Im a lefty academic versed in feminist theory. Still, I rebelled against the idea that rich and powerful men regularly rape or attempt to rape women
This is a very difficult column for me to write because its about my mother.
A week or two after the then IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested for sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a posh New York hotel in 2011, there was another case when an Egyptian businessman was briefly arrested for a similar assault at another such New York hotel.
This first struck me as puzzling. It could hardly be a copycat crime; considering the drama surrounding the arrest and travails of DSK, it was inconceivable that anyone would see this and say: Oh good idea, Ill attack a chambermaid as well.
Then it dawned on me.
The only logical explanation was that businessmen, politicians, officials and financiers rape, or attempt to rape, hotel workers all the time. Its just that normally, those assaulted know theres nothing they can do about it.
In DSKs case, someone for whatever complex political reasons must have refused to make the usual phone call. There was a scandal. As a result, when the next assault took place, the survivor must have said to herself, Oh, so does this mean we actually are allowed to call the cops now if a customer tries to rape us? and acted accordingly. And sure enough this is precisely what turned out to have happened. (In the end, both women were silenced, and neither man convicted of any crime.)
What I really want to draw attention to here is my initial reaction of disbelief: Sure things are bad; but it cant be that bad. Even a lefty academic versed in feminist theory instinctively rebelled against the idea that rich and powerful men regularly rape or attempt to rape the women cleaning their rooms, that this happens all the time, that everyone in the hotel industry knows it happens (since they must know), and that those rich and powerful men in turn know they could get away with it because if any woman they attacked did protest too strenuously, everyone would move in lockstep to do whatever was required to make the problem go away.
Its of course this very disbelief that allows such things to happen. We are loth to accept people we might know might practice pure, naked aggression. This is how bullies get away with what they do. Ive written about this.
Bullying is not just a relation between bully and victim. Its really a three-way relation, between bully, victim and everyone who refuses to do anything about the aggression; all those people who say boys will be boys or pretend theres some equivalence between aggressor and aggressed. Who see a conflict and say it doesnt matter who started it even in cases where, in reality, nothing could possibly matter more.
It makes no difference if theres a real physical audience or if the audience just exists inside the victims head. You know what will happen if you fight back. You know what people will say about you. You internalize it. Before long, even if nothing is said, you cant help wonder if these things they would say are actually true.
Sexual predation is a particular variety of bullying but like all forms of bullying it operates above all in precisely this way by destroying the victims sense of self.
I had another, similar, horrified moment of realization in reading Dame Emma Thompsons remarks about Harvey Weinstein. Not because of her observation that his predations were, as she said, the tip of the iceberg this is surely true, but not entirely unknown; what startled me was one word. She described Weinsteins behavior as typical of a system of harassment and belittling and bullying and interference that women had faced from time immemorial.
The word that struck me was belittling.
This is where the story becomes personal.
Let me tell you about my mother. Mom was a prodigy. Arriving in America at age 10, speaking not a word of English, she skipped so many grades she was in college by 16. Then she dropped out of college to help the family (it was the Depression) by getting a factory job sewing brassieres.
The union had the crazy idea at that time to put on a musical comedy performed entirely by garment workers. The play (Pins and Needles) surprised everyone by becoming a smash hit on Broadway, with mom (then Ruth Rubinstein) as female lead.
She was hailed as a comic genius, which I can attest she definitely was, was featured in Life, met FDR and Gypsy Rose Lee, and for three years hobnobbed with celebrities and was gossiped about in gossip columns. Then she went back to working in the factory again.