the table, sitting in front of a crackling fire. Once upon a time, I would have wanted a gay man like him to hold a press conference. I figured if the world discovered that men like him were gay, homophobia would end overnight. In this group of men, I was, to put it in the rather crude shorthand of difference, the only black one.
Usually the conversations in these places are limited to superficial pursuits, where to go and what to eat, diet and exercise, movies and the newest actors who are “hot”. That’s why it surprised me when we somehow landed on more serious topics like gun violence and dealing with loss. One man admitted that because of the latest gun shooting, they had installed metal detectors where he worshipped. “I have to walk through it every time I go to temple,” he said. Another man brought up the recent death of his life-partner.
Lumberjack and the older man were both widowers; the older man had been legally married to his male partner and was entitled to his social security benefits after his death. Lumberjack, who never married his partner, was not.
The older man said, “It was so important when Andrew got sick and was in the hospital. If we hadn’t had that status, I wouldn’t have been able to make any of the important decisions for him. His family barely wanted anything to do with him in life, and now they wanted a say in his death. When they arrived, I said to myself, There is no way they are going to just swoop down here and start calling the shots, I don’t care who the hell they think they are. In the end, they knew better than to even try it. But let me tell you, as far as the hospital and the lawyers were concerned, that little marriage certificate changed everything.”
I thought about my husband, to whom I have been married for three years now, together almost twenty-five. We’d been meaning to talk about living wills for years. I made a mental note to bring up the subject when I got home.
Lumberjack had recently spend time in his old neighborhood, visiting his aging parents. This had been a bittersweet experience. It was good to be home, and his family had come grudgingly to accept his sexuality over the years, but they still asked him to go back in the closet when relatives stopped by and especially when they all went to church. His mother still talked to friends and neighbors about Betsy, his ex-wife, as if his seventeen-year relationship to Dennis had never even happened.
The subject eventually turned to politics, Trump, and finally to the sexual assault accusations in the media. We all agreed that the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey were grotesque, but someone used the phrase “witch hunt” when the subject shifted to Al Franken and G.H.W. Bush. Franken had been accused of forcing a woman to kiss him and groping women while taking photos at campaign events. Bush had been accused of allegedly touching women’s buttocks from his wheelchair during photo-ops.
One man who looked to be in his early forties laughed, and said, referring to the photo of Franken pretending to grab a woman’s breasts, “All I know is, I wish someone would grab my breasts like that.”
Another said, “What Bush Sr. did wasn’t assault. Come on. My grandfather is in his nineties. When men get to be that age, they do all kind of things they aren’t supposed to. My grandfather would walk out the door in his bathrobe looking to skip down the yellow brick road if someone didn’t stop him. Bush probably had no idea what he was doing. You can’t really blame him.”
“But he didn’t deny it, “ I reminded him. “That joke about his favorite magician being ‘David Cop-A-Feel’? Even his publicist said that he thought it was all a joke at the time.”
“Maybe it was,” the man shrugged.
“Well, if his behavior is so innocent,” I said, “let me ask you this: would he have done the same thing to a man’s ass?”
A tall, dark-haired man with muscular pecs removed his towel and stepped into the sauna.
“Well, I know one thing,” Lumberjack said. “That guy can do whatever he wants to my ass.”
Tattoos lowered himself deeper into the bubbles and laughed. “I demand that you harass me now, Sir! That’s an order.”
“Not everything is an assault,” Flock-of-Seagulls said with irritation. “It is possible to go too far with this whole thing. If everyone gets accused, the behavior of the ones who really did something will seem meaningless. Eventually it will be an assault to ask someone at work out on a date or to say you look nice in that dress. Where do you draw the line?”
Tattoos said, “If everything is an assault, then it makes it harder to take it seriously when the real assaults happen.” Two of the other men nodded.
I felt a moment of panic. I knew that except for the men walking around in towels and the techno music playing in the background, we could have been men in a frat house, an NFL locker room, a strip bar, or any of the other places I imagined groups of straight men sitting around having the same conversation.
I hated the idea of sounding like the Teacher, the Judgmental One, the Annoying Asshole, but I said, “Look, we’re all gay and bisexual men here. We know what it is like to be on the other side of men’s advances when they don’t respect our boundaries. What it means when men don’t respond to ‘No’.”
“You probably have to beat them off with a stick, don’t you?” Tattoos winked.
“I’m not saying that from a place of ego, what at I’m saying is, if we can’t acknowledge all the different types of assaults by men, as the men who know what other men do, then how will anything ever change?”
There were a few wooden stares, but Lumberjack nodded. One man said, “Good afternoon, gentlemen,”and left, but then an interesting thing happened. The conversation suddenly shifted.
The older man with the silver rings confided that when he had been in the monastery studying to be a priest in his early twenties he had been violently raped. All rape is violent, but something in the way he described his reaction made me think the assault had been particularly brutal. He left the monastery soon after and never went back.
When I asked if he told anyone, he shook his head.
“I never even told Andrew, my husband. Can you imagine? We were together over forty years and he never knew, had no idea. Maybe he knew something was wrong, but he never asked me, if he ever suspected. I didn’t even tell him on his deathbed.”
“Why?” Lumberjack asked. “Why keep it a secret?”
