When a story as well-known to people “in the know” as movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s predatory sexual behavior towards women under his power comes to light, the inevitable questions are “why did it take so long” and “why now?”
Weinstein’s accusers and antagonists were dogged, but they were no less so 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. One obvious answer, suggested by Rebecca Traister in a widely-circulated column and others like Ross Douthat, is that Weinstein has lost enough of his clout in Hollywood that it’s finally safe to call him out (a dynamic that’s hardly unique to Weinstein). Douthat’s masterful 2014 column on the nature of sexual abuse and how it thrives wherever people have unquestioned power and authority remains the gold standard on this issue. (Douthat’s reference then to “Hollywood and the wider culture industry” as “still the great undiscovered country of sexual exploitation, I suspect” seems prescient now). Another is simply that sexual mores have changed. But I think we are missing an important element.
Specifically, there’s one important piece missing from Traister’s column, especially this part, referencing how hard it was to get anyone interested in taking on Harvey Weinstein in 2000:
His behavior toward women was obviously understood to be a bad thing—this was a decade after Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas had helped the country to understand that sexual harassment was not just a quirk of the modern workplace, but a professional and economic crime committed against women as a class. But the story felt fuzzier, harder to tell about Harvey: the notion of the “casting couch” still had an almost romantic reverberation, and those who had encountered Weinstein often spoke of the conviction that they would never be believed.
Something has changed. Sources have gone on the record. It’s worth it to wonder why. Perhaps because of shifts in how we understand these kinds of abuses. Recent years have seen scores of women, finding strength and some kind of power in numbers, come forward and tell their stories about Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump.