Sex and Power: How an Old Relationship Is Changing—Anita Hill to Harvey Weinstein | Esther Perel

In 1991, U.S. attorney Anita Hill testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment, and nevertheless, the United States Senate confirmed Thomas to the Supreme Court. In 2017, after many women broke the silence on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein with a horrifying number of allegations of sexual abuse, Weinstein was fired from his own company. Actor Kevin Spacey was fired from various productions after allegations of his transgressions surfaced. The same for comedian Louis C.K. And so on and so on in this monumental landslide. So what’s changed between 1991 and 2017? Why are institutions no longer protecting accused abusers? Psychotherapist Esther Perel believes it’s not the accused who have changed over time—they are not worse today or more prevalent than they were then—but rather it’s the accuser who has changed. In the past women did not speak out against sexual abuse because of the fear that they would not be believed. It was “part of the deal” of life as a woman, says Perel. Women today, however, finally have enough social power to withstand the forces of denial. “And so the system, for the first time, has to reckon and has to act with consequence to the allegations that are being made,” says Perel. The old dynamic between men and women is shifting, and there is rising proof that women will no longer tolerate having to ignore or manage sexually violent or unwarranted interactions. So where do we go from here? Perel champions increased understanding between men and women, rather than demonization, and recommends a shift in gender socialization that begins in childhood—meaning no more pink for girls and blue for boys. No more divisive constructs that make men and women feel as though they are from different planets. Esther Perel is the author of The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. See more at estherperel.com.

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Transcript: Sexuality and power are tightly interwoven, and this is not the first time that people have taken on the abuses of power that are inflicted upon people through the currency of sex. Anita Hill, not that long ago, took on Clarence Thomas. But maybe what changed is not so much the accused as much as the accuser. That perhaps women today have enough ‘massa’ and enough power themselves to withstand the forces of denial.

And so the system, for the first time, has to reckon and has to act with consequence to the allegations that are being made. The big question is not why is there anything more happening today; it’s that people have not spoken out—women, children, lots of people who often were disempowered and humiliated—did not speak out because of the fear that they would not be believed.

This is what is changing. That the burden of proof is switching a little bit and a certain norm is shifting.

One of the very good examples for me when I look at shifting norms is corporal punishment. For a long time parents and teachers could hit their children. It was part of discipline and part of childrearing. A norm shifted that said: “This is no longer possible. This is actually not a means for education. This is not a decent pedagogy. This is harmful and this is violent.”

Similarly something is shifting in the conduct between men and women. It’s a given that power and sex are intertwined, but sometimes they are intertwined in a way where it becomes power to, and therefore there is a power to feel affirmed, to feel desired, to feel strong, et cetera, versus a power over, and that is a form of humiliation, of oppression in which it is very little about sex and a lot more about violence.

So I think first of all, we’re using the word ‘misconduct’ and we are lumping in that word a number of different behaviors. We are talking about harassment, we are talking about assault, we are talking about rape. These are very different experiences, degrees of experiences, first of all.

Second: I think that before we only focus on misconduct we need to talk about male sexuality, male sexual conduct rather than only the misconduct. There needs to be a context to this. So it is true that in a different context women of a certain generation accepted a certain kind of banter or a certain kind of conversation, vocabulary, sexualization, use of power that they themselves participated in as well, that allowed women to actually be told all kinds of things for which they would have had probably different reactions than the younger generation today. It just was part of the deal. That’s what you have to contend with, and you know that some of them are vulgar and some of them have utter poor taste and some of them are creepy, and you just manage it. You manage a culture like that.



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