“I didn’t want to burden him with that, and besides, what could he do about it? It was just so horrible. I didn’t want to share that with him. I didn’t even want to remember it myself for years.”
The man who had defended George HW admitted that when he was thirteen, a thirty-five-year-old man who lived in the neighborhood, and whose grass he would cut to add to his weekly allowance, attempted to have sex with him.
“He told me he wanted to show me something inside the house, and when we got inside, he locked the door and reached for me. I was like, Dude, what the fuck? I can’t remember how, but I got away.”
“You’re lucky,” the older man said. “Some don’t.”
“Just barely, though. I ran out the back of the house and all the way home. I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want him to get in trouble, and I wasn’t sure if I would get in trouble, too. I didn’t know if he’d done it to anybody else, but I was worried someone would say, ‘Why did he think he could do that to you and not Billy or John?’ Like there was something all over me that told him that I was gay and that I wanted him to do that.”
“Did you know you were gay, then?” someone asked.
“I don’t think so, maybe. Maybe I was afraid that if I told it would be like saying I have these feelings sometimes for other boys. Boys, mind you, but I never had those feelings for him. I remember just wanting the whole thing to go away. But my parents would nag me, ‘Why don’t you go over to Jerry’s, you haven’t been to Jerry’s in a while, Jerry asked about you at church, he wants you to come over and mow his lawn. I remember thinking, ‘How stupid can you fuckers be? What the fuck, are you all blind? Can’t you see I want to throw up every time you bring up his name, what are you trying to do, pimp me out or something? I know I probably should have told, but nobody asked, either.”
The older man said, “I’m still a mess every year on the anniversary of the day it happened, even though it was over forty, almost fifty, years ago. I don’t schedule anything on that day, and friends know not to call me. I’m a mess. I practically curl up in a fetal ball, I can barely get out of bed.” (His exact words.)
The conversation wrapped up, and as each man stepped out of the tub and reached for his towel and keys, I asked the two men who were assaulted if it was okay to publish their experiences here, and feared they would say no, but they both enthusiastically said yes. I realized that for some of us, part of the recovery from sexual trauma lies in telling your story, even when you’re not believed — or of having your story told.
It is a source of endless fascination for me, what happens when men get together and talk about rape, which, in many ways, means what happens when men get together to talk about victimization and powerlessness. It is a complicated study of compassion vs. indifference. It is almost impossible, most of the time, to get all the way to vulnerability.
I reflected on our discussion, and thought about men and violation. It was almost like the earlier conversation we’d had in the tub defending a “certain kind of assault” and making jokes had been a conditioned reflex, like a script we were all reading from. That autopiloted conversation takes place wherever men gather, all over the country, all over the world.
And I am also very aware that in some places there are men who are not ashamed at all to defend Harvey Weinstein, if only in private, and to other men. These men feel Weinstein’s the victim, the way many still feel about Cosby. “Weinstein is a genius,” they say, “who just needed to blow off a little steam to deal with the pressure he was under, and got carried away”. They then blame his accusers for being vindictive actresses, women who want to punish him now because he promised them a role in his movie and then they didn’t get the part.
Kathy Griffin tells a story in her new book, Celebrity Run-in’s, My A-Z Index about sitting next to Woody Allen at a dinner party. Griffin describes a point in their conversation when Allen turns to her and says, “And now I have to watch my good friend Bill Cosby get railroaded.” When the allegations came about Weinstein, Allen cautioned that we should be careful that our need to hold men accountable not become a “witch-hunt.” A famous musician, who now insists he was misquoted, allegedly told a German newspaper that a 14-year-old who finds himself in an adult’s bedroom should know what he’s in for — a reference to Anthony Rapp’s claim that Kevin Spacey attempted to have sex with him when he was a minor. Veteran journalist Gay Talese told Vanity Fair that Rapp should “suck it up” and that he hated the guy that “ruined” Spacey’s career.
As disgusting as these comments are, there aren’t surprising. Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape was explained away by some as what is commonly referred to as “Locker Room Talk” — the things men say when women aren’t in the room. The surprise for me that day at the bathhouse came not from men joking and dismissing rape but from hearing a group of gay men say it.
But there is another conversation, a potentially devastating one, tucked away behind the sexist reflexes, the ribald jokes, the macho poses. You have to dig for it, pan through the fool’s gold and men’s bullshit to get to the riches, to the truth. Here we were, a group of gay men, and two of us had acknowledged to strangers that we had been violated. And that was from the ones who felt comfortable enough to speak out. I myself hadn’t shared with the others an experience I had had in college: I still debate with myself, almost thirty years later, whether I was assaulted or not. By the strict textbook definition and today’s reckonings, I had, which meant that there were three of us violated sexually. Almost half the group.
I wonder about other men in America, straight men, part of a different “boy’s club”, telling bravado stories, laughing and defending men like Bill Cosby and Charlie Rose and Louis C.K., while recalling, if only to themselves, their own experiences of being sexually violated. One of Matt Lauer’s alleged victims spoke out after he was fired from NBC. She passed out in his office, she claims, after he locked door and began to have intercourse with her. In the comments section online, men are already joking, “She may have passed out, but it wasn’t from harassment. Who knew Matt had it in him?” There seems to be this strange splitting off — men who defend rapists in conversation, and boys we once were, boys who were abused, by family friends, relatives, coaches, religious figures, parents, older siblings. Boys who grow up to be men, sometimes men who rape. What happens on that bridge to manhood, and where does our compassion go? What will it take for men finally to be honest publicly about rape and violation? Not just when we are caught red-handed, humiliated, and our careers and marriages are over, but when the conversation matters most, before a rape takes place.
