As I write, the cascading revelations about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s creeptastic behavior over the last thirty years are dominating the news cycle. Platoons of women are coming forward with credible accusations of sexual exploitation, assault, and even outright rape.
Weinstein himself is not actually denying any of these accusations, so I’m going to assume that enough of them are true to define him as a criminal, a pervert, and a supremely nasty mass of noxious slime.
And yet, and yet…the libertarian and contrarian in me is balking at the quality of some of the outrage being flung around. One question, in particular, gives me pause.
There is an article I read and cannot recover reporting what at least some of Weinstein’s escapades looked like from the point of the owner of a restaurant he regularly took starlets to for intimate dinners. The interviewee sardonically noted that these followed a regular pattern: women dressed to the nines, lots of flirting and whispering and smiling, the couple disappearing for a while and then coming back with the woman looking “somewhat the worse for wear”.
Cheesy and sleazy, yes, but it does not sound like these women were being dragged by the hair. I say this without dismissing other accounts of much less consensual behavior – the gropings, the assaults and…masturbating in front of a reporter? Really?
It’s exactly because Weinstein is a contemptible blob of muck that we need to be extra careful about asking that one question: should we condemn the consensual behavior of Weinstein and J. Random Starlet trading sex for a shot at the big time?
I’m not comfortable with treating the women in those restaurant scenes as helpless victims. Yes, I’ll stipulate that Weinstein had victims, the women he groped and raped. But a woman who has dolled herself up and is visibly flirting with a man is not a helpless victim; she’s in a dance she could easily end, and if she doesn’t it’s because she’s fishing for something she wants.
Maybe the something she wants is a relationship, maybe it’s sex, maybe it’s money, and maybe it’s screen time in a mogul’s next movie. Is that, of itself, anyone else’s business? Who are we who deny her agency?
One obvious objection to this argument is that we’d get a result nobody thinks is acceptable if Weinstein were, say, a senior partner at a law firm and the woman were an intern or new associate. But, dear reader, if you are honest with yourself, you know Hollywood is different. Though perhaps you haven’t been analytical about why.
The blunt truth is that for aspiring young actresses Hollywood is a sexual marketplace to begin with, and they know it. A woman who makes it through the initial starlet phase may earn a reputation for acting chops, but at that beginning all she really has to trade on her is her attractiveness. The step from “I have to be sexy to a million men” to “I have sex with this mogul” is not really very large. Especially because women are turned on by power to begin with.
That’s why the law-firm analogy doesn’t work. The associate asked to dinner by a senior partner at her firm might be a bit turned on by power signals, but being attractive to men is not in her job description and she can rightly consider the implication that she might want to trade sex for influence to be deeply insulting and prejudicial against her career prospects.
The mogul who hits on a starlet is saying “Yeah, you’re succeeding at your basic job skill.” The senior partner hitting on an intern is saying “Sex might be the only thing you have to trade.” That difference makes a difference.
Odd as it may seem, I’m arguing for the woman’s agency to be respected in both cases. Even if it means giving the likes of Harvey Weinstein a partial pass for sleazy behavior.