In Defense of a Monster

Paz de la Huerta, the woman alleging that she was twice raped by Harvey Weinstein, said that the second time it happened he had manipulated her into letting him into her apartment.  If true, Weinstein deserves to be swiftly and thoroughly punished, but virtually everything rests on the coherence of Huerta’s recounting.  Is it not strange that a woman would let a man by whom she had previously been raped into her apartment under any circumstance?  It does not prove, or even imply, that Weinstein is innocent, but it certainly says something about the first instance of alleged rape.

It also highlights a main area of contention that most people face when discussing these things.  The term manipulation gives us the sense that Huerta was naive, helpless, and gullible, but in reality she was a fully grown woman in the entertainment industry, who claims to have been previously raped by Weinstein, who had heard of other stories of Weinstein being overly forward with his female subordinates and peers, and who could have easily avoided that situation if she wished.  She had every reason and opportunity to stop what happened and did not.  Certainly this does not pardon Harvey’s actions, but one can’t be surprised when she garners almost no sympathy.

What we are seeing is a reflexive solidarity with people accusing others of sexual misconduct, which inevitably results in the conflation of platonic interactions with more sinister and perverse ones.

It is a sign of great disrespect to treat women as if they are children that are incapable of standing up for themselves.  Apart from the threat of physical domination, what stopped Huerta from going to the police, telling Weinstein off, or simply not answering his calls?  Fear of retribution, I presume, which is a valid and understandable fear.  But we’re being asked to sympathize with a person who walked straight into this situation despite every warning flag being raised; a person who made a conscious decision to continue their relationship with a known womanizer.

Given what we now know of Weinstein, I feel comfortable in saying that he deserves to have his reputation ruined; he is a sick man who used his position of power to coerce woman into having relations with him.  However, it’s important to be clear about why his image ought to be brought crumbling down, and in my opinion it’s not because there’s anything inherently wrong with enjoying sex and making a point of asking for it;  it’s because he’s an important producer who constantly makes passes at his colleagues and threatens them when they do not comply.  As humans, despite our stature in the world, we should be able to proposition others as often as we would like, and others should be free to say no, walk away, or call the police if they feel as though a line was crossed.  It’s not the proposition that’s bad, but the threats, the stalking, and the lewd behavior that we should be condemning.  Weinstein seems to fit the bill for all of that, but not every encounter he’s ever had can be called misconduct, and not every woman that recounts a situation with him can be said to have been assaulted.

Asia Argento, another alleged assault victim of Weinstein’s, claims to have had a similar experience which was published in the New Yorker’s expose initially documenting Weinstein’s sordid past.  She too was hoodwinked into meeting Weinstein alone in a hotel room, during which time he forced oral sex onto her.  Throughout the encounter she made an attempt to stop him, but eventually gave in — an act which produced, as she describes, years of regret and anguish.

Most can agree, I presume, that any attempt to halt a sexual advance should be honored, and Weinstein’s persistence should be flat out condemned.  But there are a few important caveats to this story that make it unclear to what extent Argento withheld consent, one being that according to her she initially agreed to give Weinstein a massage.  This is important because it was the first step towards what we know was about to happen, and chances are simply walking out of the room would have put an end to Argento’s nightmare; her reasons for not doing so are no doubt understandable, and Weinstein’s subsequent behavior is inexcusable, but a step was knowingly made in the wrong direction that directly led to her unfortunate situation.

The second salient fact in the story is that Argento, after Weinstein commenced fellatio on her, claims to have eventually “stopped saying no and feigned enjoyment.”  Weinstein’s failure to heed Argento’s pleas for cessation earlier is again deplorable, but pretending to enjoy what we’re now being asked to believe was mentally scarring assault seems like an entirely superfluous reaction.  Rather than deterring Weinstein or filling him with remorse, he was encouraged.  Not only did it most likely have an effect on his state of mind at the time, but no doubt also convinced him in part that there would be nothing wrong with doing this again in the future, and he wouldn’t be entirely wrong to think that.  How is he to know that she really didn’t enjoy it? In her mind it was assault; in his consensual intercourse — he convinced her of what she might have first been apprehensive about.  This twist brings into question how forcefully Argento resisted his advances in the first place; not because it will absolve Weinstein, but because it gives us an insight into the degree to which he likely believed she consented.

The third fact, and perhaps the most unusual, is that Argento continued to have sexual relations with Weinstein after she claims to have been assaulted.  These relations were, according to her, undesirable and unpleasant, but she admits that a friendship did eventually grow, even to the point where Weinstein introduced her to his mother and gave her money when she was in need; something that made her feel as though she was in a sense obligated to continue her relationship with him.

This is not to minimize this woman’s plight, but to understand it.  How do these situations arise, and what can we do to prevent them? These facts suggest that this is not an ordinary case of sexual assault, but rather an unfortunate case of a woman feeling pressured into a situation in which she did not wish to be, and ultimately performing or participating in acts that she would later regret.  How responsible are we for how others perceive our actions towards them? How do we reasonably measure the amount of pressure Argento or Huerta felt by Weinstein? These questions remain to be decided.

The first step towards answering these questions needs to be an establishment of mutual understanding.  Human beings are sexual creatures, and in order for us remain on this planet, men must have sex with women.  That entails men forming relationships with woman that eventually lead to intercourse and impregnation.  There are right and wrong ways to begin a relationship, but the fact that they need to begin somehow will never change.

Weinstein is certainly a womanizer, misogynist, and a sleazy old man, but these stories alone do not brand him as a rapist or assailant.  The fact that Weinstein has clout in the film industry should not  give anybody the right to unequivocally condemn his forwardness with women as an egregious abuse of power.  He is a regular person who has issues with sex and relationships with woman, and just happens to run a successful production company.

There are people who would like to take each testimony against Weinstein and turn it into a case study for sexual assault and harassment, stripping it of all nuance and context in an attempt to avoid anything resembling “victim blaming.”  People become branded as sexual assailants and at once every past encounter they have had is deemed perverse.  This hyper-awareness trickles down to ordinary folk under ordinary circumstances, and we get situations like the one in which Claire Foy felt obliged to tell the public that Adam Sandler putting this hand on her knee at a basketball game was not a sign of misogyny.  At all costs we should resist this temptation to over-generalize complex issues and politicize facts.  A little piece of our liberty is stripped from us every time we relinquish our opinions to these demagogues, and we should resist it with every fiber of our being.