How, in our Frankenstein lab, did we create monsters like Harvey Weinstein and “monster-enablers” like Lisa Bloom? Harvey and Lisa, Made in America, as sure as the Hostess Company makes Twinkies. How can the governor of Alabama, Republican Kay Ivey, herself a woman, claim that while she “has no reason to disbelieve” Roy Moore’s accusers, she will still continue to support him in his race for the senate? How can the President of the United States, a man whom we have heard — have heard! — speak of women in sexually aggressive ways, with accusers of his own, still have won the election? And how can he too support Roy Moore, after multiple women, one of them a minor at the time, still continue to come forward with stories alleging sexual violence? We need to understand the psychology that would let us vote for Trump after the Access Hollywood tape, to understand, even after fifty women came forward, why there are men and women who continue to defend Bill Cosby to this day.
A textbook example of how not to handle a sexual harassment claim can be found in WNYC’s interview with the station’s President and CEO, Laura Walker. Walker was a guest on The Brian Lehrer Show, responding to the recently surfaced allegations of sexual impropriety and racist bullying from WNYC’s The Takeaway host John Hockenberry.
Investigative reporter Suki Kim claimed that Hockenberry sent her sexually inappropriate emails for years after her brief appearance on the show in 2014. Her piece for New York magazine chronicled not only her experience, but the experience of other women, many of them women of color. During Hockenberry’s tenure, three black female co-hosts left The Takeaway. One of them, Farai Chideya, alleged that Hockenberry suggested that she was only a “diversity hire” (even when the show had received a grant specifically to increase diversity) and that she should lose some weight. When Celeste Headley, another black woman, complained to Laura Walker about Hockenberry’s aggressive, sabotaging behavior towards her, he reportedly faced no discipline, while she was sent to “radio personality training”.
In her own interview with Lehrer, Suki Kim is clear about the devastation of sexual harassment, and how it personally affected her: after e-mails from Hockenberry, one claiming, “[I]Need another dose of you”, she never felt comfortable appearing on The Takeaway again. “All these women wanted to do,” Kim told Lehrer, “was to walk into this institution and do their job.”
John Hockenberry left The Takeaway last August, and while he was not publicly fired for sexual harassment or bullying, his contract was not renewed. (An interview with writer Ilya Merritz suggests Hockenberry’s declining performance was also a primary factor in his leaving.) Despite the fact that Suki Kim had shown the company Hockenberry’s emails prior to his departure, Hockenberry was still allowed to leave on his terms, to “retire” from the show, unlike Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose, who left their jobs in disgrace. Hockenberry’s is a stunning instance of the intersectionality of racism and alleged sexual violation, of both male entitlement and white privilege in the workplace.
While not every reader will be familiar with WNYC’s The Takeaway or the names mentioned here, I’ve gone into some detail because I believe the show is a perfect example of the complicated tapestry that is abuse in the workplace, from corporate “leadership” all the way down to the twenty-two-year-old intern receiving inappropriate texts after working a twelve hour shift and the producer who claims she was allegedly kissed on the mouth unexpectedly by Hockenberry, her boss.
I also have to emphasize this: CEO Laura Walker’s appearance on Brian Lehrer’s show is a masterclass in Human-Resources-Speak: on how to respond to an interviewer’s questions with non-answers, non-specifics, mystification, stonewalling, and gaslighting, all while using phrases like “company policy” and “confidential matters” with a humble, deeply concerned tone. For those who know it well, HR-Speak is like a foreign language. (Kids should be able to take it as an elective in school.) The interview is insulting because Walker thinks her calming voice is preventing the listening audience from realizing she’s not answering any of Lehrer’s questions. At one point, she expresses her deep regrets that the protocols were not in place to protect the women who came forward. She tells Bryan that “everything is being revisited”, and “we’re looking carefully at our policies”. She then apologizes to the women of color who were harmed with a dewy-eyed earnestness that would have made Gandhi jump weeping into Dr. Martin Luther King’s arms.
But for all her “sincerity”, Walker’s statements sound pre-prepared, warmed over, stale. At times she’s obviously reading. There doesn’t seem to be a single spontaneous moment, or any acknowledgement of the tsunami of sexual assault allegations happening right now in the media. Her performance is anachronistic; she’s covering her ass like it’s 1999. When Lehrer asks why she declined to be interviewed for any of the earlier reports and follow-up stories, and why she is speaking publicly now, Walker thanks him for inviting her, tells us it’s a “difficult” time and a “really important” conversation, and she’s here now to answer his questions; when he confronts her on the Celeste Headley story, she replies that everyone on the show had received training at one time or another, names the female facilitator in charge of training, and, a smile in her voice, asks Bryan if he’s had any training from her himself: when he attempts to find out whether the station uses non-disclosure agreements to silence victims, Walker tells him she doesn’t think so, but that most people who come forward would prefer not to be known, and why it is important to protect both sides. I feel like shouting at the radio, we’re not fools: anyone familiar with NDA’s knows they are almost always used to protect the company’s reputation, rarely the victim’s.
