Assessing cultural shift around sexual misconduct

The recent firing of “Today” co-host Matt Lauer by NBC offers yet another vantage point from which to see the ascendant tip of a very large iceberg—that for far too long—had been on the periphery of American society.

As prevailing industries continue to cleave off men facing allegations of sexual misconduct—the New York Times counts nearly 40 influential men since October 5, who have either resigned, been fired, or removed from their post—it begs the question: are we experiencing a cultural shift in how we deal with sexual assault and sexual harassment?

Given the national imagination is currently subsumed by the almost daily accounts of powerful men falling like dominos, it would seem that accountability is somewhat different for this set of perpetrators, or that things may have changed. But as Marc Coronado, Department Chair of Women’s Studies at De Anza, stated, “[I] have seen many moments in American life when we hoped that these patterns of gender discrimination, sexual assault, and sexual harassment were at the forefront of the news, but when the moment passed,” she said. “Very little changed.”

Perhaps looking back, not that long ago, we can find parallels to what may be unfolding in our current discourse. In 1991, Anita Hill, a prominent legal scholar and former subordinate under Clarence Thomas, who was then nominee to become Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, withstood excessive public scrutiny after bringing serious allegations of sexual misconduct against Thomas.

“Acts of violence were perpetrated against her twice – once during the actual harassment and once by having to air the facts in public before a committee that seemed not to care about what happened,” Coronado said.

After Hill detailed unwanted sexual advances from Thomas, he was confirmed by the Senate, and still sits on the bench. And not unlike the 2016 election, President Trump was still able to assume the highest office of the land, particularly after talking unabashedly about grabbing women’s genitals on the “Hollywood Access” tape that surfaced during the campaign—in addition to a number of accusers also claiming Trump had aggressively touched them.

While famous actresses were rightly at the center of the conversation after the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment allegations last month, it’s usually the case accusers often grab the headlines, and thereby limit the added value that each revelation could contribute to our collective perception of the victims.

As such, coverage tends to recount and dwell on all the spoils that accusers’ lose, rather than the ways in which victim(s) were systematically exposed to abuse, retaliation, lack of recourse, and the numerous other ways corporate mechanisms permitted the acts.

Reasons these aspects may not always get top-billing? Perhaps it’s due to what we consider, as a society, as newsworthiness.

“We are able to look past these acts of violence because we don’t perceive them AS violence,” Coronado said. “We think of them as sex, and too many people believe that men should dominate women, not only sexually, but in every other arena.”

So until we peer into the modus operandi of the many industries and institutions from which these allegations permeate from, we may just as well expect more faces of men to come down the pipeline of abusers.

“As long as the power structure in the US is dominated by patriarchy and paternalism,” Coronado said. “There will be little change in how victims are believed or treated.”