The press, trumpeting the lurid and salacious details of the sexual assault charges brought against powerful men, has missed the real story—the widespread popular revolt led by women, many of whom have stood up, despite vicious attacks and the dictates of legally binding nondisclosure agreements, to denounce the entitlement of the corporate and political elites. This women’s revolt is not solely about sexual abuse. It is about fighting a corporate power structure that institutionalizes and enables misogyny, racism and bigotry. It is about rejecting the belief that wealth and power give the elites the right to engage in economic, political, social and sexual sadism. It challenges the twisted ethic that those who are crushed and humiliated by the rich, the famous and the powerful have no rights and no voice. Let’s hope this is the beginning, not the end.
“Women are carefully choosing the men who are at the pinnacles of power to address race and class and sex,” the feminist Lee Lakeman told me when I reached her by phone in Vancouver. “[These women] know what they are doing. You can’t take down someone like Harvey Weinstein without affecting a whole industry. Feminism has never been just about protecting our individual self. It is a collective resistance. It has a vitality we need to use to deal with these hierarchies.”
“We need to get ourselves behind these women who are taking on the potentates,” she said. “… We need to draw attention to the structures of power. Clearly, women don’t want only an end to sexual harassment on the job. They want meaningful, secure jobs. They want respect for their work. They want to be believed when they speak. They want credit for their ideas. There is a focus now on the jobs. There was a moment when we focused on husbands. Now we are focused on our place in the public sphere. This is a structural attack. And this is an alliance of younger women and older women. This alliance sends men a message. It may take us 20 years, but we will get to you. It says this behavior will not go unmonitored. We may not get every guy, but you could be the one we get. It allows women to experience an uprising, what it feels like. This feeds the revolt.”
The pathology of men who force women to watch them masturbate in the shower or who close their office doors so they can drop their pants or grope terrified and humiliated job applicants, interns or co-workers is emblematic of the narcissism and unbridled self-adulation that come with excessive power. These assaults are expressions of the widespread objectification of women mainlined by a pornified culture. Eroticism is not mutual in pornography or prostitution. The men get off by humiliating, degrading, insulting and physically violating women. The current revelations are not, in the end, even about sex. They are about the solipsistic auto-arousal that the humiliation and physical abuse of women, a staple of porn and prostitution, have conditioned many men to confuse with sex.
Those who engage in this behavior, and Donald Trump is the poster child for this cultural sickness, are so atomized and narcissistic that to themselves they alone exist. They are stunted, deformed human beings. They are incapable of genuine relationships. They lack the capacity for empathy or self-reflection. Their abuse of women, however, is only one example of the myriad abuses they feel entitled to carry out in their professional and personal interactions. And, sadly, surrounding them are many enablers, including some women, who bow before the same idols of power and wealth to perpetuate this cruelty.
“All men benefit from this gender hierarchy and these systems of oppression,” Alice Lee, the co-founder of Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, based in Vancouver, told me. “Individual men collude in this oppression together, knowingly or unknowingly. The public discussion has yet to acknowledge this. ‘Nice’ men, or ‘progressive’ men, are trying to ignore their own complicity. This makes it harder to institute real systemic change. We will have to fight harder. Women are revolting and supporting each other to expose this collusion. They are demanding systemic change. But those men in power will never give up power unless they are forced to do so. [Women and the men who genuinely support them] need to work together to make systematic change in the workplace, in the justice system, in civil society and at home.”
Women activists have mounted a campaign to pressure NBC to release outtakes from Trump’s reality television show “The Apprentice” in which he allegedly repeatedly used racial or ethnic slurs, including against African-Americans and Jews. He also is accused in a defamation lawsuit of sexually harassing Summer Zervos, who appeared on the show as a contestant.
Trump was host of the show and one of its executive producers for 14 seasons. Those who worked on the series, which created the fictional public persona that Trump used to get elected to the presidency, signed nondisclosure agreements forbidding them to detail Trump’s behavior or remarks.