The interview with Laura Walker is exasperating, the equivalent of telling someone you’ve been sexually harassed and having them hand you free passes to Disneyland. Lehrer’s questions are good, but he’s in the unenviable position of having to interview his own boss. Given that dynamic, the whole thing feels like a set-up, less a chance to get real answers, and more of a PR stunt for the station, for its parent company, and for Walker.
This interview, however, gives us great insight into how an entire infrastructure can support a John Hockenberry, and why things have often stayed the same for years with workplace violence and racism. Walker’s performance may reassure a few naïve listeners, but blacks who have complained to HR about racism in both corporate and non-profit entities are wearily familiar with the Walkers of the world — they’re an army. What gives us hope is that there are new levels of accountably in our present climate; the old answers just aren’t washing anymore. Walker might have left the interview congratulating herself for a job well done, but at the time of this writing, many WNYC contributors have made their feelings known in the comments section, refusing to give the station another dime until she steps down.
It exist everywhere and in every field; this “economy of silence” — the complex infrastructure required to enable a pathological narcissist to exist in the workplace, and what it takes to keep that structure intact. You may not like what he does, but who cares in the end, he’s great for ratings, he closes the deal. This is as true for corporate America as it is for the man who has the number one sitcom on TV. The bottom line is that we continue to maintain this silence because, while it is hard to admit, sexual assault makes money.
Or rather, the assaulting employees are, in too many cases, the money-makers. And if assaulting their co-workers makes them happy, no one intervenes because the point is to keep the money-makers happy so they keep making more money. Which is why NBC or Fox would put up with a Matt Lauer or Bill O’Reilly for years, why people continued to “handle” Kevin Spacey on his film and TV sets, and why no one stopped Weinstein as long as those Best Picture Oscar nominations and wins kept coming. When one considers all the employees under these men, people victimized themselves as they also helped to victimize others, the scope of what we’re dealing with, and what it would take to root it out, is staggering.
In Weinstein’s case, how many agents must have known he was a predator, but were also aware how much commission they would receive if they signed their client to his next movie? How many parents left their daughters in R. Kelly’s dressing room after one of his concerts? They never intended for their daughter to be violated or to become an alleged “sex slave” on his compound; they wanted her to meet him, to hand him her demo CD, and stay until he took an interest in her. Not long enough for her to be harmed, just until he made her a star.
Fletcher Chase: No one is richer than you at this moment. What would it take for you to feel secure?
J Paul Getty: More.
— Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World (2017)
The answer to our societal indifference to rape lies somewhere in our relationship to capitalism. I don’t know if there is such a thing as “compassionate capitalism”, or if exploitation is inherent in the word capitalism, making, “compassionate capitalism” a contradiction. The question is, is it possible to feel compassion for someone you are also trying to exploit?
I’ve written before, I’m not a communist, but I think it worth examining the system we’ve created, and how capitalism is defined — not by an economist, but a psychoanalyst — in relation to victimization. Because when capitalism is practiced without the boundaries engendered by compassion, without even the basic tenets or assumptions that everyone is entitled to healthcare, food, shelter, clean water; if everything is about greed and how much more money one can make, regardless of how it is made, and that even when you’ve made enough money, you still must have more — then empathy for victims becomes impossible.
A lack of compassion, but most important, the need to exploit at greater and greater levels, to win at all costs, defines our relationship to the “victim”, and to the person who doesn’t thrive in our society. To practice capitalism as we do today and still convince ourselves that we are moral means that we have a warped psychological relationship with victimization, which leads, inevitably, to brutality and to rape.
Those who are “failing” at capitalism — who find themselves “enslaved” in low- or underpaid jobs, whose homes are foreclosed, who go bankrupt because of medical emergencies — are losers; and if they are suffering it is their own fault, never the system’s. This is why we can demonize the poor, feel contempt for the homeless, talk about “welfare queens”, have children without healthcare who go to bed hungry. Being homeless in America isn’t just a temporary situation you hope to get out of some day; it’s an identity, like being Catholic, or from the Mid-West.
In order for a system that relies on exploitation to continue, we maintain a mindset which tells us that victims deserve what happens to them. Our collective answer isn’t to find ways to stop victimization, but, if you are victimized, to wait until the day when it is your turn to thrive. If you are lucky, you will be the capitalist who is fortunate enough now to exploit others as you are being exploited. To paraphrase a famous quotation, there are no victims in America, just capitalists and the capitalists who haven’t made it yet.
This relates to rape in that the worst thing that one can be in a capitalist society is powerless. And both men and women believe this. In this country capitalism is a religion. Men have a hard time talking about being sexually assaulted because it is particularly shameful in a patriarchal society to be a man and a victim. And for some women, the definition of equality is not liberation for all, but to have the same ability to victimize others as men have. Black Americans have struck a similar bargain with White America: in our efforts to get an equal share of the pie, we may see equality as finally getting our turn to be the master this time, instead of the slave.
When I use the term victimization, I want to be clear: that word is not intended to be a judgment on whether or not someone fights back, or doesn’t fight back, during a sexual assault. I’m talking about what happens when someone is harmed in our culture, and our relationship as a society to those who are harmed.
