Those sickening stories about powerful, predatory men refuse to go away. Just as the Jian Ghomeshi revelations started dying down, the Bill Cosby business reared its ugly head. America's dad alleged to be a serial rapist? As with Mr. Ghomeshi, there are so many women with similar stories that it's difficult to write any one of them off as someone with a grudge.
Along with the relentless focus on campus "rape culture," these incidents paint a depressing picture of a world in which men still prey on women every day, in ways both large and small. Is this picture really true? Has nothing changed since the dawn of feminism? What more can be done to stop it?
Ask 10 women and you'll get 10 different answers – answers that will invariably be shaped by their own experiences. For what it's worth, this is my answer.
I grew up when harassment was pervasive. Without exception, every woman I know had to fend off unwanted advances from bosses, colleagues, parental friends and complete strangers from the time they became teenagers. For me, these incidents were relatively rare, and there were never any consequences for having said no. For some of my friends, there were. One was hired as a research assistant, only to discover that the unwritten part of her job description included sex with the boss. She was 22. Devastated, she quit and went on unemployment.
Every woman I know has been groped, rubbed, leered at and whispered to obscenely by strangers, who also occasionally expose themselves on subways and in other public places. We grew up in a world where casual street harassment was as familiar as the traffic lights.
Every woman I know has had to grapple with drunken men – colleagues, bosses, friends, dates – who didn't want to take no for an answer. Most of us, I'd guess, have had some kind of sexual encounter that we didn't really want or later regretted.
These experiences aren't unique to women, but they mark a fundamental difference from the life experiences of men. As girls grow up, they get used to being hit on. Eventually, as they pass their sexual prime, it stops. Power and position help. No one hits on IMF director Christine Lagarde. They hit on interns and hotel maids. It's important for men to understand that this is still a fact of women's lives.
It may be unpopular to say so, but nothing short of castration could force all men to behave. Evolutionarily speaking, we're not so far removed from the days when a guy signalled that he liked you by hitting you over the head with a club and dragging you into the bushes. Civilizing influences can improve behaviour in remarkable ways, but they can never quite erase the influence of sex drive, testosterone and aggression. In their sexual prime, men think about sex constantly. They're perfectly happy to have sex with complete strangers. None of this excuses men who assault women, but it does remind us that they're wired differently. Women, in general, don't assault men. Anyone who pretends that there's no difference between the sexes in sexual thoughts and behaviour is doing a grave disservice not only to biology, but to young men and women who are struggling to comprehend each other.
So, what's different today? Quite a bit.
There's been a sea change in ordinary workplace conduct. These days, among the professional classes, no one would dare to remark in public on a young woman's dress, appearance or sexiness. No one hits on interns unless they're total idiots. Men do not make sexual jokes, or talk in a sexual way, about women. Bad actors will always be with us, but for the most part, the kind of conduct I saw 30 years ago simply isn't tolerated today – certainly not in any business with a functioning HR department. Every workplace has policies around harassment that are taken seriously by management, because the penalties for ignoring them can be severe.
Street harassment has changed too. The construction site full of catcalling workers is much rarer than it used to be.
It's also far more likely that women who've been harassed or assaulted will have their complaints taken seriously. This is not at all to say that all predators are brought to justice. Sex crimes are hard to prove and the standards of evidence are high. But police, institutional and public attitudes have changed dramatically.
One more thing. For powerful people, sex crimes – even suspicions of sex crimes – are far less likely to stay buried. And look at the consequences: Mr. Ghomeshi's career is ruined. Mr. Cosby is in disgrace – banished from the networks, his beloved Jell-O-loving codger image completely shattered. Three and a half years later, Dominique Strauss-Kahn still hasn't recovered from his lecherous encounter with a hotel maid. These people are now box-office poison. Other powerful men with mean streaks will no doubt have taken note.
So, yes, a lot has changed. Our daughters, sons and grandchildren are growing up in a world that's far less tolerant of casual abuse against women. It would be grossly inaccurate, and also morally wrong, to teach them that men are predators and women are their prey and that legions of women are silenced and abused by a deeply misogynistic, patriarchal culture. This wasn't even true in the 1950s, and it's less true than ever today.
Will we ever get rid of leering crazies on the subway, or drunken men who don't want to take no for an answer? No, we will not. The good news is that our tolerance for serious crimes against women, as well as for the casual harassment that used to be a part of everyday life, is approaching zero.