How did the backlash against sexual abuse of women become weakened by all the female counter-arguments and counter-counter-arguments over the right to call out the abuse?

Women are so trapped by the instinct to nurture, to distance ourselves from aggression and the overt wielding of power, that we can’t go in for the kill on an issue. No, we slice and dice the subject, split hairs and chop logic in our anxiety to be fair and achieve an impossible equal balance of every possible factor in an issue. There are fifty shades of grey in a subject and we have to count each one. By the time we finish, everyone’s exhausted.

The pure case against Harvey Weinstein’s monstering of women came under challenge by women who seized on some of the detail of the disclosures – that he lusted after women, tried to kiss them. But this is what men do, argued some.

They’re not seeing the wood for the trees: Weinstein wasn’t some love-struck buffoon clumsily pursuing women: he hunted women and used his commercial clout to make them temporary sex slaves.

Actor Salma Hayek talks about the toll Weinstein exacted from her in return for bringing out the film she hungered to make on Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Baulked in his attempts to force Hayek to have sex with him or have her pander to his fantasy of having sex with another man while he watched, Weinstein made it a condition of his co-operation that she engage in lesbian sex in the film while he watched. She prostituted herself for her art, retching in self-disgust on the film set.

The Weinstein saga brought a silly season of trivial accusations: British defence minister Michael Fallon was reminded by media of a time long ago when a BBC reporter threatened to sock him if he put his hand on her knee one more time during a dinner.

Fallon resigned after the British media elevated the issue to the level of America’s Weinstein story even though the reporter, Julia Hartley-Brewer, said she had not viewed it as sexual harassment and that he had backed off and apologised when she had objected. It was crazy if he had resigned because of that, she expostulated.

By then it was too late. The oh-really group leapt on the zero-sum types wanting to bundle everything together, and what seemed so clear became muddied.

“I am concerned that we are throwing knee-touching into the same basket as rape,” author Lionel Shriver said. Someone had to make a move in “the complicated dance of courtship”; would she, in a youthful romance, have wanted signoff before a kiss? (The Swedes, incidentally, are discussing a law that calls for explicit agreement before sex.)

Shriver and others voiced concern that women were being cast as impotent, “irremediably scarred by even minor, casual advances, and as incapable of competently and sensitively handling the commonplace instances in which men are drawn to them sexually and the feeling doesn’t happen to be mutual”.

A hundred women including actor Catherine Deneuve wrote an open letter to Le Monde that #Metoo, in the name of liberating women, just wanted to “enslave them to a status of eternal victim and reduce them to defenceless prey of male chauvinist demons”.

Surely there’s no need to get traumatised if a man rubbed himself up against you in a train, they argued.

I do agree with that, despite having routinely suffered the experience on CTB buses in my youth, but the point to seize here is whether you can get away from that situation or are powerless to do so. Impotent rage rose in me when I couldn’t get away.

The difference is power, abuse of absolute power in a situation. This creates the dank cellar in which some memories of sexual contact live – the memories that make you squeeze your eyes shut. Like when, as a child, I was wedged tightly in our car back seat when we went on a holiday and a family friend, a famous man and entirely trusted, draped his hand over my pre-pubescent breasts while others around us dozed. It was only our driver, catching this in his rear-view mirror, who wordlessly rescued me, stopping the car and getting us all out to look at a scenic spot.

As the year began in Australia, women came out against handsome actor Craig McLachlan, a mum’s darling who flitted effortlessly from playing the oh-so-decent Dr Blake on television to the half-dressed, muscly transvestite Frank N Furter on stage in the Rocky Horror Show.

One actor cried on television as she described her helplessness, in bed on stage with McLachlan as he slid under the coverlet and, night after night, unseen by the audience, allegedly molested her: kissing her breasts, touching her vagina, embarrassing her by relating afterwards how he could see and smell it. “And one night,” she said, “he pulled my underpants to the side so that my right butt cheek was out and he was kissing all around, all around – there were 2000 people watching, there was nothing to do but just take it.”

It’s all about power, and power using sex is devastating because for some reason it reaches a part of the psyche where it feels like a public humiliation.

#Metoo has a whiny sound to it, which aids criticism of it as a vehicle for crying victim and crying wolf, and certainly every case of being pawed or kissed against one’s will shouldn’t be dragged into it. We want the naughtiness, the whispers in the dark, unspoken murmurous desire rising in the mating game. But when Deneuve says, “We believe that the freedom to say ‘no’ to a sexual proposition cannot exist without the freedom to bother [or pester]” it is equally true that the freedom to pester must be in balance with the freedom to say no, or even “F… off”.

Power and how to use it, is the real conversation. “Men sexually harassed because they could,” Hayek wrote in The New York Times about her experiences with Weinstein. “Women are talking today because, in this new era, we finally can.”

In a blazing address at the Golden Globes awards that wrapped up and spat out racism, sexism and Trumpism, Oprah Winfrey said, “… what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have”.

Women need to choose their story, tell that story strongly and not cancel each other out in competing narratives.


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