The reason that women can defend rapists, and can deny other women who come forward after being raped, is because rape is the primary currency of the capitalist exchange. It’s what we did to the native Indians, it defines slavery. In this place, there are only two groups, the exploiters and the exploited. You decide which club you identify with. And some women, like some men, want to get ahead, want to “make it”, and have a pathological need to “win”. The last thing you do if you want to “win” is to identify with the victim, which is to say the one who has been harmed. The feminine is endangered in our culture because the answer to victimization these days isn’t greater compassion for victims but deeper levels of emotional impenetrability.
Lisa Bloom defended Harvey Weinstein not because she changed her mind about helping rape victims, but because she’s greedy and wants more money and power. It’s really rather simple. Under the most aggressive forms of capitalism, empathy for rape doesn’t exist, because empathy for exploitation doesn’t exist. Exploitation at its core is anti-human, it is sociopathic, and it goes against our natural human tendencies to share, to be kind to one another. If we truly acknowledged the damage of exploitation and what it has cost our humanity, we’d probably all lose our minds. One of the cruelest legacies we’ve bequeathed to our children, and the reason why many of them commit suicide, is because of our compulsive need as a society, the constant pressure we are always under, to win. In a system in which commodification, objectification, and greed define all our human exchanges, rape, when acknowledged at all, is seen as an unfortunate bi-product, like toxic waste from a very productive factory. When it happens, it’s embarrassing and unfortunate, and best ignored completely. For the victim, being raped carries a stigma and shame, not unlike being poor. The only way to reconcile being raped in this paradigm, to be made whole, is to go out and rape someone else.
So no one wants to be a victim, no one wants to hear from victims, and especially the victims that go after über-businessmen like Bill Cosby or Donald Trump — our capitalists “heroes”, our “stars”, our “winners”. It isn’t just our relationship to victimized people that is so fucked at this point, it is our whole relationship to empathy. It affects our interactions with our husbands, and wives, and our children. Like the greedy cartoon character who walks around with dollar signs emblazoned on his eyeballs, the experience of commodification means that you eventually stop seeing people anymore — everyone becomes an iPhone, a watch, a pack of cigarettes. You grab a pussy like you grab a Mountain Dew. It’s not the grabbers who are evil, in this mentality, it’s the one who’s weak enough or stupid enough to get grabbed.
It is hard to admit that the Access Hollywood tape may actually have helped Donald Trump; because in this mindset if he can grab pussies, he can also grab the economy into shape and grab North Korea — he’ll help us win. The tape confirmed what we knew about him rather than disabusing us. There was no contradiction, which is why it backfired as a scandal and ended up being meaningless in the general election. When a man in power reveals his sexual avarice in this despicable way, it affirms to some not that he is a bully or predator, but one who knows how to take what he wants, a man in charge.
If we acknowledge the rape survivor in our society, then we have to take a deep look at the perpetrator and, more directly, the perpetrator in ourselves. And if we really had the spiritual crisis that we should be having right now — not just another man accused of assault in the media each day, but the “come to Jesus” moment where we ask ourselves what has happened to empathy, to compassion, to the feminine in our culture, and how the hell did we end up at this Monster’s Ball, we would be on our knees. But that means going through the deep pain and regret that lead to real change. And who wants to go through all that shit? Most people are still trying to win the lottery. It’s so much easier for sexist men, and some women — like Donna Karan and Angela Lansbury — to say, “Did you see the way she was dressed? She was asking for it.”
Recently, a relative of mine called me about a rift that had occurred in our extended family. He and I hadn’t spoken in many years, and it was good to catch up. I harbored no ill will towards him personally for what happened. He said to me, “While I know I’m not personally responsible for that day after your father’s funeral, I’d like to apologize on behalf of my family. It was wrong, it never should have occurred, and I’m very sorry.”
I was aware that technically no one can apologize for another person’s behavior. But I was surprised at how touched I was by his gesture, how his words reached something inside me. I thought I’d gotten over the event, but the truth was it was ten years later and I was still furious. As he spoke, I envisioned a large iceberg beginning to melt under a cold winter sun.
I reminded him of something else that had occurred that same year, when his mother had been the injured party. I hadn’t been involved in any way, but somehow it still felt right when I said to him, “I would also like to apologize to you for that day at the house when your mother came to visit. Dad’s gone now, and a lot of years have passed. But he never should have said what he did, and I’m sorry, too.”
When we said our goodbyes and hung up the phone, I felt that something had been restored. What was strange was that I hadn’t even spoken with the offender. But it didn’t seem to matter. My brain was still looking for logic, but my heart didn’t seem to know the difference.
A week later I was invited by a friend to join him and his family for Thanksgiving. My husband was traveling for work, and I was alone, so I was grateful for the invitation. His ex-wife was the host. After the lovely meal, he went out to get ice cream, and she and I sat in her kitchen and drank a pot of coffee. We had met only that evening, and yet I observed the way she and my friend, while divorced, shared the holiday together and showed up, without bitterness, for their two teenage daughters. Their family was another model for me, as my cousin had been, of forgiveness.
