Thursday’s news cycle was a non-stop horror show of sexual abuse allegations against prominent men. First The Washington Post dropped a bombshell story alleging that Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore molested a 14-year-old girl and “dated” three other girls between the ages of 16 and 18 when he was in his early 30s. Then The New York Times published allegations from five women that Louis C.K. – one of the most famous and successful stand-up comedians alive, who was often praised as a feminist champion – masturbated in front of them without their consent.
The immediate responses from the two men’s communities tell a sort of Tale of Two Creeps that defies culture-war stereotypes – and paints an unsettling picture of how America is coping, or not, with a seemingly endless flood of #MeToo revelations about sexual harassment and assault following allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein.
Hollywood, that perennial scapegoat for all our culture’s moral failings, seems quite chastened by the Weinstein scandal. The industry’s reaction to Louis C.K. was swift: News that the New York premiere of his new movie was canceled came out before even the Times story, and within hours of that exposé HBO had removed all of C.K.’s content from its platforms and booted him from an upcoming comedy special. By Friday morning, the entire release of C.K.’s film had been canceled. (For his part, C.K. released a statement Friday confirming the stories in the Times piece to be true.)
Hollywood isn’t blameless here, and in fact has a lot to answer for. The allegations against Weinstein, Louis C.K. and others – and probably a lot more to come – have in many cases been “open secrets” for years because a culture of silence, shame and abuse of power has intimidated victims, enabled perpetrators and encouraged everyone who knew about the abuse to keep their heads down. Gawker first published rumors about C.K.’s behavior in 2012, without using his name, and reported in 2015 on odd communications he had with a fan who confronted him about those rumors. Allegations against Weinstein go back decades. And Hollywood has yet to reject other prominent accused predators like Woody Allen with the same decisiveness.
But in this post-Weinstein world, Hollywood is – at least for now – taking action.
The reactions to Roy Moore’s allegations have been a different matter. The special election in Alabama between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones has high stakes; losing the seat would bring the GOP that much closer to losing control of the upper chamber, and according to a poll released Friday, the race is now tied. But the response from many of Moore’s Republican colleagues and supporters has been nothing short of morally appalling – especially for a political party that prides itself on moral values.
Toronto Star reporter David Dale tweeted quote after shocking quote from interviews he conducted Thursday with multiple officials from the Alabama Republican Party. “Other than being with an underage person, he didn’t really force himself,” Geneva County GOP chairman Riley Seibenhener told Dale. Marion County GOP chair David Hall said he saw “nothing wrong with a 30-year-old single male asking a 19-year-old, a 17-year-old, or a 16-year-old out on a date.”
National conservative media figures have also been full of excuses for Moore. Breitbart published some details about the allegations before The Post did, with a headline that seemed to defend Moore and deflect blame onto Post publisher Jeff Bezos. On his radio show, Fox News star Sean Hannity focused on Moore’s allegedly “consensual” encounters with the older teens, while ignoring the discomfort those women express about it today and shrugging off the story about the 14-year-old. “I don’t know how you find out the truth,” Hannity lamented just minutes after claiming he believed all of Bill Clinton’s accusers once he “looked them in the eye.” (Hannity later claimed his position was misrepresented. “As I said on TV tonight, I apologize when I misspoke and was not totally clear earlier today,” he tweeted.)
Moore himself, whose entire image is built on his Biblical sense of morality – he got himself kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court twice for violating federal court orders on displaying the Ten Commandments and on same-sex marriage – used the story as a fundraising opportunity to rail against what he called “filthy and sleazy attacks” from the “Obama-Clinton Machine’s liberal media lapdogs.” (In a statement, Moore went on to call the Washington Post allegations “completely false”: “After over 40 years of public service, if any of these allegations were true, they would have been made public long before now,” the statement said.)
National GOP politicians seemingly have enough sense to distance themselves from Moore, but almost all of them – from President Trump and Vice President Pence, to “establishment” Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Jeff Flake, to far-right Moore backers like Mike Lee and Steve Daines – have attached a caveat to their criticisms: Of course he should resign, if the allegations are true. None have clarified what it would take, beyond the thoroughly reported story at a major news outlet with more than 30 sources and on-the-record accounts from four named women, to decisively convince them of that truth.
Some conservative commentators and evangelical leaders – plus exactly one Republican senator and two former GOP presidential contenders – have denounced Moore unequivocally. The national Republican Party also severed fundraising ties with the candidate.
But we have seriously fallen through the rabbit hole when one of America’s two major political parties is visibly struggling with whether and how to condemn credible reports of child molestation.
Just a few weeks ago, many of the same conservatives who are now hemming and hawing over whether Roy Moore is really all that bad were crowing about Harvey Weinstein having been a Democratic mega-donor. But that scandal also led many Democrats to return or donate the Weinstein money they’d gotten over the years – because they knew it was the right thing to do, or at least it looked like the right thing to do. The GOP, however, has proven time and again that it can’t even manage the “looks like” part. The left is working to shun sexual transgressors – emphasis on working, as cultures of silence, enabling and sexism still abound – while the right is still explicitly closing ranks around its predators.
This might seem like a superficial difference between the two parties and ideologies. It’s actually not. It reveals a deep divide in worldview and approach, even if both sides often engage in hypocrisy or fail to live up to their ideals. Modern liberal values, in theory, call for repeatedly and publicly reassuring victims – telling them through words and actions that they will be believed if they come forward and that the consequences for known abusers will be swift and harsh. Conservative values seek to reinforce traditional gender norms and keep communities intact – which doesn’t lend itself well to even encouraging women to speak out against beloved leaders, for instance. The left features systematic anti-rape advocacy that focuses on women’s needs and stories. The right features traditional ideas about gender that often lend themselves to myths about rape, sexual codes of conduct that consider both premarital sex and rape to be varying degrees of sinful, and in certain communities, a disturbing normalization of the practice of sexualizing and subjugating teenage girls to the wills of older men.
Sexual misconduct is, unfortunately, bipartisan. But crucially, the responses to it often aren’t – and that makes a tremendous difference in keeping victims safe. Sex offenders tend to commit abuse when they think they can get away with it. Victims tend to avoid speaking out when they think they won’t be supported or believed. Sometimes it’s really that simple.
In many ways, the Moore allegations feel like 2016 and Trump’s Access Hollywood tape all over again: Multiple vetted, on-the-record allegations in major newspapers. Women speaking out about their own experiences on social media. Partisan surrogates and supporters making paper-thin, appalling excuses for the alleged perpetrator. The accused defending himself and trashing the victims with zero shame whatsoever. And we all know how that story ended – “awareness” was raised about sexual assault, but Trump still got elected president and seemed to escape any meaningful consequences from his actions.
It’s tempting to think that 2017’s version of this story will have a similar ending. That’s the outcome Rebecca Traister feared in a recent New York magazine article, and it’s why she made a powerful case for why we need to get beyond sharing women’s individual stories: “The conversation we should be having, alongside the one about individual trespasses, is about mechanisms far larger than any one perpetrator,” Traister writes. “It’s about the kind of power structures that enable powerful individuals and then shield them from resistance or retribution.”
Still, something about this #MeToo moment really does feel like a tipping point. Perhaps enough women are sharing their stories, and influencing others with their stories, that they’re starting to create new mechanisms of their own. But there’s still a real danger that all of this new growth will turn out to be ideologically lopsided. For conservative women, or for women abused by conservative men, the deck seems stacked even higher against them.