The Court of Public Opinion
On episode 159 of the More Perfect Union, my co-hosts and I talked about the sexual misconduct accusations against Chris Hardwick. He stands accused of mistreating a past girlfriend who published her version events, albeit without naming him, last week. Someone put the pieces together and Mr. Hardwick suffered swift social and professional consequences.
On our podcast, Kevin remarked that the internet should not be the place where justice is meted out against sexual predators. He says – not without reason – that the place for hashing out the details and exacting punishment is in the court system. Kevin has serious misgivings this kind of phenomenon, saying that the public square isn’t the venue for discussing consequences for sexual misconduct.
As I listened to the playback of the episode, I found myself thinking “Isn’t it?”
Before I go on, let’s stipulate a few facts. First, we should stipulate the judicial system is, as I said on the podcast, often hostile to victims of sexual assault. The statistics on sex crimes that go either unreported, un-prosecuted, or un-convicted are staggering. Next, we must stipulate that rape culture exists. Finally, we must stipulate that the existence of rape culture leads to the failure of the judicial system to protect victims of assault.
If you cannot agree to those basic facts, the rest of what I’m going to say is going to piss you way off. Be forewarned.
We cannot improve judicial outcomes for sex crimes without first dismantling rape culture. It is not possible to get a fair trial for a rape if any person in the room is thinking “Well, but what was she wearing?” or “How much did they drink?” or “But he had sex with him the previous weekend.” Those thoughts are omnipresent and insidious and we are all guilty of them. Don’t lie to yourself, my fellow feminists. Even we have to slap our reptilian brains back into line when they pop off with an idea like that before our more enlightened angels remind us that VICTIM BLAMING IS WRONG.
Thank heavens many of us do have the capacity to check ourselves before we go too far down the path of judging the victim in any sex crime case. But not everyone does and that’s why known-assailant sex crimes are still rampant. There are too many people – both victims and perpetrators – who think a particular outfit is permission to grope a person or that accepting an invitation to dinner is tantamount to consenting to sex. And because the system is weighted toward believing rape culture over rape victims, the consequences of being an assailant, on whatever scale, are not as severe as they should be.
In other words, there is no incentive for the judicial system or rape culture to change.
But what if, just what if, there was an understanding that sexual crime could always become public and there was always a social consequence to committing them? What if committing a sex crime could conceivably lead to loss of job, loss of friendships, loss of romantic prospects in the future, loss of social standing in general? What if being held accountable for sexual misconduct was so common that everyone had to think to themselves “What will happen to me if I lay hands on this person right now? Will I be ruining my life?”
Would that level of consciousness be a bad outcome?
We are not a society that has ever been shy about judging the sexual actions of others, particularly the sexual actions of women. Monica Lewinsky comes to mind. The things Rudy Giuliani recently said about Stormy Daniels. Even the woman who was brutally raped by Brock Turner was judged for the amount she had to drink that night. Most women will tell you that they approach sexual situations with a voice in their head saying “What will be the consequence if anyone finds out about this?” because we know that slut-shaming is real and so are the barriers to accessing true criminal justice through the courts.
Someone reading this is now picturing a matriarchal dystopia where any woman can demand extra-judicial punishment for any man on the most spurious grounds. They probably even think I would welcome that. Would I? Well…
I kid! I’m no vigilante and I don’t want to derail the justice system. But the justice system we have isn’t stopping sex crimes and neither is the culture we’ve had up until now. Maybe…maybe this is what it’s going to take. Maybe a few men need to be toppled off the throne of privilege in order for other would-be assailants to realize that sexual assault has very real consequences. Maybe it should be standard for everyone to take a moment to consider the possibilities before we attempt to touch another person’s body and maybe the possibility of becoming a pariah should be a valid concern.
If anything good comes out of this latest set of allegations against a celebrity, I hope that it’s this: I hope that somewhere, a person who might otherwise try to force or coerce a partner into bed stops and thinks “What will happen if anyone finds out about this? Will I lose my job? Will I lose my friends? Would it be better to stop? Yes. It would.”
That’s the change I want to see.