A female friend asked me last year whether the current national focus on sexual harassment that began with the 2017 Harvey Weinstein revelations was a passing fad or would generate permanent changes in male-female relationships, not only in the workplace but throughout American society. Her concern — her fear — was that Americans’ famously short-term attention spans would produce reactions typical of mass shootings: a temporary sense of outrage, doomed legislative proposals, and then on to the next national tragedy.
This time really is different. Weinstein’s outrageous behavior was a tipping point that targeted national attention on behavior that had been occurring for decades — in fact, for centuries. The context had changed dramatically, especially with the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, who openly bragged about using his celebrity to pursue women.
The Weinstein allegations and the Trump confession reflect a coercive version of the power dynamic at the heart of many human sexual relations. This power dynamic is at play in virtually every aspect of sexuality — in the workplace, in the bedroom, in daily exchanges between men and women. As inherently social beings, we seek companionship and coupling. The latter is also essential if we are to preserve the species.
At issue, however, is whether this coupling — heterosexual or homosexual — is consensual or coerced. We have laws to protect victims from the sexual violence called rape. For “statutory rape,” intent is not an element of the offense. Sex with a minor is a crime, no questions asked: you go straight to jail.
Weinstein’s crude workplace behavior revealed an arrogant, out-of-control, I-can-do-it-just-because-of-who-I-am mentality with which he sought to extort sexual favors from young wannabe actresses. As a media mogul, Weinstein already had leverage, but he overplayed that leverage in ways that transgressed good taste, acceptable social norms, and, allegedly, the law.
So why is today different when stealing sex has been going on seemingly forever? The Catholic Church, for example, has concealed for well over a century the fact that many “celibate” priests were, in fact, sexual predators molesting young boys and girls.
Let’s go back in time — not to our nation’s founding but rather to the founding of our world. Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Greenblatt has written a fascinating new book, “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve,” that explores over several millennia the origins of the creation narratives that almost all societies establish to explain human existence.
The Book of Genesis has the familiar Adam and Eve story. As Greenblatt explains, many people today consider the Adam and Eve story not as the literal truth (physics, biology, and Darwinism suggest otherwise) but rather as a mythic narrative device to explain the unexplainable and, in doing so, to impart a much-desired sense of certainty and purposiveness to our existence.
These creation narratives, however, were typically written by men, who, says Greenblatt, often considered themselves more in the image of God than women who, as man’s “crooked rib,” fell for the serpent’s temptation. The result of such male-focused narratives has been to make it difficult to consider men and women as equal moral beings exercising free choice.
The creation narrative advances the belief that woman was created for man, that the world existed for man’s “convenience or pleasure.” As Mary Wollstonecraft observed in 1792, the narrative provided a convenient rationalization and justification for subjugating women to the desires of men.
Adam and Eve may have been expelled from the Garden of Eden, but Adam assumed the authority to pick any apple from any tree whenever he wanted. To the Adams of the world, the Eves are just another fruit, ripe for the picking. Or grabbing. Or stealing.
As civilization and science have advanced, the literalness of these creation narratives has been challenged. In modern America, the women’s liberation movement plus birth control have modified some of the power imbalances between men and women. But, as we know all too well, these imbalances still exist when it comes to disparate pay and the small (but growing!) number of women who serve as CEOs, law firm partners, and elected officials. Last year’s midterm elections saw a record number of women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The American civil-rights movement had its turning point with events like the 1965 Selma marches and the writings and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Autumn 2017 will mark a turning point in male-female relations. A new narrative is being written on a near daily basis and shared via social media. Past imbalances are being corrected, and there is a growing sense of equality between men and women as human beings.
Power relationships will always exist in society, but today’s new narrative is casting aside the memes and rationalizations that have allowed men to exploit the power dynamic to steal sex from women for millennia. The changes underway are profound. They are upending imbalances that have endured for millennia. They are good, and they will last.
Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992. From 1997-2012, he was president of the nonpartisan, business-led think tank, the Committee for Economic Development.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.