Trump’s attorneys on Tuesday will attempt to have the Zervos suit dismissed in the New York State Supreme Court. Zervos has accused Trump of “very aggressively” kissing her, groping her breasts and thrusting his genitals at her during a 2007 meeting at The Beverly Hills Hotel. She brought the defamation action after Trump said she and more than a dozen other women had lied when they said they had been sexually assaulted by him. Presidents, according to the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Clinton v. Jones, are not immune from civil law litigation for actions carried out before they assumed office.
The powerful men engaging in sexual predation live in a rarified universe where they own everyone around themselves. They demand unquestioned obedience. They must be the center of attention. Their opinions alone count. Their feelings alone are important. They cannot discern right from wrong and lies from truth. They are modern slave masters. Those who work for them are forced to sing, dance and provide physical pleasure or get the whip. And they have the power, granted to them by corporate and political institutions, to persecute and discredit any who defy them. This pathology captures not only the bleak inner core of Trump but also many of his political rivals, including Bill Clinton.
“We have been told for over 25 years that all that matters is wealth,” said Lakeman. “All that matters is what neoliberalism says matters. We have been told our movements are ineffective. They can’t make anything happen, whether that is peace on a global scale or peace between men and women. What’s going on right now tells women maybe we can make a difference.”
“This is a particular kind of politics,” Lakeman said. “It is women saying the left has not taken sexism seriously, has not taken women’s oppression seriously, and it won’t get away with this. Women are leading. It would be smart for anyone who wants transformation in the world to help us, help us fight class and race and sex bigotry.”
College fraternities are breeding grounds for sexual harassment and the objectification of women. The fraternities often ship their men-children straight into corporate offices and other institutions that wield power. The cult of the self defines corporate culture. It celebrates the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and an inability to feel remorse or guilt. The higher one rises in the corporate hierarchy, the more power and money one amasses, the more these traits are pronounced and rewarded. Hedonism and greed become insatiable. There is no sense of proportion, propriety or limits. It is a culture in which you use others or be used, where you seize as much as you can as fast as you can and ignore the consequences to yourself, those around you, your community and the planet. It is at once infantile and evil. It is also a path to collective self-destruction.
“These are men who profit from other people’s work,” Lakeman said of the celebrities and business and political elites. “Their jobs barely exist as independent. It is the nature of hierarchy to rip off the people below.”
“We are dealing with a global behavior,” Lakeman went on. “This women’s action is pointing out the behavior of powerful men throughout the industrial West. Women are deciding to tell bosses, liberal institutions and managers this behavior has to stop. They are going public immediately. No one trusts the liberal institutions, the owners or the managers to handle this.”
“Part of this tactic is to say that whether you like it or not we are going to oppose this, whether we win or not we will oppose this, whether we get the proper results or not we will oppose this,” Lakeman said. “This is spectacular. This is what it takes to make a difference. Collectively we seem to have agreed on whom to go after—the men who are holding economic, social and cultural power. It is astounding how these guys are being selected. Sexual harassment is only one face of this. We hate these men for their profiteering, their representation of what it means to be a man, their abuses of power. And even the ‘good guys’ who slide into this behavior have to be shown up. It has to stop. I don’t think it will end with men who hold this kind of power. But there is a very wise consensus that says we should go after the men we all agree on and behavior that is at once menacing and pathetic.”
The women’s revolt understands that our institutions, including those on the left, will not defend us. We must defend ourselves.
“We are looking at the end of the Roman Empire,” Lakeman said. “We are looking at people grasping in all manner of disgusting ways for power. Women are looking for a way out. They are looking for a way to address some of this. We have been denied all the promised ways. This is the result of 50 years of feminist work against violence. Those who hold positions of corporate and political power are very nervous. They can’t control this. There is a genuine uprising, and no one can find the leader to shut it down.”