Melinda Henneberger

Sexual harassment’s Berlin Wall came down brick by brick

Law professor Anita Hill’s reluctant testimony against Clarence Thomas did not make it safe to talk about transgressive office behavior.
Law professor Anita Hill’s reluctant testimony against Clarence Thomas did not make it safe to talk about transgressive office behavior.

When the Harvey Weinstein story first broke, and even as it kept right on breaking, I didn’t dare to hope that this was the long-awaited tipping point beyond which most of the world would no longer be able to play dumb about the nearly universal experience of sexual aggression and harassment.

I did hope that way back in 1991, when law professor Anita Hill spoke up. But then, well, her reluctant testimony against Clarence Thomas did not make it safe to talk about transgressive office behavior. Instead, he was confirmed, and she was dismissed as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”

Arkansas nursing home owner Juanita Broaddrick’s credible claim that Bill Clinton had raped her in 1978, when he was governor and she was volunteering for his campaign, didn’t even keep him from being beloved by feminists.

Thirty years later, it was downright trendy to nod and concur that there was a lot to be said for the sympathetic, oh-so-nuanced documentary portrait of Roman Polanski, who’d drugged and raped a seventh grader at Jack Nicholson’s house in 1977.

Even when David Letterman apologized in 2009 for having sexually harassed various women who’d worked for him, he called it “something stupid I’ve gotten myself involved in.” The former late-night TV host received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor this fall, and the long, glowing profile of him that ran in the Washington Post on Oct. 18 — yes, of 2017 — fleetingly referred to that little hiccup as “the embarrassing affair with a staffer he revealed on the show in 2009 after a former CBS news producer threatened to blackmail him.”

The late Roger Ailes eventually lost his Fox News empire but even then, walked away with a $60 million payout. And yes, every one of the some 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump either didn’t believe his 16 accusers, or didn’t find what they said he did to them enough of a reason not to.

So why would one Hollywood dirtball’s confirmation of a cliché as old as the highly euphemistic “casting couch” provide the last needed nudge to the tectonic plate that finally set off this ongoing global volcano? All of the above, probably, plus thousands of Mark Halperins across the land, and millennia of the kind of abuse of power that women (and men) from Topeka to Paris won’t stop talking about any time soon.

But now what?

Is it too crazy to believe that non-movie stars will begin to feel they can report everyday bad actors in real time, without fear of reprisal?

That state lawmakers will do away with statutes of limitations on sex crimes?

There’s some evidence already that many schools are sensibly ignoring the Trump administration’s actions to undermine Obama-era efforts to get colleges to take campus rape more seriously.

(And no, there is no conflict between those efforts and due process protections for the accused. That’s why UMKC’s interim chancellor, Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, told The Star’s editorial board this week that the school isn’t changing how it handles sexual assault reports one iota. “We’re not willing to settle for a lower standard of care” for victims, she said.)

A California lawmaker plans to introduce a bill that would ban confidentiality provisions in monetary settlements for sexual assault and harassment, which would prevent predators from paying up and then skipping away undetected, just like the pedophile priests who for so long were assigned again and again to new parishes with dirty secrets and clean slates.

Suddenly, these reforms do seem possible, not someday but now. If it feels to victims like the Berlin Wall that no one really believed could fall came down just like that, no, it didn’t. Every single soul who spoke out along the way, as she was able, or supported someone else who did, had a part in this.

Along with every woman and man who wrote #metoo in recent weeks, they have made this whole astonishing festival of forced atonement look almost inevitable in retrospect. Almost.