It all started with a joke.
It was October 16th, 2014, and stand up comedian Hannibal Buress was doing his routine at the Trocadero, a club in Philadelphia. He was talking about actor and comedian Bill Cosby, and his tendency to moralize at young black men.
Pull your pants up black people, I was on TV in the ’80s,” Buress said during a show at a Philadelphia comedy club, mocking Bill Cosby. “Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby. So turn the crazy down a couple notches.
He encouraged his incredulous audience to go home and Google “Bill Cosby rape.” *
Buress had been doing the Cosby bit in his routine for more than six months,* to no particular reaction, aside from the scattered, uncomfortable laughter of his audience, but that night in Philadelphia, something struck a chord. Philadelphia Magazine posted his performance on their website, and suddenly it seemed that all of the major media outlets – and everyone else – were asking the same question: How had Cosby managed to maintain his squeaky clean image for so long, if he was really a rapist?
Over the course of the following year, speculation became the horror of slowly dawning recognition. Women began to speak out, one after another after another, each new voice giving strength to the so-far silent ones which followed. They told eerily similar stories of Cosby promising to help with their careers, or using other means to get them alone, then drugging and sexually assaulting them. On their July 27- August 9, 2015 cover, New York Magazine posted a photo of thirty-five women who had already come forward to speak their truths about what Cosby had done to them… and one empty chair. The article inside that issue contained photographs and profiles of the women, details of many of the allegations against Cosby, and a resounding condemnation of the culture which had allowed him to get away with his harmful and predatory behavior for so very long.*
The day after the article was released, journalist Elon James White tweeted the cover photo, along with the hashtags #TheEmptyChair and #BillCosby.* For days, White’s twitter timeline was full of direct messages he’d received from anonymous women, telling their own “empty chair” stories.* Watching this as it happened, I felt that there was something new in the air. That something much bigger than the stories of these individual women – and exponentially more wide ranging than even the implications of the Cosby case would eventually be – was on the horizon.
The only criminal charges Bill Cosby faced were tried in June of 2017. The trial resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial. A miscarriage of justice, to many. He is scheduled to be re-tried in April of next year.*
But the something new was still in the air, and it was stirring, coming awake for perhaps the first time in history.
April 1st pf 2017, The New York Times explosively reported on the thirteen million dollars paid to five women who had accused the Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly of offenses including verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and phone calls in which it sounded as if Mr. O’Reilly was masturbating. Three days later, advertisers began to pull their ads from his show. April 18th, a new woman made accusations of both sexual and racial harassment against O’Reilly, including calling her “hot chocolate.” The next day, O’Reilly was fired by Fox.* Roger Ailes, the “father of Fox News,” had been fired the year before, for similar charges.*
September 16th, 2017, actress Amber Tamblyn penned an editorial in The New York Times, saying that she was “done with not being believed” about actor James Woods propositioning her when she was only sixteen.*
October 5th, 2017, almost exactly three years after Buress’ joke went viral, the New York Times published allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The Times investigation “…found previously undisclosed allegations against Mr. Weinstein stretching over nearly three decades.”* Within days, over 30 women had come forward with their own stories of being preyed upon by Weinstein, and worse, tales of how it was constantly hushed, ignored, swept under the carpet, and assiduously covered up by the rest of the powerful people in film-making.* And the stories kept coming.
The dam finally broke. The sleeping thing awakened. The sleeping thing that was the long-silenced collective voice of women who’d been harassed, intimidated, threatened, abused, assaulted and raped was no longer sleeping, and boy, was it pissed.
Over the next two months, up to the present, allegations have surfaced about actor Ben Affleck. Amazon executive Roy Price, Nickelodeon producer Chris Savino, Editorial director of Vox Media, Lockhart Steele, celebrity chef John Besh, writer-director James Toback, fashion photographer Terry Richardson, New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier and president/publisher Hamilton Fish, MSNBC political analyst Mark Halperin, E! News correspondent Ken Baker, actors Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Piven, NPR Chief Editor Michael Orestes, comedian Andy Dick, filmmaker Brett Ratner, Kentucky House Speaker Jeff Hoover, actors Dustin Hoffman, Ed Westwick, and Jeffrey Tambor, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Alabama judge and republican senate hopeful Roy Moore, Comedian Louis C.K., Warner Bros. producer Andrew Kreisberg, DC comics editor Eddie Berganza, theme park CEO Gary Goddard, Senator Al Franken, New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, PBS/CBS host Charlie Rose, Pixar and Disney Animation chief John Lasseter, Backstreet Boys singer Nick Carter, NBC host Matt Lauer, and radio personality Garrison Keillor, among others.*
And that’s just in the U.S.. Politicians in France and Britain are also facing a rising tide of allegations.
