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Why Idris Elba’s Advice To Men On The Anti-Harassment Movement Is Flawed

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These are tenuous times for gender relations. Between the rise of the anti-harassment movement and the revelation of egregious crimes committed by once-respected celebrities, society is undergoing to significant upheaval in how we approach sex, relationships, and harassment.

Some claim this upheaval is overdue and I don’t disagree. There is a well-documented history of powerful people getting away with egregious behavior. In general, it’s a good thing when society seeks justice and accountability for everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

With that good, however, often comes obstacles that need to be navigated carefully and flawed human beings have a mixed history in those efforts to say the least. We’ve already seen some of that in how some have responded to the anti-harassment movement. Some are going so far as to avoid women entirely to minimize the risk. This is an extreme reaction, but one in keeping with the law of proportional backlash.

It has been frustrating for those who genuinely seek to improve gender relations. It has also made for easy sources of outrage with one side calling the other misogynist, patriarchal bigots and the other calling them regressive, whiny leftists. There’s a lot of room for arguments and plenty of opportunities for shouting, especially in the age of social media.

 

It’s still a relevant question for people caught up in the current state of gender politics, avoiding accusations of sexual misconduct and maintaining amicable relations among the genders. Crimes should be prosecuted and punished. Good people, whether they’re men, women, or something in between, should be free to engage with one another without fear of getting caught up in fervor.

Recently, the reigning sexiest man alive, Idris Elba, offered an easy solution to all those arguing about the current state of gender relations that many have rallied around. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he had this to say to those worried about navigating the anti-harassment movement.

“It’s only difficult if you’re a man with something to hide.”

It’s a simple, logical, almost mundane piece of advice. Many loudly cheered it as a welcome change of pace from the more complicated responses given by Matt Damon and Henry Cavill. When you’re the sexiest man alive and a top choice for the next James Bond, it’s easy to offer a simple solution that carries significant weight.

Now, I have a lot of respect for Mr. Elba. He’s a great actor and, by all accounts, one of Hollywood’s most likable personalities. In a perfect world, his words would not be controversial and require no further scrutiny. Sadly, we don’t live in that world.

I won’t go so far as to say that Mr. Elba is dead wrong. I won’t say he’s more than half-right, either. More than anything else, his comments are incomplete. They’re coming from a famous celebrity who also happens to be a tall, dark, handsome man whose success often leads to a considerable detachment from reality, as often happens in Hollywood.

If Mr. Elba had just said that men who have something to hide will probably face more difficulty than others, then he would be spot on. Whether you’re a famous celebrity or some ordinary person living their lives, having nothing to hide makes you far less likely to be on the wrong end of a sexual assault accusation.

In the era of smart phones, social media, and hacked emails, it’s considerably harder for anyone to hide their misconduct, sexual or otherwise. If anything, celebrities and powerful politicians are the only ones with the resources to hide their misdeeds and even that isn’t always enough. For non-celebrities, though, the resources are far more limited and this is where the merit of Mr. Elba’s words comes up short.

There are many ways to break down why simply having nothing to hide is not the most effective strategy for navigating the current landscape of gender politics. To best illustrate why it’s so shallow, though, we need only know the story of Brian Banks.

This guy’s story will upset/move you. You have been warned.

If you’re not familiar with that name, then chances are Mr. Elba isn’t either. His story is a tragedy with a bittersweet ending. Back in 2002, he was a promising a promising football player from Long Beach, California who had already committed to playing college football at USC.

Then, a classmate of his accused him of raping her in a stairway. Rather than face the possibility of 41 years to life in prison, Banks accepted a plea deal that included five years in prison, five years of probation, and having to register as a sex offender. By every measure, his life and his once-promising future was over. On top of it all, Banks was completely innocent.

That’s not just what a court eventually ruled. The accuser actually confessed that she made it up, adding that it was part of an effort with her mother to sue the school for money. It’s every bit as deplorable as it sounds. By the time this came out, though, it was 2012. He still served five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and lost out on his once promising football career.

Brian Banks followed Mr. Elba’s advice to the letter. He had nothing to hide. That still wasn’t enough, though. His life was still derailed and had the accuser not confessed, he probably wouldn’t have been able to rebuild his life to the extent that he has.

It’s easy for someone like Mr. Elba to give that advice and just as easy for him to practice it. As I noted before, he’s rich, successful, handsome, and respected. If someone tried to falsely accuse him of sexual misconduct, he wouldn’t have a hard time fighting it. Beyond his reputation as the sexiest man alive, he has access to the best legal defense that obscene wealth can buy.

