Is Kevin Spacey a criminal sexual molester? I don’t know. Neither do you, unless you were actually molested by him, or, it seems, unless you’re the Boston Globe. ‘This Was A Criminal Act,’ the Globe headline blared, repeating former local news anchor Heather Unruh’s claim that Spacey groped her son at a bar in Nantucket last summer. The single quotes around the claim that Spacey is a criminal (who has yet to be indicted except in the media) don’t mitigate the headline’s clear presumption of guilt. They simply allow the Globe to level a sensational accusation while pretending to present an unbiased account of one.
Of course the Boston Globe is not alone in treating allegations of sexual crimes and misconduct as if they were proof of it. The media is reveling in the steady stream of harassment and assault allegations uncorked by the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Every day another celebrity, major or minor, is accused, or another accusation is leveled against a man already in the dock. As the accused are shamed, their work is shunned, if not removed from the public realm. Commentators advise us that art cannot be separated from the artist – not surprisingly in an age of identity politics. Those who once enjoyed Louis C.K.’s work issue mea culpas. Like pornography, the work of an accused harasser now casts a moral pall on its audience; it’s a victory for sanctimony.
First person accounts of victimization abound: “Women Share Their Experiences With Sexual Assault and Harassment” in a video posted at New York Magazine. We’re expected to accept the truth, accuracy, and seriousness of virtually all accusations, sympathizing with all self-proclaimed victims and congratulating them on their courage. Question them or simply caution against presuming guilt, keeping in mind the ease and alacrity with which reputations and careers are ruined, and you risk being called a collaborator in rape culture.
But you can believe that workplace harassment and sexual violence generally are persistent problems, especially but not exclusively for women, and still resist accepting every allegation as true and potentially or necessarily traumatic. You can wonder about a culture in which an unsolicited or unwelcome human touch can be so easily pathologized. In Britain, for example, Michael Fallon recently resigned his post as defense secretary after apologizing for repeatedly placing his hand on a woman’s knee, 15 years ago, although the woman to whom the knee belonged said “no one was remotely upset or distressed.” Fallon was rumored to have been guilty of other “inappropriate flirtations” -- probably like countless other people who have yet to be accused.
Not all accusations are equal, and not every accuser’s subjective account of harassment and its effect on her psyche should be regarded as objectively true. You can question an accusation of flirting, groping, or other forms of harassment without calling the accuser a liar, especially when the claim of misconduct dates back decades. Memories are not always reliable. Perceptions of harassment and even trauma are influenced by culture. People who were once expected to shrug off gropes, knee grips, and unwelcome advances, and successfully did so, may well have been better off than people who expect to be traumatized by them.
Consider Heather Unruh’s accusation against Kevin Spacey, and, for the sake of argument, accept the truth of it: Spacey reportedly met her “star-struck” 18 year old son at a bar and plied him with liquor, after her son claimed he was old enough to drink. Once her son was drunk, Spacey “stuck his hand” down his pants and “grabbed his genitals.” The young man was “only momentarily successful” in shifting away from Spacey and didn’t leave the bar until the actor went into the bathroom and a bystander urged him to run.
A lot of women can probably relate to this story; many of us have similar experiences with men acting badly. For Unruh’s son, the incident was apparently traumatic. The harm it inflicted on him, Unruh said pessimistically, “cannot be undone.” She thinks Spacey should go to prison, but her son was old enough to consent to sex, if not to drink, and a civil settlement of his claim seems more likely. Fortunately, guilt is still harder to prove in court than in the media.
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and author of eight books, is a former member of the boards of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the national American Civil Liberties Union.