US airwaves should have been dominated by the politics of money over the last few weeks. As Republicans try to muster the legislative cohesion to pass tax reform, we ought to have been debating income redistribution and whether trickle-down economics is just an intellectual smokescreen to rationalise huge tax cuts for big political donors. Instead, we've been consumed by the politics of groping, and whether multiple allegations of child molestation are enough to disqualify you from serving in the US Senate.
If you're an Alabama Republican, the answer appears to be no. Judge Roy Moore has denounced his parade of accusers as politically motivated, and defied his own national leadership to stay in the Senate race. His brazen denial has been supported by a phalanx of conservative pastors who appear to think that not only should women be 'seen and not heard,' they can also be 'inappropriately touched and not heard.'
We've even had the bizarre spectacle of the Alabama state auditor comparing Moore's relationship with a 14-year-old to that of Mary and Joseph, explaining that it was not 'immoral or illegal...maybe just a little bit unusual.' Sadly, the gun-toting, Stetson-wearing Moore continues to be competitive in the polls, and you suspect, in a Caligula-like move, he could step down and bequeath the Senate nomination to his horse, and it might still beat the Democrat.
Moore is only one contender in a congested field of challengers for the now transatlantic award of sexual predator of the month. A rogues' gallery of actors, journalists, sportsmen, comedians, and politicians are now in the cross-hairs, with their accusers encouraged by the quick and decisive take down of Harvey Weinstein, the entertainment emperor who often conducted business with no clothes. The deluge of allegations has ranged from recent indecencies, such as those by comedian Louis CK, to historical claims that erstwhile pillars of the establishment, like President George H W Bush, acted inappropriately.
The national conversation has also revisited how prior claims of political sexual harassment were dealt with, from the 1990s behaviour of Bill Clinton to last year's allegations against the current president. Trump's silence on the Moore case at least shows some self-awareness that, at least on this topic, he is living in a glass house as well as a White House, and that he should put down the Twitter rock in his hand.
Beyond being cannon fodder for cable news, the larger question is whether the current righteous fervour represents a watershed moment that heralds real societal change. The sad truth is that we've been here before many times. Nearly 30 years ago, law professor Anita Hill testified in compelling and graphic detail before the Senate judiciary committee about how she had been sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, only to see him be confirmed to the seat on the US Supreme Court that he still occupies.
The reality is that outrage over sexual harassment is unlikely to have any sustained impact until we see structural change on equality. The common thread in most of these current stories is men's abuse of power; whether it be the power to cast you in a Hollywood movie, the influence to make or break a young staffer's political career, or simply the economic leverage of withholding a tip if a waitress in a bar takes offence at a lewd comment.
If positions of power continue to be dominated by men, then those positions will continue to be abused for sexual favours. In the corporate world, the evidence of the impact of equality is clear. When there is one woman on a board of directors, their voice tends to be ignored. When there are two women, they can support each other, but are still treated as a minority. But when 30% plus of a board are woman, that is when the men start to change their behaviour and become more respectful and inclusive.
One of the most gratifying aspects of the recent elections in the US was that women recognised that to create change they need to occupy positions of power. Of the 14 seats that the Democrats picked up in the Virginia state legislature, women replaced white men in 11 of them, and in a sweet irony, the Republican delegate who drafted Virginia's anti-transgender bathroom law was unseated by the state's first transgender legislator.
In addition to equalising power between the sexes, we also need to start calibrating the punishment to fit the crime. Zero tolerance for sexual harassment shouldn't translate into undifferentiated knee-jerk penalties. Throughout its history, the US has been vulnerable to 'burn the witch' type hysterias that have ranged from the actual Salem girls in colonial Massachusetts to the 'reds under the bed' paranoia of the 1950s.
Senator Al Franken should absolutely be censured for taking advantage of a practice kiss to push his tongue down the throat of a co-star, but that behaviour clearly isn't in the same category as the molestation of a minor or the rape charges levelled at some celebrities. Also, unlike many of the other accused, Franken immediately admitted wrongdoing and suggested that the Senate ethics committee launch an investigation, while Moore and Trump have both threatened to sue their accusers.
We obviously don't live in a world of nuance at the moment, but we need to find a way to be both unequivocal in our condemnation of inappropriate behaviour while also being proportionate in our response. It's also vital that men lead the condemnation of other men, rather than hiding behind the Trump defence of 'locker room banter' and leaving it to the victims.
The other balance we need to strike is that, while accusers must be given the benefit of the doubt, we still need to be objective and evaluate the facts of these cases, including the motives of the victims in coming forward. In the case of Judge Moore, many of his accusers are self-professed Trump voters with nothing obvious to gain, while Franken's single accuser has been a regular contributor to right-wing Fox News. As President Reagan said of arms control, our approach to allegations of sexual misconduct needs to be trust but try to verify, to ensure that broad-brush accusations can't be weaponised for political gain.
Maybe with a more supportive environment, woman can also be encouraged to deal with sexual harassment issues as they happen, rather than being cowed into silence. Judge Moore's accusers are credible and the reporting well-sourced, but it's an easy out for his supporters to impute purely political motives by questioning 'why now?' after nearly 40 years of silence. Moore himself provided the answer to that question. When Beverley Nelson claimed she fought off Moore's advances in his car as a 16-year-old, he told her 'you're just a child, and I'm the district attorney of Etowah County, so if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you.'
It's welcome progress that many women are now feeling empowered and seem more confident that they will get the benefit of the doubt when they make accusations, but sadly this is only the start of the change that is required. To make real progress, we're going to need an ongoing, depoliticised, mature, and nuanced dialogue that sets boundaries, codifies resolution processes, and establishes punishments that fit the crimes.
Unfortunately, in a US political environment riven by tribalism and unalloyed ideology, the idea of a mature national debate seems preposterous. But if this isn't to be just another cycle of outrage followed by regression, then we need to buckle down and try to find ways to navigate the tangled thicket of issues that constitute sexual harassment in America.
SR's partner organisation, the Young Programme charity, is looking to recruit an additional member of our creative team for the 2018 season. We organise courses of professional development for people in the early stages of their careers. These include the Young Scotland Programme, the Young England and Wales Programme, and the Young Ireland Programme. If you have an ability to communicate with young people, a thorough knowledge of current affairs, experience of chairing and facilitating discussion, and the freedom to commit to at least six residential events a year, each of three days' duration, you could well be the ideal person for this assignment. You would be paid a daily rate, and your travel and accommodation costs would be met by the Young Programme. Interested? Then the director of the Young Programme, Fiona MacDonald, would like to hear from you. Email her on firstname.lastname@example.org with your CV and a covering letter of application no later than Friday 8 December.