In the last few days, my Facebook feed has been flooded with “me too” stories—a troubling, if not surprising, testament to how widespread sexual harassment and assault are. Harassment is so common that I realized—after watching 10 Hours Walking in NYC as a Woman—that I had unconsciously absorbed the idea that it was just part of being a woman. Unwanted (usually male) attention seemed like an uncontrollable force of nature.
Only it’s not. It’s a choice on the part of the individual. Beyond that, it’s also a cultural choice: whether we create a society that permits this kind of aggression or calls it out.
A few months back, I started writing down my thoughts about the yoga world’s Harvey Weinstein: Bikram Choudhury. After years of sexual misconduct allegations, the hot yoga innovator was finally ordered to pay 6.4 million dollars of punitive damages in 2016. In 2017, he fled the country and there is now a warrant out for his arrest.
As with Weinstein, these allegations were not new. When Benjamin Lorr published Hell-Bent (his alternatingly earnest and comic quest through the Bikram swampland) in 2012, Choudhury’s misdeeds were an open secret.
These kinds of “open secrets” are corrosive: they tarnish us all with our complicity and pave the way for future abuses. Open secrets are usually the reserve of the powerful—people who can threaten us with something to lose if we challenge them. Both Weinstein and Bikram used their wealth, influence, and deep legal teams to muzzle those who might speak out against them—a disturbing illustration of how power can purchase silence.
The irony is that power is conferred by consensus. As a group, we can prop up or take down an abuser. But this rarely seems to happen at the height of an abuser’s power. Harvey Weinstein, Bikram Choudhury, Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby were in their 60s and 70s when their crimes were fully exposed. It’s only once the tide is turning against an abuser that we give credence to their victims’ accusations.
That we find it so easy to ignore allegations is telling. We may chalk it up to an innocent-until-proven-guilty mentality but I think there’s something more nefarious at work: we don’t take sexual harassment and intimidation seriously. Worse, we don’t take the victims—often, but not always, women—seriously.
This eats away at our very humanity. Whether it’s a catcall on the street or coercing a colleague, the message that underpins it all is “you don’t have a right to be here.” When we stick our heads in the sand, we all reinforce that message.
Change will only happen when we turn our heads toward what we look away from and amplify the voices we'd sometimes rather not hear.