The subject of sexual assault came up, and Harvey Weinstein, who, in just a matter of months of new accusations, felt like old news. I thought about the conversation I’d just had with my cousin, and said to my host as she refilled our cups, “I wonder what would happen if some men just said to some women, ‘Look, I know I’m not Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose, and I’ve never harmed anyone in that way, but I need to say that men are completely out of control, we’ve done incalculable harm in the past, and what has happened isn’t right. I don’t know what experiences you’ve had in your own life, but I want to say, on behalf of all men, that I’m very sorry for what we’ve done, and I’m going to do everything in my power to see that things change.’
The vibration the words gave off was unmistakably powerful and just hearing them aloud meant something to me. I realized that I’d needed to say them to someone for weeks because I felt powerless and angry, and, as a man, responsible. The apologies we usually get these days, written by press agents and public relations firms are not about empathy and transformation at all, but image and damage control. And almost 100% of the time they don’t mean a fucking thing. But this felt right somehow. And I may have misread the situation in that moment, but I looked at my host’s face and it seemed that my apology meant something to her too.
I’m not suggesting, by the way, that men walk up to just any woman on the street and start apologizing to her. There has to be a rapport of some kind, a proper time and place. If done wrong, or with too much insistence, the apology could end up having more to do with the man than the woman, and perhaps even lead to a different type of violation. Maybe the best way, the only way, a man can truly apologize for the men who rape is by helping to create a society where rape no longer occurs.
We may not be able to apologize personally to the Cosby accusers, but we can call up our adult daughter and say that we are sorry for not believing her when, at six, she claimed her stepfather touched her inappropriately. We can explain that we were afraid that if we believed her and confronted him, it would have ended our marriage and we were terrified of being alone. So we punished her for lying. Now we have to face the fact that we chose our husband over our child. And we’re sorry.
We can’t turn back the clock and bring back 1972, but we can call our adult son and tell him we should have done a better job of protecting him, that we knew before he went on the church camping trip with Father Tim that there had been rumors of inappropriate behavior, but we chose not to believe them. We can admit finally that we wondered why he came home from the trip and, without saying a word to anyone, went straight to his room and blasted heavy metal music for three days. We can explain that the reason no one went upstairs to find out what was wrong was because sex embarrassed us. We thought sexual abuse was about sex, and not violence. And because we didn’t want to confront the church or cause a scandal, we chose our religion and our status in the community over the safety of our child. And we’re sorry.
At 44, our oldest daughter can’t remember much of anything before the age of nine, and has never understood why she is always terrified that something will happen to her own pre-teen daughters, why she barely wants to let them out of the house except for school.
We end the mystery and explain to her that when she was young, we left her unsupervised for years with her grandfather, even when we knew he had a history of violence. We remind her that she would cry every time we pulled up in the driveway of her grandparents’ house, but we never asked what was wrong. We admit to her that because we had blocked out our own memories of abuse growing up, we were in denial about hers. And we didn’t inquire when she started to pull out her hair, developed a mild stutter in fifth grade, and later an eating disorder in high school. We realized that if we faced her abuse we would have to face our own. So we did nothing. And we’re sorry.
We may not know the names of all the survivors who were allegedly violated by Donald Trump, or Harvey Weinstein, or Charlie Rose, or Bill O’Reilly, or Mark Halperin, or Roger Ailes, or R. Kelly, or Roy Moore, or Kevin Spacey, or Bill Cosby, but we can tell our oldest daughter and youngest son, “We understand what happened and why you’re angry, and we don’t blame you, for the suicide attempts, for the abusive relationships, the nervous breakdowns and hospitalizations, the self-destructive behavior and drug addictions. The past cannot be undone, but can be acknowledged.” We can say to her, “ It wasn’t your shame you’ve been carrying around all these years, but ours. The ones who violated you and the ones who never protected you. And we’re sorry.”
And for those of us who never knew, and never suspected, and are finding out now for the first time, we can also say to our adult children, I had no idea. It never even occurred to me what happened. But you should never have been harmed. The school, the church, the family, the community, it was our job to protect you and we failed you. And we’re sorry.
I am writing this during the holidays, and I know there is a family that will get together for Christmas, and an uncle who will come into the kitchen and say with holiday cheer, “Can I help with anything?’ His teenage niece will smile in front of the family, and the uncle will give her a great, big, holiday hug and later he’ll try to give her a kiss under the mistletoe. She’ll pull away embarrassed and the whole family will laugh at her for being shy and then they will all go through the neighborhood and sing carols. Her mother will give her daughter a look of concern and notice she’s not singing, even though caroling is her favorite part of Christmas. The niece and her uncle know that he’s been sexually abusing her off and on since was a child. Sometimes it’s easier to open People magazine and talk about the Weinsteins and the Spaceys of the world than it is to open up a discussion about the abuse taking place right in our own family.
It is not my place here to tell anyone what they need to hear from their family or an abuser, or if it is even possible for anything to be restored by an apology. The restoration for survivors may have to come from public humiliation or criminal prosecution or reparations or other forms of justice towards the perpetrator. This is for the survivor to decide for herself. And for the men and women who have harmed, and who want to approach their victims, what occurs in that conversation is beyond the scope of this piece. But one hopes if it does occur that it happens in a safe container where the survivor feels he is protected, and that it is on the survivor’s terms to decide when and how -and even whether — this conversation takes place.
