By Michelle Shvimer
Liam Neeson may have railed against human trafficking in the “Taken” franchise, but in a recent interview, he declared that sexual harassment allegations in the entertainment industry have gone slightly too far. In his own words, they’ve become “a bit of a witch hunt.”
Since the Weinstein incident, 71 high-profile men have been fired, resigned, or experienced a form of professional fallout from sexual misconduct allegations, some notable ones being Matt Lauer, David Sweeney and Louis C.K.
Rumours, controversies and scandals have run rampant in the entertainment industry since its founding. But sexual misconduct is something that has never before been productively brought into the spotlight and dealt with efficiently.
The #MeToo movement started as a platform to bring women out of their silence and to encourage them to come forward with their truth. As we heard from many women’s stories, allowing sexual misconduct to occur in their workplace was the only way to safeguard their careers. Sometimes, it would even be a ticket to kick-starting their careers. When the allegations began to come out and become accepted, suddenly, it was men’s careers that were jeopardized. This role reversal is perhaps one that men in Hollywood, like Liam Neeson, are not comfortable with.
However, women are not in any position of power or authority to destroy men’s careers for sport. Nor do they do so without facing their own ramifications in the process. Accusing someone of sexual misconduct, although potentially empowering, is a hardship in itself. In the process, a victim resurfaces traumatic past experiences and attracts critical media attention, potentially facing drawbacks in their own careers as well.
First, a victim would not go forward with sexual misconduct allegations without considering the impacts of their accusation. Allegations are also intensely investigated and not taken for granted, given the severity of their nature.
The real reason men like Liam Neeson, however, may conceptualize the #MeToo movement as a witch hunt is not merely because men are finally being asked to take accountability for their actions, but because they believe that some actions do not deserve accountability. When it comes to sexual assault, some people want to draw a line in the sand.
But do we need to set boundaries for sexual assault? And where can these boundaries exist? In the legal system? In society? In interpersonal interactions? The hope is that boundaries exist in all of these spaces, but sexual misconduct still occurs in all of these. These spaces are concentric circles in which laws, power dynamics, gender constructs and individuals’ agency are in play every day, so they will inherently overlap. The question becomes how can we minimize sexual misconduct from happening in any and all of these spaces?
What all men can agree upon is that rape is wrong. Good, true. But when asked to consider inappropriate touching or communication as forms of sexual misconduct, some men may want to strike those down as illegitimate concerns. Maybe it’s time we reconstruct the standard of sexual misconduct.
The thing is, sexual misconduct is much more easily categorized in spaces such as the legal system or in society, but interpersonal interactions is when the perspective starts to go south.
The biggest indicator of sexual harassment is the context in which it took place, i.e. an individual’s perspective in the situation. If an interaction makes someone feel uncomfortable because of inappropriate touching or language, then it is a form of sexual harassment in their eyes. And this experience is not exclusive to women. When anyone is sexualized in a manner that does not fit the nature of their relationship or situation, it is sexual harassment. When someone is left feeling taken advantage of, then it is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not synonymous with rape or sexual abuse; it is harassment. And when it takes place in a professional environment, as in the case of the Hollywood allegations, it is sexual misconduct, defined as unacceptable or improper behavior. And not trusting the judgement of women when they believe they have experienced it is further disenfranchising them.
The devil is in the details, Liam. A slap on the butt is not the same as rape. But one slap on the butt is often not the cause of any firings or resignations of the accused. Allegations have been the cause of a devaluation and sexualization of women, one that has made them uncomfortable and traumatized enough to encourage them to speak out. And if I was a man, I would be more scared of the fact that women have faced this treatment for so long than the threat of being accused. Because if you have treated women fairly and appropriately, you wouldn’t feel threatened, and you would feel safer that those who have mistreated others are facing repercussions.