The endless, relentless eruptions of sexual abuse and harassment scandals can sometimes seem like a particularly grim form of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox.
Back in the 5th century B.C., the Greek philosopher described how a runner on the path to a particular destination must first traverse half the distance, and then half the remaining difference, and then half the remaining distance, and so on — to infinity. By that logic, the runner can take steps toward a goal but will never actually reach it.
Similarly, each time a powerful man is held accountable for sexual misconduct, it seems like progress. And yet, when the allegations reveal a similar pattern of institutional actions that allowed the abuse to go on for years, and they provoke the same reactions of denial and victim-blaming, it can appear as though society is no closer to a future in which women can go about their ordinary lives without being harassed, assaulted and coerced into silence.
Take the news from the past eight days. On Sept. 12, the British Journal of Surgery published a study that found that nearly a third of female surgeons in England reported being sexually assaulted by a colleague within the last five years, and 63 percent had experienced sexual harassment (23 percent of male surgeons also reported being sexually harassed). The same day, a ProPublica investigation showed that Columbia University failed to act on years of evidence that Robert Hadden, a gynecologist at the university’s affiliated hospital system, was sexually assaulting women and girls who came to him for treatment.
On Sept. 16, an investigation by the Times of London and the Channel 4 news program “Dispatches” reported that multiple women had accused Russell Brand, the comedian turned fringe political YouTuber, of sexual assault and harassment, including one allegation of rape. On Sept. 18, Vice News reported that Tim Ballard, the founder of Operation Underground Railroad, an anti-trafficking organization, had been ousted from that organization after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct. The following day, Vice also reported on law enforcement records describing video footage of Paul Hutchinson, a producer of a movie about Ballard’s life, groping the breasts of a young woman whom he believed to be a 16-year-old trafficking victim. (Brand, Ballard and Hutchinson have all denied the allegations against them.)
Much ink has been spilled on the actions and motivations of abusers. But I find that these stories raise a much bigger question: whether, after years of #MeToo revelations, the institutional responses that have long enabled abuse are starting to change.
Abuse ‘debts’ coming due?
The term “beautiful soul” is an Israeli slang term that translates roughly as a more pejorative version of “bleeding heart”: a person who refuses to make moral sacrifices, even when there are practical incentives for doing so. In a 2013 book of the same name, Eyal Press profiled four whistle-blowers and conscientious objectors who ended up being vilified and ostracized for opposing wrongdoing within their own organizations.
Unpack that a bit, and you come to the uncomfortable truth: that in coldly rational terms, there are often substantial benefits from turning a blind eye to wrongdoing, or even fostering it.
As Press writes, a beautiful soul is not just someone who refuses to conform, it’s someone who is willing to block the pursuit of material goals by demanding that an organization, or a society, adhere to its own stated values.
“In a lot of these scandals, you’ll have insiders, true believers who want to rescue the institution from what they see as a betrayal of what it’s supposed to stand for,” Press told me in an interview last year. An Israeli soldier he profiled, for instance, was deeply patriotic and believed that the Israeli Army was the most moral in the world, but saw its actions in the occupied territories as a violation of those standards.
“The real lesson of the book is that we love to honor these individuals from a distance and after the fact,” he said. “But listening to them — not even honoring them, just listening to them! — in real time, when they are calling out our own behavior or our own institutions, is exceedingly rare.”
In the years before #MeToo shook America and Europe, domestic laws and corporate policies clearly prohibited sexual harassment and assault. But financial and reputational considerations tended to undermine those stated values. It was very rare for powerful men to face consequences for sexual misconduct, or for their enablers within institutions to be called out. So a company that decided to protect its investment in an alleged abuser could assume that the chance of exposure was low. And even if a “beautiful soul” was willing to risk vilification and ostracism to try to bring the abuse to light, they were often not believed.
As we now know, companies used nondisclosure agreements, financial settlements and other methods to silence accusations of sexual misconduct, and continued to employ those who perpetrated it.
One of the most famous examples was Harvey Weinstein, who used his power in Hollywood to enable his sexual predation. For years, other powerful people and institutions in the entertainment industry turned a blind eye to his attacks on young women in order to protect and improve their own careers.
Those decisions, and others like them, were like debts that those institutions never expected to pay. After #MeToo, some started to come due. But the process has been slow, and is still underway, as the endless stream of new accusations and scandals makes clear.
What comes next?
The next question, then, is how those “debts” will affect the response to abuse that is happening now. Has #MeToo made it riskier for employers and other institutions to protect abusers? Or will they follow the same pattern of protecting powerful people who engage in sexual misconduct, instead of their victims?
Here, the recent study on the situation of female surgeons in England seems instructive. On the one hand, the survey is part of a broader effort to identify an abusive culture now, preventing harm rather than waiting for an exposé years after the fact — a sign of some progress.
But it also offers a grim reminder that cultures of abuse and entitlement are difficult to change. The survey covered the past five years, meaning that most of the abuses described by respondents would have taken place after the #MeToo movement was underway. And yet multiple female surgeons reported egregious attacks, including being assaulted in operating theaters, with other colleagues present, who did nothing. Eleven people reported being raped by a colleague.
And surgeons reported extremely low confidence that the National Health Service or other institutional bodies would respond well to reports of abuse.
But to some, an attempt to change that culture is a bigger problem than the abuse itself. Dr. Peter Hilton, a retired anesthesiologist, wrote to the Times of London to decry the surveyed surgeons as a “snowflake generation” who should have known that they would be sexually bullied at work, and should just “toughen up” rather than asking for things to change.
Many current doctors responded with outrage, rejecting his comments. But changing a pattern of behavior that has been accepted or ignored for years will be difficult — and require courage. Many people will have to take the risk of being a “beautiful soul,” and of supporting colleagues who do. And powerful decision makers will have to exchange the short-term comfort of minimizing or dismissing complaints for a long-term commitment to new standards.