I don’t presume to have any answers for anyone, but I do know this: there are people out there who could alter a life or perhaps stop the loss of one by simply acknowledging to someone they violated, “You weren’t wrong. You weren’t crazy. It did happen. And it had nothing to do with the way you dressed, or that you came over and sat on my lap, or that you hugged me too long, or you were a beautiful child, or that I was sad because your mother and I were getting a divorce. It was my selfishness. I don’t know now what I can do to make things whole. Perhaps things will never be whole. You may decide you don’t want to discuss this with me, or have anything to do with me ever again. But I need you to know that whatever you decide to do, I take full responsibility for what happened between us. I was wrong. No matter what I told you or what you thought. It wasn’t your fault. It was mine. It was my fault. And I’m sorry.”
In many cases of sexual violence, the victims are no longer with us. For all the courageous women and men who have come forward in the recent weeks, months, years, there are others whose stories we will never know, who have passed on. Still others watch the news in silence, survivors whom we will never hear from, who will never feel safe enough to come forward. The past may not be healed in every case, but we can endeavor, to the best of our ability, that there be no more cases.
When our son wets the bed repeatedly or cries out at night, instead of spanking or punishing him, maybe this time we find out if something traumatic has happened to him, physically or emotionally. When our daughter goes very quiet or seems to shut down completely when a relative enters the room, instead of calling her “moody” for not greeting him, we ask her privately if anything has happened between them. If she doesn’t feel comfortable telling us, or won’t make eye contact, we choose never to leave her unsupervised with this person until we find out exactly what’s wrong. Then we find out what’s wrong. And we never insist that a child kiss or hug a relative if they are saying verbally or with their body language, “NO.” We care more about our child’s safety and their relationship with their body then we do about Aunt Margaret’s “feelings”.
The next time we have an intuitive concern about a family member, friend, or mentor but “just can’t put our finger on it”, we don’t say, “Coach Anderson would never hurt our child” and take the whole gang out for ice cream. We increase our supervision, do a background check, and, if necessary, end the relationship completely. We inquire responsibly to see if anyone else shares our concerns. We don’t wait after twenty years, seventeen victims, and sex-offender status, to find out our hunch about Coach Anderson was right.
When our teenage daughter’s grades uncharacteristically slip from A’s and B’s to C’s and D’s and F’s, when she seems depressed all the time, shows signs of self-harm, takes hot showers several times a day for hours, or doesn’t seem to shower at all much anymore, we ask if she’s okay. When she replies numbly, “I’m fine”, we don’t say, “She’s probably going through a phase” then close her door and go watch Wheel of Fortune. We insist on more information. And we don’t allow our fear and horror at the possibility she has been raped to keep us from finding out whether or not she has been raped.
And when our sons act entitled with women, when they are aggressive towards their girlfriends or their sisters, instead of shaking our heads and shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Oh well, boys will be boys”, we sit them down and make it very clear that this behavior will not be tolerated. And we don’t give them special treatment because they are athletes or academically gifted or devastatingly handsome or the oldest in the family. In other words, we love our sons, but we don’t fall in love with them, or allow our narcissism towards them to interfere with our ability to confront them on theirs.
If they fight with their girlfriends or a woman breaks up with them, we don’t have to humiliate her or call her bad names, impugning her sexuality or reputation in order to support our child. If we suspect that our sons are pathologically narcissistic, or are showing contempt for women, if they have a pattern of abusive behavior, or if we see bullying or overhear threats towards a partner, we don’t use words like “He’s a womanizer”, “He’s a ladies’ man”, “He’s just sowing his wild oats”, “The men have always been like this in our family”, “He’s Italian/French/Spanish/American”, “Everyone knows that men are dogs”, and other phrases that normalize violence towards women. We challenge him and try to get him the help he needs. If he harms women in our house of any age, we may have to ask him to leave our house. And we make it clear to our LGBTQ children that abuse is abuse, and is never to be tolerated, that violence happens in gay relationships as it does in heterosexual ones, and that everyone has a right to be treated with dignity in a relationship, regardless of their orientation. We teach our children to respect adults, as we want them to respect all people, but not obey every adult for the sole reason he or she is an adult.
We explain to our sons and daughters at a very early age, when we first have our conversation about “the birds and the bees”, what one does when a bird says no. We teach them that there are many different ways that birds say no, some of them non-verbal. And that in some situations, what starts out yes may later become no.
When it doubt, don’t be a mindreader. Ask. And if you have to ask if it’s no, then usually it’s already no. Whenever you have to err, err on the side of no. We teach them that sex isn’t like riding a roller coaster, when once the ride begins to start, you’re forced to sit and endure it until it is over. Sex with a partner should be like a cab ride — if you don’t like where it’s going, you should be able to pull over and get out at any time. And if the ride isn’t safe, stay home. Or drive yourself.
A conversation is taking place right now in this country around sexual harassment and sexual abuse, particularly in the workplace. But actually it is more than a conversation. There is action and, in some places, there appears to be real change.