People like Brain Banks don’t have that luxury. Exceedingly few individuals do. Banks plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit because, without those resources, there was a real possibility that he would’ve gotten a much worse sentence. He’s actually fortunate that he managed to escape the fate he did. Others, however, weren’t so lucky.

Brian Banks’ story, alone, is tangible proof that Mr. Elba’s advice is incomplete. Sadly, there are other stories like this and some of them have far less pleasant outcomes. According to the Innocence Project, there are an estimated 20,000 innocent people serving prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. They too had nothing to hide, but were convicted anyways.

There’s men like Randolph Arledge, who served 29 years for a rape and murder that he did not commit. The evidence that convicted him was based entirely on informant testimony.

There’s also the story of Marvin Anderson, who had no criminal record when he was convicted of a brutal rape for which he served 20 years in prison.

There’s also the case of Ted Bradford, who spent 10 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. There wasn’t even any physical evidence tying him to the crime.

There’s the case of David Johns Bryson, who served 20 years for heinous crime involving kidnapping and rape. A combination of bad forensic science and misguided police tactics did him in.

These men are not celebrities. They’re not rich movie producers or well-connected politicians. They’re just ordinary men trying to live their lives. They had no more to hide than anyone else. That still wasn’t enough. In some cases, they were the victims of mistaken identity. In others, they were the targets of a vindictive accuser. In every case, their lives were irreparably damaged.

I still don’t doubt Mr. Elba’s sincerity. Even those who applaud his words probably don’t realize the flaws in his advice. Names like Brian Banks probably don’t ever cross their mind. Even if it did, Mr. Elba’s words present a clean, concise response to those who express concern about the larger impacts of the anti-harassment movement. For those looking for an easy recourse to a difficult problem, it has a lot of appeal.

That’s the biggest problem with simple solutions to complex problems. The narrative of the anti-harassment movement, or any social movement, cannot accommodate that much complexity. If it did, the narrative wouldn’t be as compelling. As I’ve noted before, the idea that there’s this brave movement of empowered women standing up to serial abusers has all the makings of a feel-good Hollywood story.

The reality, though, is far less ideal. Men like Brian Banks found that out the hard way. If the work of the Innocence Project is any indication, there are probably plenty more who never had anything to hide, but still got convicted. For them, Mr. Elba’s advice will only compound one kind of injustice with another.

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Terry Crews, Corey Feldman, And Why The Anti-Harassment Movement Is Ignoring Them

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Recently, late-night talk host, Samantha Bee, took some time from her comedy news show to talk about sexual assault. That, in and of itself, isn’t too remarkable. Many women have been doing that since the anti-harassment movement began. However, Ms. Bee did something noteworthy with her message.

She talked about the impact that harassment and sexual assault had on men. She even invited actor and former NFL player, Terry Crews, to participate. That gives her message more weight because Mr. Crews has been trying to raise awareness of that issue ever since the movement began. He even testified in front of a Senate committee on the issue, sharing his own stories of assault and abuse.

It’s a surprisingly balanced message from someone not known for having a good filter. If you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it. She doesn’t present it in an overly dire way, but the message it conveys is still serious.

It also sheds light on a major blind spot in the anti-harassment movement. It showed in how the scandals involving Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer were handled by the media. Whereas the victims of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were given plenty of support to tell their story, the male victims were largely ignored.

In fact, the primary reason why the Kevin Spacey scandal made headlines had less to do with the victim he assaulted and more to do with him using that to come out as gay. Him using that incident to address his sexuality wasn’t seen as contributing to the anti-harassment movement. It was seen as him derailing the movement for LGBT acceptance by associating his sexuality with assault of a minor.

The victims for both Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer never got a chance to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, that’s fairly common for male victims of sexual abuse. Mr. Crews has even addressed this on multiple occasions. Shortly after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, he provided a fairly lengthy explanation on Twitter that explain why few speak up and even few are heard.

His comments are gender-neutral, but Mr. Crews also mentions how men face unique challenges in confronting this issue. Make no mistake. Sexual assault against men does happen and there’s plenty of raw data to back it up. The way it’s talked about and thought about, though, gives the impression that it’s not as big a deal.

That’s a big reason why men like Mr. Crews don’t come forward with their experiences. In his own words, “The silence is deafening when it comes to men talking about this issue.” Even though he’s been fairly vocal on this issue, few outside Ms. Bee have given him a chance to tie those experiences into the ongoing movement.

In addition to Mr. Crews, there are a few other notable voices trying to raise attention on the harassment and abuse of minors. Corey Feldman, a former child star, has been vocal in his efforts to expose the physical and sexual abuse he endured in his youth. He has even been trying to make a documentary exposing rampant child abuse in Hollywood, which has yet to be made.

