By Dr Yvette Russell, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).*
The last few weeks have seen the revelation that Harvey Weinstein, renowned Hollywood producer of such award-winning films as Gangs of New York, Pulp Fiction, and Shakespeare in Love, moonlighted as a prolific sexual predator. A significant number of women have now made public complaints of sexual harassment and assault against Weinstein, including well-known Hollywood stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Rose McGowan, and Angelina Jolie. Weinstein is also reportedly facing allegations of rape. His wife, Georgina Chapman, announced she was leaving him, the company he co-founded fired him, and police on both sides of the Atlantic have opened investigations into him.
The media discourse that greeted the revelations has been characterised by astonishment at the scale of the alleged offending, and the failure of those making allegations to have come forward sooner. In fact, there is often evidence of a long line of complaints against men who are finally revealed in mainstream media to be chronic sexual predators. In Weinstein’s case there is evidence of three decades of prior complaints by women, at least two of which were reported to police. The public disclosure of these allegations was repeatedly thwarted by the use of non-disclosure agreements, the alleged ‘killing’ of news stories on the topic, and the habitual capacity of those who knew about it to ignore it. In the case of Jimmy Savile in the UK, believed to have preyed unimpeded for 60 years on around 500 vulnerable victims as young as two years old, a 2013 HMIC report found at least seven complaints against Savile in police records since 1964.
A similar pattern is revealed in the treatment of other white men who rape and abuse women. Men racialised as non-white are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system and more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and convicted for a range of crimes. In the case of sexual offences, the racist equivalence of blackness with violent and aggressive sexuality endures in a historical context in which the fear of miscegenation drove the state sanctioned lynching of black men who so much as looked at white women in public. John Worboys, the ‘black cab rapist’, a white man without the same wealth or status as that of Weinstein or Savile to hide behind, is thought to have sexually assaulted upwards of 100 women by drugging them in his cab. He was free to continue his crimes for six years due to ‘serious’ and ‘systematic’ investigative failings by the London Met police. Before he was finally arrested in 2008, four women had reported offences he had committed. An IPCC report into the police investigation of Worboys found, amongst other conclusions, that officers had adopted a mind-set that a black-cab driver ‘would not commit such an offence’. One recorded the following observation after taking a statement from a complainant: ‘The victim cannot remember anything past getting in the cab. It would seem unlikely that a cab driver would have alcohol in his vehicle, let alone drug substances.’
When offences of this nature and on this scale are revealed they are often portrayed as anomalous and as an interruption or shock from business as usual. The reality, however, is that this is business as usual. That men abuse women with impunity is a completely normalised aspect of the racist hetero-patriarchal state in which we live, and one that women and other marginalised communities navigate daily. We need to talk about sexual harassment and abuse not as anomalous, pathological or ‘evil’, but as the everyday expression of male domination. This must be done in a way that reflects accurately the historical dialectic by which institutions come to protect and reproduce the rape culture that supports such domination.
The Weinstein affair, along with those of Savile and others in the UK, illustrate clearly how existing structures of domination coalesce to protect sexual predators and to silence and erase their victims. These structures of domination exist and flourish within many institutions, including the public and private corporations in which Savile and Weinstein operated, to the criminal justice system, and indeed inside universities. A critical appraisal of the ubiquity of sexual harassment and abuse in our culture must reckon with the ways in which these institutional structures inform and sustain one another. In the UK, research by the National Union of Students in 2014 revealed that one in four students reported experiencing ‘unwelcome sexual advances’. A recent report by the National Union of Students in Australia, found that only 9% of those students who experienced harassment or abuse had complained to their university. Those who didn’t reported being deterred by a lack of clear policies on the issue, and a systemic approach by institutions to ‘sweep allegations under the carpet’. As leading cultural theorist Sara Ahmed notes in her research into racism and sexism and the politics of complaint, when a complaint is made within the university a network comes to life to protect those who are networked. Those who complain about sexual harassment are often, in turn, harassed by the institution in the service of damage limitation.
Women’s groups are at the vanguard of resistance to this institutional business as usual, organising and enacting dissent in the service of holding the criminal justice system to account for its failure to do what it says it will do. The National Union of Students in the UK has initiated and rolled out its own consent training on campuses, and demanded that the legislature revise its guidelines for Universities dealing with sexual abuse on campus. This work does not come without its costs. As Ahmed notes, engaging in the politics of complaint within the institution requires one to become a diversity worker. This, in turn, requires that we attempt to ‘dismantle the structures that were not built to accommodate us’. As becomes rapidly apparent to anyone who engages in this work, those structures are built to withstand our attempts to call them to account. However, if we take our chances when the time is right to become a ‘wench in the works’, to ‘repurpose shrapnel’ falling down around us, it might be possible to build something different in its stead.
*This note was first published on 19/10/2017 by Wildcat Dispatches.