As an African-American man, I find myself very cynical about “change” these days. People love to talk about race and change, but among the people of color that I know, the women and men of my generation, we don’t feel a lot has changed, and in fact, in some ways things may be worse. We still see the evidence today of some of the brutality our ancestors faced, but what we don’t always see is the solidarity, the sense of community that got black Americans through the harshest persecutions. Despite eight years of a black president, in many ways the black community still remains devastated, in great pain.
As a gay man, I am grateful to have a legal marriage protected under the law. But Roy Moore, it was recently reported in The Daily Beast, spoke to a congregation and blamed the sexual allegations against him on the LGBTQ community. This man allegedly courted a fourteen-year-old girl when he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney. But because I’m in love with a man and choose to suck a random dick now and then, Moore’s day of reckoning is all my fault. It is still too easy for politicians like Moore to continue to demonize queer people like me, to use hate to justify denying us our human rights.
While some things have changed, young gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth are still bullied today, are still killing themselves. An older gay man I knew and loved in his seventies died two years ago from alcohol addiction. He was also addicted to crystal methamphetamine. He came to my twelve-step meeting in the City a few times, but he wouldn’t stay. I want to say that it was the meth and alcohol that killed him, but upon reflection, I think it was ageism and internalized homophobia that got him in the end. He didn’t know how to age gracefully as a gay man, so he cultivated a young gay man’s addiction. He wanted a lover in his twenties to stay “hip”, when what he needed was a man his own age, a man who could cook him meals, read the paper together in bed, and drive him to his doctor appointments. He needed a companion at 74, not a “son” to his “Daddy”.
This may sound judgmental, and maybe it is, but he refused to get sober, because on some level I believe he didn’t think that his life, an older gay life, was worth saving. He was a deeply religious Southern Baptist and he and Roy Moore could have gone to Sunday school together as boys, sat in the church pew together. And his death I do blame on Roy Moore, and the death of the gay boy who sits in church in 2017 and will kill himself because of Moore’s statement that gay people are to blame for a straight man’s pedophilia — the born-again Christian’s shorthand for “the devil made me do it.” Hatred from within always begins as hatred from without, and the gay self-hatred which killed my friend is still claiming queer lives because of men like Roy Moore.
But something may be changing, seriously changing, with sexual assault. Men are listening. That day at the bathhouse after I spoke with the men in the hot tub, I met a guy who was fairly new to gay sexuality having come out after a recent divorce. He seemed shy, a little reticent, but he came into my room and we played around for a while. He was sweet and I liked him and I think he liked me. Then at one point, he stopped, put a hand on my chest and said gently, “I think I need to leave now.” I believe he was having a good time, but as some of this was still new to him, I could tell he needed a moment to collect himself. I’ve been there, many gay men have.
I’ve never held someone against their will, but in the past I might have said to him, “Really, are you sure?” thinking, he’s just a little nervous, he’ll relax eventually. Or I might even have even said, “We don’t have to do anything, let’s just sit and talk for awhile,” waiting for him to get back in the mood. But I thought of Harvey Weinstein in that moment. Harvey — our patron saint of sexual abuse and manipulation — and I said to this man, “I understand completely. Maybe we’ll get together later. It was nice meeting you.” Then I got up and opened the door for him. There was no hesitation, no cajoling, no equivocation. Even he looked a little surprised. And when he left, I closed the door behind him. I heard him say ‘no’ and the minute I heard ‘no’, the action stopped. On a motherfucking dime. It’s very possible that things are changing; as a man, I feel the change in me.
I know there are men in Hollywood, in politics, at public universities and private colleges who are just waiting for the shoe to drop, who are shitting their pants and anticipating the day their accusers to come forward. They are terrified, and that’s not a bad thing. Because the fact is, if NBC can fire Matt Lauer who had been on television for 30 years, one of their most bankable stars with a reportedly 25-million-dollar contract, if he can be called into Human Resources, and walk out twenty minutes later with his family photos and desk plant in a cardboard box, that means your ass is on serious notice, Sir, in the food prep line at Taco Bell, the showroom at the car dealership, the break room at Target, the regional managers’ meeting this weekend in Omaha. Men everywhere, of all socioeconomic classes, races, religious backgrounds and sexual orientations are listening. You’ve got our attention. The only place that seems impervious to justice at the moment is the White House and the man who lives inside it, but one day soon that will change.
If a woman or man comes forward with an allegation of sexual misconduct and that claim leads not only to action, but most importantly, to consequences, then we will know we really have changed as a society. And if this is so, we must acknowledge the pioneers who have come forward at their own peril, who faced public humiliation and acrimony, and even death threats, and still spoke out. Without them we could never have arrived at this place. Thank you to the Cosby survivors, the Trump survivors, the Clinton survivors, the Moore survivors, the Weinstein survivors, and survivors everywhere, past and present, who have brought us to this place.
We may not be out of the scary woods yet, but sunlight breaks through the leaves each time a survivor tells her story, creating tunnels of light, illuminating the forest floor and revealing the way for others to come forward and find their way out. Into that open clearing finally which is wholeness, which is justice, which is restoration, which is joy.
I know we’ll get past the woods. And once we’re past. Let’s hope the changes last.
Max S. Gordon is a writer and performer. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “Be Glad That You Are Free: On Nina, Miles Ahead, Lemonade, Lauryn Hill and Prince” and “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I AmNot Your Negro’, ‘Can I Ger A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’” and “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”