Sex scandals may be old, but victims' power is new

Sex scandals may be old, but victims' power is new
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Once we were a country known for reaching across the continent, then for the moon. Now we seem to be a country known for lecherous reaches for women’s bodies. The state of our nation is salacious, as we reel from one sexual harassment revelation to the next. 

Sex scandals aren’t a new phenomenon. They’re not even a phenomenon. They’ve been part of our history for as long as men have craved power and used that power to satisfy their cravings. Still, these revelations seem different. They’re viral — spreading across politics and political parties, the entertainment industry and journalism. We don’t know who’ll be revealed next, but we know someone will be next.  

Why now? And is this the kind of challenge that can be managed by policy or political leaders?  

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I believe we are witnessing a social phenomenon — not in the acts of harassment themselves but in the truths being told about them. It’s been triggered by two long-term trends and two shocks to our system.

 

First, the powerful institutions and industries that long sheltered abusers have steadily lost public support over the decades. Only about a third of Americans have significant confidence in 14 key institutions, according to a June 2017 Gallup poll. They may have been revered in the distant past, but their elites behaved with virtual impunity because allegations of harassment were so widely disbelieved. Now, however, when the dirt is aired, it’s to a much more receptive and believing audience.  

Second, that dirt can’t be as easily swept under the rug in the 24/7 news cycle that craves content.   

Then there are the aftershocks of two more recent events. After President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE’s election, despite his monstrous bragging about sexual assault, conventional wisdom assumed a more hostile environment for victims of sexual harassment. Instead, it lit a fuse for them. As one former House colleague told me, victims of abuse realized that the government wouldn’t protect them, so they had to protect themselves and others. 

Enter Harvey Weinstein, the iconic tycoon in an industry where the notion of a “casting couch” wasn’t an indictment but a laugh line; where young women dreaming of becoming actors, writers, show runners, agents and directors had to silently endure the nightmare of suggestive texts at best, and assault at worst; where justice was considered career suicide. When the omnipotent Weinstein didn’t survive and his victims did, it was like the cavalry trumpets blaring “Charge!”  

Now we’re in a tumultuous environment, a daily downpour of allegations and defenses, swift apologies and hazy memories, accusations that are undeniably true and, in some cases, allegations that may fall short of truth. The question is whether public officials can address this new national narrative. Is there a “nothing to fear but a leer itself” speech? A National Commission on Sexual Harassment? A new Ethics Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment and Abuse? 

The salve won’t come from this president, especially after he doubled down on his own misdeeds by defending Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreSexual assault is not a game — stop using women to score political points GAO investigating after employee featured in Project Veritas video Roy Moore dismisses Kavanaugh accusation: 'So obvious' when claims come 'just days before a very important event' MORE and cast doubt on Moore’s possible victims. 

But it can come in other areas. 

In that Gallup poll on institutional confidence, the military is rated highest at 72 percent (compared with 30 percent for the presidency and 12 percent for Congress). The military can set a moral tone by continuing to strengthen its response to sexual harassment and abuse. 

And then there’s Congress. Every allegation must be fully investigated, but the roots of the problem run deep and are hidden in a process that discourages victims from coming forward. 

My former colleague Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and others have introduced legislation to reform how Congress responds to complaints. It would make public the names of employing congressional offices that paid out settlements in harassment or discrimination cases and allow employees to waive confidentiality and mediation requirements. And it would require members of Congress to pay for harassment claim settlements out of their own budgets rather than the current source — a special fund in the U.S. Treasury.

This is indeed an American moment. It may not have the ring of Watergate, the depth of Jimmy Carter’s “national malaise,” the challenge of FDR’s Depression or George Bush's 9/11. There’s no soaring speech to be given, no stinging blame to be traded. Ultimately, this narrative will be defined by only one group of people: the victims who speak the truth to and about power.

In a way, this wrenching moment of daily allegations may finally affix a price that doesn’t silence victims but stops their abusers.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.