What’s strange isn’t that so many powerful men are alleged to have harassed, assaulted, and raped. What’s strange is that, for the first time in our history, people are listening to the victims. Sure, there are still the inevitable sneers of derision coming from the privileged, the entitled, the clueless and the guilty, claiming that these must be false accusations, that these women (and men) would have spoken up sooner if there had really been something wrong, that women are being too sensitive, that boys will be boys, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Those people, largely men, have always been there, ready to jump to the defense of anyone accused of sexual misconduct. The difference is, they were always the only voices anyone could really hear. The difference is, no one was speaking out against them, at least not loudly enough to be heard over the din of CRAZY LYING BITCHES and NOT ALL MEN!!
The difference is, that’s just not the case, anymore. Wealthy, powerful men are losing careers, social standing, businesses, and respect. Morning show hosts are grappling with the emotional dissonance of discovering a beloved colleague is also a sexual predator, and they’re doing it on air. This has reached critical mass. Our voices, so long kept silent by shame or fear or force or coercion, are finally being let out in the open, and the screams of those voices released is echoing around the globe like one endless, reverberating sonic boom.
Yet here in the U.S., We have a president who has, through his own admission, sexually assaulted and harassed multiple women. Who has admitted that he “move[s] on her like a bitch,” and “grabs them by the pussy.” Who is accused of child rape*, and marital rape.* Who is as misogynistic as they come, and entirely unapologetic about it.
We have a two party system in which one party is in near total power, and uses that power to further disenfranchise every oppressed class – the poor, people of color, indigenous people, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community – including and possibly even especially women.
Meanwhile, the other party is basically scrambling to keep up, to hold on to as many civil liberties and legislative not-losses as humanly possible.
The party currently in power has no scruples. They will find any reason to defend the election to the Senate of alleged pedophile (or for those who like to dicker about semantics, ephebophile) Roy Moore.
The party not in power is the party which has, in its current incarnation (pre-Roosevelt democrats aren’t relevant to this discussion), always championed the rights of the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the trod-upon… or, at least, that’s what we would like to believe of ourselves. Yet here we are, and we have an opportunity to show the country and the world that we stand by our principles, even when it is not politically expedient to do so… and we are not. Instead of demanding that our “problematic faves” be held as accountable as we want to hold those on the other end of the political spectrum, we’re caving in to flawed logic and sickening apologia. Instead of demanding that both Roy Moore on the right, and John Conyers and Al Franken on the left either withdraw from campaigning or resign their seat, we’re clinging to the idea that Conyers and Franken are irreplaceable, that losing them in their current offices will mean giving up champions for the civil rights of those who need such champions.
Conyers was on the judicial committee, the reasoning goes, and Trump is going to ram through too many right wing nominations if he’s not there.
Just how many has he stopped so far? I posit that it hasn’t been enough to make any discernible difference*, so putting another Democrat in that seat will not be in any way more damaging than leaving Conyers where he is, and could arguably be much less, given the allegations against him.
Likewise, there is a rallying cry from the apologists of, but Al Franken is a champion for women, and a respected voice in the senate! We can’t let this little groping business take him away from us, or we’re DOOOOOMED! (only very slight exaggeration, there).
The thing is, Franken would be replaced by a nominee from Minnesota, nominated by a democratic governor. And the governor has plenty of options, one of whom is state Attorney General Lori Swanson, who was one of five state Attorneys General to file suit against Donald Trump for his attempts at refusing Muslims entry into the United States. She is well known as a champion for the oppressed, and would likely be as prominent and respected a voice as anyone else. Or there’s representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress, who has a 100% rating from NARAL for his position on abortion. Then, in either 2018 or 2019, depending on when he stepped down, Franken’s seat would be put up for a special election… in a die-hard blue state.*
So all this fear-mongering and apologia is not only damaging and disgusting, it is also relatively pointless. These men are not irreplaceable. The fact that so many men have lived so much of their lives believing that they can’t be replaced is much of what’s brought us to this situation in the first place. After all, if they can’t be replaced, they can get away with anything, right? Like, perhaps, “grabbing women by the pussy?” “Moving on them like a bitch?”
When we excuse sexual harassment because it was done by someone we think is irreplaceable, or demand that their career and influence be given more weight than the consequences of what they’ve done, we are quite literally engaging in the same behavior as the republicans who excuse Trump’s behavior as “locker room talk,” or say that Roy Moore was only interested in 14-year-old girls because of their purity, which isn’t so bad, right? It doesn’t actually matter that some sexual crimes are worse than others, in this instance. We’re not talking about sentencing these men to prison for a rape sentence (which, in case you’ve forgotten, can be as little as three months – see Brock Turner). We’re talking about removing men who’ve caused harm to women from positions where they are supposed to represent women. It is really that simple.
Otherwise, without us demanding that sexual offenders always, without exception, be held accountable, I fear this is just going to return to what it was when it began.
A joke, and an empty chair.