How the system failed #MeToo survivors and protected the abusers
Our institutions created a culture where predators could flourish and their despicable behaviour covered up to maintain the status quo.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to shelter a predator. There's one common trait to the stories of abuse in the #MeToo era, namely that this is not merely an excavation of bad behaviour by individual men; rather, it's evidence of the systems that promote and protect them. It is power seeking to shield and perpetuate itself, over the rights of women to self-determination.
This institutional butt-covering is a feature, not a bug. I've been following the #MeToo moment since it began last fall, with allegations of sexual violence against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein – behaviour that appears to have been abetted by a legion of enablers, from lawyers to assistants to board members. It is a pattern we see repeated countless times, in Canada and the United States, as despicable behaviour is covered up or ignored in the interest of preserving the status quo – until, that is, some pesky news outlet brings it to light. Then, and only then, do the enablers fall over themselves in a race to be the most shocked and appalled.
Where to begin? You could start in any of a dozen places. Look, most recently, at the case of Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary, whose two ex-wives accused him of abusive behaviour including choking and punching. This news, which broke into public awareness this week, was not news to the White House. It was not a secret on par with the location of Jimmy Hoffa's body. The FBI discovered the allegations during their background check of Mr. Porter, and passed the information on to the White House. (Mr. Porter denies the allegations.) There were police reports and public blog posts, and they were not locked in a lead-lined case at the bottom of the ocean.
Yet White House officials praised Mr. Porter to the skies, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, who called him a "man of true integrity and honour." It was only when Mr. Porter's ex-wives began speaking to the media, and a chilling photograph of his first wife's blackened eye was released, that the White House realized it had a political disaster on its hands. The PR klaxon sounded, and a statement was released expressing the White House's utmost condemnation of domestic violence. I think the statement was written in a typeface called New Hypocrite, but I can't be sure.
Last week, Maclean's magazine published a bombshell of a story about how the Conservative Party had circled the electoral wagons around one of its own candidates, Rick Dykstra, after discovering that he'd been accused of sexual assault by a female staffer in 2014. They decided to keep him on as a candidate anyway, although he subsequently lost his race in the 2015 election.
Stephen Harper, who was party leader and prime minister at the time, released a statement about the handling of the affair, which reads, in part: "When allegations were brought to my attention during the 2015 election campaign, I understood that the matter had been investigated by the police and closed a year prior. Given this understanding of the situation, I did not believe that I could justify removing him as a candidate." (Mr. Dykstra, who recently resigned as president of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, denies the allegations. Federal party Leader Andrew Scheer has promised a third-party investigation.)
What happens to individual women who try to seek justice against these monolithic power structures? Traditionally – that is, until the past few months – they get flattened. They are ignored, denigrated, driven out of their workplaces. They are outside the walls of the fort, shouting in vain into the wind. This is evident in the reports outlining sexual misconduct in the Canadian military and the RCMP. Sheila Fraser's 2017 review into the treatment of four female RCMP staff who made harassment complaints – who now suffer PTSD and couldn't return to work – reported that the women "had no other option but to take their employer to court."
Ms. Fraser goes on to say, "Workplace harassment has existed for a long time in the RCMP. The sense one gets is that it is pervasive and, according to many, a product of its culture and of its hierarchical structure." The result of this culture of harassment and denial is that the RCMP now faces a landmark class-action settlement involving thousands of women who, at one point, just wanted to be part of the team. That is, before they knew that the team didn't want them.
Maybe things will change. Harassment laws are being strengthened at the federal level, and some provinces, such as Ontario, have thrown their weight behind new workplace misconduct legislation. But will change actually occur in institutions where sheltering predators is seen as a sleazy but necessary trade-off for attaining some goal – winning a political race, or a sports competition, or an Oscar?
I keep thinking about the victim impact statements made by the American gymnasts sexually abused by the physician they were forced to consult, Larry Nassar, who violated them even as he pretended to treat them – a double betrayal. He's been sentenced to decades-long jail terms for the abuse, and on child-pornography charges. The question is, what happens to the organizations, such as USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, that sheltered him for years, ignoring the repeated abuse claims from multiple athletes? Not only were those claims swept under the carpet, but Mr. Nassar was allowed to continue assaulting hundreds of girls and young women. Where's the punishment for the people who built that rotten system, and patrolled its walls?
More than 150 of the victims – or survivors, if you prefer – gave statements before the sentencing. Many of them called out the gymnastics hierarchy for its complicity. Rachael Denhollander, among the earliest public accusers, pointed a finger at those who had tried to keep her quiet: "This is what it looks like when institutions create a culture where a predator can flourish unafraid and unabated and this is what it looks like when people in authority refuse to listen, put friendships in front of the truth, fail to create or enforce proper policy and fail to hold enablers accountable."
She spoke those truths in a courtroom, and thanked the judge for giving her back her voice. We'd all do well to listen.