Sexual abuse and trial by denunciation

I don’t feel that, as a citizen, I can take on the responsibility of judging the innocence or degree of guilt of every public figure accused of sexual misconduct.

Even though the Court of Public Opinion is at present the basic venue for trying such cases.

To make informed judgments, I would have the time, inclination and ability to judge in each case whether the person was guilty of (1) a felony, (2) a misdemeanor, (3) gross bad manners or (4) nothing at all that matters.   I’d also have to weigh whether it was a one-time event in the fairly distant past or a continuing pattern over a long period of time.

Most people are too busy to do this.   They judge on the basis of whether there is just one accusation or a lot of them, and on whether the accused admits guilt or stands their ground..

The problem is that there are two kinds of people without guilty consciences—the innocent and the shameless.  If you can manage to act innocent, many people will assume you are innocent.


As I wrote in a previous post, I’ve been blind to how pervasive sexual harassment is.   Evidently there is a world of rich, powerful celebrities who think, often rightly, that they can get away with anything.  I recall the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the powerful French politician and financial official, who thought it was his prerogative to have sex with a random hotel maid.

But sexual abuse does not occur just on the upper levels of society.  One thing I’ve known about for years, but always put out of my mind, is the rape of young boys in the American prison system.

It’s a good thing, not a bad thing, that we Americans are waking up to the situation.   What we need are procedures for dealing with sexual abuse so that guilty are treated as they deserve and the relatively innocent also are treated as they deserve.

Greater union representation would help.  Union grievance procedures would give employees a way to seek justice.   Federal laws should be enacted to establish that no employee could be fired for complaining about sexual harassment, just as, under law, no employee can be fired for acting in concert with others to demand improvement in working conditions.

Arbitration could help, if the arbiters were truly impartial.   This would require panels in which employees had as much representation as employers.  Simple enforcement of the law, without fear or favor, is important.  Putting women in positions of authority would make a big difference.


Some other thoughts:

  • Decisions made through a process of (1) denunciation, (2) fear of bad publicity and (3) immediate punishment are unlikely to be good decisions.   “Zero tolerance” does not help.   If you say that Al Franken or Garrison Keillor are just as bad as Harvey Weinstein, you are saying that Harvey Weinstein is no worse than Al Franken or Garrison Keillor.
  • There is a long history of taking down troublesome politicians and reformers by entrapping them in sexually compromising situations—sometimes faked and sometimes not.   The current crusade makes this easier to do than before.
  • It is perfectly possible to have an over-reaction in which people’s lives are ruined for harmless or trivial missteps while rich and powerful individuals commit actual crimes with impunity.  In fact, this is the norm.   Punishing the innocent does not deter the guilty.


Sexual abuse is a serious problem.

Men in Power Abusing Women – What a Surprise! by Peter Montague for Counterpunch.

#MeToo Is All Too Common in National Security by Rosa Brooks for Foreign Policy magazine.

Will Women in Low-Wage Jobs Get Their #MeToo Moment? by Clare Malone for FiveThirtyEight.

Will the Prison Rape Epidemic Ever Have Its Weinstein Moment? by Natasha Lennert for The Intercept.   Men and boys are victims, too.

We don’t have a good way to deal with it.

How Wall Street Silences Women by Susan Antilla for The Intercept.

The Problem With Privilege and Divulging Sexual Assault by Hilary Kelley for Glamour magazine.

How Our Broken Justice System Led to a Sexual Harassment Crisis by David Dayen for The New Republic.

Why Some Organizations Are More Prone to Sexual Harassment by Marianne Cooper for The Atlantic.

Training Programs And Reporting Systems Won’t End Sexual Harassment | Promoting More Women Will by  Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev for Harvard Business Review.

But we don’t want a Soviet-style atmosphere in which mere denunciation is sufficient to ruin someone’s life or career.

The Great American Sex Panic of 2017 by William Kaufman for Counterpunch.

Weaponized Outrage Is a Threat to Free Speech by Jeet Heer for The New Republic.

The Destruction of Matt Taibbi by Walter Bragman for Paste magazine.

Franken’s former staff thinks the “Me Too” movement got the wrong guy by Alex Thomas for Vice news.

The Real Reason We Can’t Just Believe All Women by StrategyCamp for Medium.   Emmett Till was murdered because of charges of sexual harassment.

Why the #MeToo Movement Should Be Ready for a Backlash by Emily Yoffe for POLITICO.

It’s complicated.

Seven Reasons So Many Guys Don’t Understand Sexual Consent by David Wong for

The Unsexy Truth About Harassment by Melissa Gira Grant for the New York Review of Books.

Kick Against the Pricks by Laura Kipnis for the New York Review of Books.

Why Are We Hunting Warlocks? by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.


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