Sexual Harassment

     In 2017-8, the long-simmering, long-suppressed scandal of sexual harassment of women in the workplace broke containment. It began when a handful of strong, brave entertainers credibly accused entertainment's worst offenders of sexual harassment. Men had objectified, harassed, demeaned, and groped them. Bosses had pressed for sexual favors, even forced them, and threatened reprisals if a woman refused to comply or spoke up after the fact. They decided they weren't going to take it anymore. Once a few stood up, dozens, then hundreds of others came forward. The tide began with entertainers, but women with standing in business and the media soon followed. Next came women with less power, such as hotel workers. The charges were sober and credible and many embraced the cause of reform. Titans of entertainment, media, business, and politics resigned in disgrace or were fired.

     Will that change the life of women? Reform won't be easy. Humans persist in familiar sins. Further, false accusations will inevitably generate a backlash and give miscreants a quantum of credibility when they deny accusations. Change may be especially difficult in cinema for economic reasons - Sex sells.

     The question is whether American society is willing to see a connection between the way our fictional worlds sexualize and objectify women and the way the real world does.

     The case of Harvey Weinstein, former head of Miramax and The Weinstein Company studios, is familiar. Although he produced an array of superb films, Weinstein was banned from the film industry for pressing actresses to undress and perform sexual acts in private. Ironically, a number of his best films required actresses to undress and perform sexual acts for public consumption.

     In fact, the film industry attracts viewers and makes money by entertaining the world with sexuality, nudity, violence, and depraved acts. The industry showered Weinstein with awards for his skills as a producer. While Weinstein produced an array of character-driven dramas (The King's Speech, Chocolat, Master and Commander), his films often feature strong violence or sexuality (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, There Will be Blood, Shakespeare in Love, Sin City). Remembering that a number of men have confessed to offenses (Louis C. K.) or pled guilty to crimes (Roman Polanski), should we not ask if certain men are drawn to the depiction of such acts because they are drawn to the acts themselves?

     Weinstein seemed to find it difficult to separate what his actresses did professionally from what he wanted them to do privately. Indeed, Salma Hayek, who co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in Frida for Miramax, alleged that Weinstein constantly asked for "more skin… more sex." Weinstein, who (Hayek reports) also threatened to kill her at one point, finally demanded that Hayek do a gratuitous nude scene "or he would never let me finish this movie." He would have "his fantasy one way or another." Hayak's op-ed piece in the New York Times describes the effects of his demand in heart-rending detail.[1]

     The case of Kevin Spacey, an award-winning actor, has parallels. Numerous people also accused him of sexual harassment and assault. Netflix swiftly fired him as the lead in the acclaimed dramatic series, House of Cards. Ironically (again), he lost the role for doing, in real life, approximately what his character did in his dramatic life. Both involved the abuse of power and sexual exploitation.

     Is reform of cinema possible? Maybe not. Sex and violence sell, perhaps because they offer potent vicarious thrills. But as philosopher Charles Taylor says, every culture has "cross-pressures" that question and resist its dominant values. In this case, the cross-pressure battling sexualized entertainment is the passion for justice and women's rights. But are people willing to see the connection between the sexualization and objectification of women in the fantasy world of movies and real world of business. If men constantly see attractive women sexualized on the screen, should we be surprised if men treat attractive businesswomen similarly? And while we are considering possible connections, could objectification, even dehumanization be a thread linking prostitutes, women in porn, models, and actresses in highly sexualized films? Let's at least call it a thesis that deserves debate.

     How might reform begin? In the home, parents will teach sons and daughters what they need to know about sexuality and respect. In economics, consumers will purchase modest clothing, creating demand for more. In entertainment, disciples should stop watching sexually immoral programs. Business leaders will establish zero tolerance for sexual harassment at work and model respect for women, yes, for legal reasons, but even more because it is right. The church must learn how to speak and act, in the public sphere, as a moral leader. That includes forgiveness of offenders through the gospel of grace, sensitive counsel for the victims of sexual mistreatment, the promotion of healthy marriages and sexuality, and the wise critique of the culture.

     This sounds like a moral program, and it is, but real reform always begins with the gospel. Without Christ, men will bounce from the sin of lasciviousness to the sin of self-righteousness, which, from an eternal perspective, is no improvement. It is better to confess that each of us – male and female – wants to get what we wish and sinfully misuses whatever power we have to get it. Everyone is a potential manipulator. It's what sinners do and we would be wise to find and confess our own sin before we accuse others. Then we can turn to the Lord both for forgiveness and for the strength to live with a holiness and faithfulness that begins to resemble his own

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

[1] Salma Hayek, "Harvey Weinstein is My Monster too" New York Times, Dec 12 , 2017


Dan Doriani