Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: If story of Harvey Weinstein can transform into claims of men just being creeps, then what is really happening?

Anything that encourages women to go public about sexual harassment, or worse, is a good thing, but we need to distinguish the criminal from the merely creepy

By Eilis O'Hanlon

The news these days has turned into one big game of reputation bingo. You turn on, half in horror and half in gossipy anticipation, to see which famous man will be next to face exposure as a sex-pest.

The cycle began with the downfall of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Scores of women have now come forward to out him as a serial harasser and abuser of women, proving that the casting couch culture - and something even worse than that - is alive and well in the US film industry.

Since then, there have been revelations about other heavy hitters in Hollywood, not least Kevin Spacey, who's been accused of making a sexual advance towards a 14-year-old male actor in the 1980s.

Whether the House of Cards star is able to ride out this storm will be a test of how seriously society treats the sexual targeting of children when the culprit is a rich and celebrated actor, rather than someone from the wrong side of the tracks.

If he lived in a council flat on benefits, no amount of therapy-speak would save Spacey's reputation.

That there are men out there using their positions of power to exploit young women - and sometimes other men - is not even questionable at this stage.

Many alpha males do seem to regard the opportunity to receive sexual favours from those who otherwise wouldn't give them a second glance as one of the perks of success and there may be more of them in circulation than we comfortably want to admit.

No woman who's suffered at any of these predators' hands should have to apologise for taking them down - even if it's taken years for them to pluck up the courage to speak out. The passage of time doesn't minimise the offence.

However, it's not simply serious abusers who are being targeted.

Public exposure on this scale always involves a scattergun approach, making it inevitable that other men - some whose behaviour, while imperfect, is hardly predatory in the real meaning of the word, and others entirely innocent of wrongdoing - will be caught in the crossfire. Accusations of similar behaviour in Dublin media circles even led to the widespread circulation on social media of the hashtag #IrishWeinstein last weekend, under which certain names were being thrown around with reckless abandon.

Then there's veteran actor Dustin Hoffman, who first came to prominence as the young college student seduced by his middle-aged next-door neighbour, Mrs Robinson, in The Graduate.

Now he stands accused of inappropriate behaviour towards a 17-year-old girl when he was a middle-aged actor.

For her, it's an important baring of the soul about an episode which has clearly troubled her for years.

She should face no criticism for going public. This is her story. It's up to her how she chooses to tell it.

But it does bring to the fore certain dangers which have been gathering over the past few weeks.

If the story of Harvey Weinstein can transform in a few short weeks from allegations of terrifying sexual harassment, abuse and even rape (which Weinstein denies) into stories of men just being creeps, then what is really happening?

It could be that further stories will emerge about Hoffman, which shows up this episode as part of a pattern of harassment. Another woman has, indeed, come forward to say that he crudely propositioned her when they met some years ago.

His behaviour, as recounted by the woman on the receiving end, hardly paints the Oscar-winner in a flattering light, but it still does seem to point to a slimy man with an inflated sense of his own entitlement, rather than a predator, and that's not a crime.

Nor is it illegal for an older man to make inappropriate remarks to a young woman. These women were not children and it's important not to treat them as such.

No one is calling it commendable, but it's important not to exaggerate it also.

Right now, women are being encouraged to share their stories of harassment and inappropriate behaviour at the hands of men.

Unsurprisingly, they are doing so in large numbers and, speaking for myself, I could think of a number of incidents where I've been left angered by certain individuals and inappropriate comments.

I freely admit that my own solidarity is biased somewhat towards women who've spoken out. Some men have a knack for making you feel unsettled.

But the outpouring of testimonies has confused the picture somewhat by conflating trivial and serious complaints as if they were the same thing.

That's not easy to say, because if incidents bother women then it's not for others to tell them that they should toughen up and get over it.

But social and professional environments cannot be entirely sterilised.

The adult world is not a "safe space". There will always be tensions, comments, propositions, advances. Many will over-step the line. They shouldn't all be treated as hanging offences.

Discrimination, the ability to make distinctions between different levels of offence, and responding to them proportionately, is just as important as clamping down on harassment.

That's what is in danger of being lost in the current climate. Raising such concerns immediately risks being accused of not taking sexual harassment gravely enough.

The implication is that the end justifies the means and that it's a small price to pay if a few innocent men are sacrificed along the way. But individual rights, including to one's good name, matter.

Ignoring such reservations in the rush to judgment goes against the ancient credo that justice is tarnished when the innocent suffer.

The conversation should not be framed in this "you're either for us, or against us" way. Cutting corners like that can lead to ruined careers, wrecked marriages, shattered lives, sometimes with little justification.

We're in a situation where a mere allegation of impropriety, unless quickly disproven, is enough to turn a person into an outcast.

Murderers may have been given second chances in Northern Ireland, but allegations of sexual impropriety, especially against younger people, still seem to be the one charge where the stain never really goes away.

That's what makes it essential to get the facts right before leaping in with accusations and to draw a distinction between a man who makes your skin crawl and one who should be fired, or shunned, or shamed, or behind bars.

There is a difference and it's big enough to be worth fighting to defend against any attempt to confuse the two.

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