The floodgates have opened. Each day we open our newsfeeds or papers to stories about the latest men (or sometimes a woman) accused of sexual harassment or assault.
In the wake of accusations, heads have rolled, careers derailed and, mostly, women have rejoiced. Those of us who have endured the indignities of being a woman in a world where men still hold the reins — from demeaning, annoying and sometimes even absurd harassment to terrifying assault and rape — naturally feel a sense of vindication and relief. However, I fear that our cheers are premature and surely inadequate to address the issues and questions that all of us — women, the accused and employers alike — must address.
Speaking to women my age – particularly those of us who for decades have fought for women’s power and equality — I find that many are as troubled as I am about this new era.
Yes, it is great to be able to accuse and be believed. Yes, it is satisfying to see some get their just desserts. But where is this going and what precedents are we setting?
Despite the Salem witch trials, the lynching of hundreds of black men accused of sex crimes, the ousting of ‘reds’ from the film industry and the stoning of women accused of adultery throughout much of the Muslim world, do we really agree that accusations alone are enough for summary judgment?
I do not. I believe in due process and the right to confront one’s accusers — not only in a court of law but wherever decisions are made that affect one’s future. Those who affirm or even celebrate the current lack of due process, because for decades women were neither heard nor believed, need to remember that, while today it is men who are accused of wrongdoing, tomorrow it could be us.
It is time to remedy the lack of fair and equitable process, in Congress, at the New York Times, in workplaces, studios and corporations everywhere, where the rush to judgment often fails to consider long-term consequences to society as a whole.
Do we really agree that all forms of sexual abuse deserve the same punishment? I do not.
While luckily I have avoided rape, like many of my contemporaries, I have experienced a broad range of objectionable behavior. But a lewd comment, a sloppy leer, an unwelcome hand on the shoulder, a kiss or a grab of a breast, or even a forced embrace, is not the same as a bold and really repulsive proposition that makes unwanted sex the price of a job or promotion.
Shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime? While I resist the notion that accusations are necessarily the same as guilt, I cannot see that the banishment that a Harvey Weinstein or a Matt Lauer might deserve is appropriate for behavior that may be obnoxious, demeaning, or disturbing, but does not rise to the level of criminal activities like indecent exposure, physical assault or rape.
Finally, there is redemption. Here in Chicago, much of the discussion about criminal justice reform focuses on redemption and reentry in to the community. Are we not celebrated as a society that believes in second chances? I believe we turn away from those principles at our own peril.
Perhaps the new “Time’s Up” initiative, led by hundreds of well-known women, including Chicago’s own brilliant, long-time feminist attorney Tina Tchen, will come up with the answers. In the meantime, the rest of us need to consider whether we need better instruments of justice than the proverbial stones.