This issue is personal for someone like Mr. Feldman because his friend and fellow child actor, Corey Haim, was also sexually abused as a young teenager. In his book, Coreyography, he talked about how they both struggled to deal with it. Drug abuse, which played a major part in Mr. Haim’s death in 2010, was a means of escaping the issue rather than dealing with it.

That’s understandable, considering the business they were in. Drug use in Hollywood isn’t just a long-standing part of the culture. It’s sometimes necessary, albeit for tragic reasons. It provides an escape for people like Mr. Feldman and Mr. Haim, one that’s much easier than coming forward and naming their abusers.

It’s the same issue women face when they’re victims of sexual assault. They’ll make a claim, but hesitate to name the abuser out of fear, shame, guilt, or willful disbelief. In Hollywood, especially, the people they deal with are rich and powerful. They have the resources to make anyone’s life, especially public figures like Mr. Feldman and Mr. Crews, extremely unpleasant.

On top of that, people who accuse a celebrity or public figure of such crimes are usually subject to major harassment as well. In that sense, staying silent is just easier. The anti-harassment movement has been trying to change that, at least for women, by providing them a platform with which to come forward. As a result, egregious crimes have been exposed and are actively being prosecuted.

However, those same efforts aren’t making much room for men like Mr. Feldman and Mr. Crews. They’re still in the same situation as they were before the anti-harassment movement began, trying to speak openly about a difficult issue and struggling to find support.

Why is that, though? Why are these men not allowed to stand on the front lines with the women who brought down Harvey Weinstein? There’s no easy answer to that. Chances are if you ask 100 people, you’ll get 100 different answers and at least 90 of them will sound like conspiracy theories.

I don’t claim to have a definitive answer, but I have reasonable suspicions and it has do with crafting a narrative. As an aspiring writer, I know a thing or two about narratives and why it’s so important to keep them concise. To some extent, the anti-harassment movement is an ongoing narrative that has to stay concise in order to pursue its goals.

Unfortunately, staying concise means ignoring or avoiding anything that might disrupt that narrative. In that context, Mr. Feldman and Mr. Crews are significant disruptions, albeit through no fault of their own or even those who champion the anti-harassment movement.

That’s because, for better or for worse, there’s this standard notion of how a case of sexual assault plays out. When most people close their eyes to imagine it, they probably don’t imagine someone like Terry Crews getting cornered in a crowded room. They probably imagine a scared young woman in a dark alley, crying out for help as some big, ugly, sadistic man abuses her.

Like any strong narrative, that notion conjures all sorts of powerful emotions. We feel anger, disgust, and sorrow for any woman who has to endure such an experience. We also feel seething anger towards any man who would do that to such a woman. The decent human being in us wants to help that woman and beat the snot out of that man.

If you reverse the genders in that narrative, though, it just doesn’t work. Those same decent people just can’t imagine a scenario where Terry Crews or Corey Feldman are cornered in a dark alley, assaulted by a man or woman, and suffer the same way. Even when they do, it doesn’t evoke the same feelings.

If anything, it complicates the narrative. These are supposed to be men. They’re supposed to be tough. Mr. Crews is a former football player. Mr. Feldman is a Hollywood star. We expect them to fight back. We expect them to not need our support the same way a woman would. To some extent, that assumptions demeans both men and women.

That doesn’t matter, though, because the narrative only works if it has that emotional resonance. People are more inclined to rally around a movement where they get to comfort an emotionally distraught young woman rather than a rich, imposing man. Like a movie where the sweet virgin schoolgirl escapes the masked serial killer, it’s more satisfying.

Moreover, it has to be satisfying to get people to rally behind it. This often come with a cost, which can really escalate if it goes too far. Some are already voicing concerns about the anti-harassment movement losing control of the narrative. Ignoring the abuse of men like Mr. Crews and Mr. Feldman only compounds those concerns.

Until the narrative changes, these men will still struggle to be part of the conversation. The piece with Samantha Bee is a good start, but it’s still an uphill battle. The idea of men being sexually abused is subject to a unique brand of stigma. That doesn’t make the suffering of the victims any less real, nor does it make crimes of the abusers any less egregious.

I don’t expect the anti-harassment movement to fully embrace Mr. Crews or Mr. Haim anytime soon, but so long as they keep making their voices heard, they’ll remind people that the narrative is still incomplete. Abuse, harassment, and victimization affects everybody, regardless of gender. When you prioritize justice for some over others, then that only creates more injustice for everyone.

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