Two stories, from opposite ends of the world, expose a painful truth about the power dynamic at the heart of sexual abuse: Power does not share, it does not reflect, and it most certainly does not like to be called out.
One of those stories is taking place in China, where tennis star Peng Shuai was paraded this past week before state media to prove to the world that she was alive and well after making explosive rape allegations against a powerful politician. She looked alive, all right – but who can say if she’s well? In the pictures and videos, she looked stiff and withdrawn, like a teenager forced to sit through a family dinner. She’s certainly a better tennis player than an actor.
As many China analysts have pointed out, she’s lucky to have been seen at all. Others have disappeared for much less, for merely brushing up against the Politburo where she delivered a full-on punch to the face. After publishing online her allegations of sexual assault against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli – a post that only stayed up for half an hour – Ms. Peng disappeared from view for weeks. Now, apparently thanks to global outrage, she was trotted out again. Her celebrity likely saved her.
Ms. Peng has been held up as a hero of China’s #MeToo reckoning, but she’s hardly the first. And her actions are that much braver because she knows what happens to women who speak out against misogyny or patriarchal culture: They get incarcerated, their families threatened, and they’re hounded afterward by state surveillance.
That’s what happened in the famous case of the Feminist Five, a group of young activists who were thrown in prison for the crime of handing out anti-sexual harassment stickers just before International Women’s Day in 2015. (Fans of irony will note that this happened just as President Xi Jinping was in New York to co-host a UN summit on women’s rights.)
While in prison, the five were interrogated and insulted, denied medical treatment, and their families threatened. Much as in Ms. Peng’s case, international pressure mounted and eventually they were freed. But their ordeal was only part of a much wider crackdown on feminist activism in China, where hashtags like #MeToo are routinely censored and activists harassed by government agents. Ms. Peng would have known all this, and still she chose to speak truth to crushing state power.
“The Chinese government really sees feminism as a threat,” said author Leta Hong Fincher, speaking about Ms. Peng’s case on CNN. Ms. Fincher’s book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, explores the case of the Feminist Five and the crackdown in its aftermath. She said that Ms. Peng’s fame saved her (so far), but that the tennis star is far from alone in her experience: “There’s this rape culture that’s endemic, particularly at the very senior levels of the Communist Party.”
On one side of the world you have the bravery of activists – and even those who wouldn’t brand themselves as activists – trying to expose the corruption of power. Meanwhile, in the United States, we’re seeing what happens when proximity to power triumphs over ideals, corroding even the most well-meaning organization.
Those ideals were paraded down a red carpet in 2018, when a group of fed-up Hollywood power players decided that the revelations of the Me Too movement needed to be harnessed to concrete action, and founded Time’s Up to ensure women’s workplace safety.
At the Golden Globes, actors such as Reese Witherspoon and Michelle Williams wore black designer gowns, and brought actual workplace advocates as their dates. Male allies wore Time’s Up pins in their tuxedo lapels. Everyone mouthed the correct words. Natalie Portman’s deadpan reading of the “all-male nominees” in the directing category brought uncomfortable laughter.
In its first two months, thanks to its proximity to power and deep pockets Time’s Up raised $21-million, an astonishing amount. The money would be spent on promoting healthy workplaces and defending women who were caught up in workplace harassment suits, especially those in the most precarious and powerless situations.
Unfortunately that dream has died, at least for the moment. Its turns out that Time’s Up was itself an unhealthy workplace, and its leaders a little too in love with power – or with keeping power close. This past summer, the charity’s CEO and its board resigned after it was revealed that some Time’s Up executives had an unsavoury advisory relationship with then-New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who was under investigation on sexual harassment claims. The optics were dismally bad: The sex-harassment charity appeared to be taking the side of the harasser.
Time’s Up suffered from “a fatal elitism,” as the New Republic put it, and “was too bound by political allegiances ever to deliver justice to sexually exploited workers.” That certainly seemed to be the conclusion of a recently released report into the charity, which found a dysfunctional workplace where political considerations often trumped stated goals, and a hierarchy existed to comfort the powerful and their pet projects. Most of Time’s Up’s employees recently got the boot – a move made even more humiliating when a newspaper found out before they did.
Now Time’s Up is promising a “reset,” according to one of its founders, actor Ashley Judd. This is, of course, a well-used corporate strategy. When you’re the Chinese Communist Party you might never have to apologize or explain, but celebrity charities’ fates are tied to public opinion. The question is, when it does reset, will the needle swing to the vulnerable, or will it stray back to its default position, drawn as always to power?
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