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The outing storm

October 31, 2017

When the outing storm rolls over a group of people of whom for other reasons one has a low opinion, it’s tempting to shout “out the bastards”. Such, from my perspective, is the case with a bunch of sitting members of the British Parliament accused of sexual misdemeanours at some stage in their careers. Lawmakers should know better.

But then an actor whose work is admired by millions, including me, enters the spotlight. Kevin Spacey is accused of sexually assaulting a minor thirty years ago. He apologises, while denying any memory of the incident. And comes out as gay.

How do we feel about Spacey’s apparent downfall? Happy because another abuser goes down? Angry because he is admitting to being gay to deflect from his behaviour thirty years ago? Sad because a talented artist who has given much to his profession appears to be at the end of his career? Suspicious at the motives of the alleged victim who has waited all these years to make his accusation? Or curious as to why the hell the parents of a 14-year old allowed him to go, seemingly unprotected, to a party full of adults?

Or do we simply shudder, and think “there but for the grace of God go I”? If we happen to be male, that is.

And how does this end?

Does it fade away when the media loses interest in the outing of a never-ending trail of well-known miscreants from politics and show business – rather like an epidemic that runs its course because the most vulnerable are dead?

Perhaps the defining criterion for the hue and cry will be the use of power to abuse others. The trouble is, there’s power and power.

The power of an employer, of political patronage, of money. In the west, these are the main levers. Not so elsewhere. There are some parts of the world where by tradition a man may not approach an unrelated woman, let alone touch her, yet if they get married the man is more or less free to do with her what he wishes, including rape her.

Lurking behind explicit power is the implicit. Physical strength, peer pressure, the power of manipulation.

Where will it end? It won’t end until we start asking how it begins. With pink and blue. With Dad getting pissed and beating up Mum. Or maybe just slowly reducing her over the course of a marriage. And later, with porn, with rugby songs, with MTV, with oral sex in a supermarket car park. With bravado masking fear. With superheroes, bullies and expectations dashed. With entitlement.

Enough books have been written on this subject to fill a large municipal library. I have nothing to add to the literature beyond a personal perspective.

When I look back on my life, I ask myself whether I have ever done anything that if I was famous might thrust me into the spotlight of shame. Perhaps. Grope an employee, send suggestive texts, call my assistant “sugar tits”? Never. But did I use the behaviour of one woman to characterise all women, as in “bloody women”? Yes. Did I hire a woman based on her looks? I like to think not, but when all other things were equal, possibly. And when I was in my twenties with a bunch of guys in a pub, would I join in the banter about the drop-dead gorgeous girl on the other side of the bar? For sure.

And there may be other stuff from another age that I might have said or done that has faded from memory. Nothing awful, I believe. But then again, that’s what the rock stars, DJs, music biz potentates and hangers-on would say about their behaviour in the 60s and 70s. Different times, different norms.

Did I know others who did all those things? Absolutely. Only in the movies did a man ask a woman for permission to kiss her. It kind of happened, didn’t it? And only on TV would some handsome idiot dressed up as James Bond abseil down a cliff to present a beautiful woman with a box of chocolates “because the lady loves Milk Tray”. Most women I knew at the time would have told him to bugger off.

Back in the 70s we were watching Straw Dogs, Performance, the Exorcist or, lord help us, Confessions of a Window Cleaner. We were a generation for whom the boundaries were dissolving, and I’m not just talking about men. Many of us were more concerned about the Vietnam War than whether the person we woke up next to in the morning had really wanted to be there.

Are we any better or worse today? We may have more gender fluidity, with a vocal minority agonising about safe spaces and personal pronouns. But we have Tinder, online porn available on tap to pre-teens, internet trolls threatening rape. And we have a dirty old man in the White House.

Worse still, in much of the world, the old rules about male supremacy still apply.

Will the disgrace of a hundred Kevin Spaceys serve to rewire our brains, and change the habits and attitudes built up over a hundred generations? I don’t think so.

For me, the issue is less about how men treat women, though that’s part of it. It’s more about how people treat people. How the young treat the old, and vice versa. How the rich treat the poor. How we treat the mentally ill. How we treat people with different faiths, ethnic origins and skin colour. How we treat the uneducated and disadvantaged.

These are the perennial questions, against which the experiences of a multitude of actresses, political interns and other victims of pathetic, bullying men pale somewhat into insignificance.

Solve the bigger problem, and we’d go a long way towards reducing the lesser one that is exercising us all today.

But we have to start somewhere. So by all means let the heads roll. Let’s make some examples. Let’s change a few laws, or at least enforce the ones that exist. But let’s not kid ourselves that most of those who end up getting busted are convinced they’ve done anything worse than the equivalent of a traffic violation. That’s a long way from knowing the difference between right and wrong.

I also worry that young people whose communication skills are not fully developed are liable to become ever more confused by what is acceptable and what is not. No rulebooks or seminars can cover every eventuality. The more mixed the messages coming at them from all directions, the greater the danger of a mistake that will ruin their lives.

As for the bigger issues, I’m enough of an optimist to believe that compared with a hundred years ago, we’re in a better place.

But sadly, the horizon is infinite.

From → Politics, Social, UK, USA

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