Columns » Gene Lyons

The casting couch

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OK then, #Me Too.

Long ago and far away, I had an academic superior who enjoyed sexually humiliating younger men. There was unwanted touching — always in social situations — but mainly it was about making suggestive remarks, hinting that being a "hunk" was how I'd got hired.

My "pretty little wife," as she was insultingly called, got to stand there and watch. We had no idea how to defend ourselves. There was a second guy in my department, also an administrator with power over one's career, who made a practice of inviting younger men on manly hikes in the woods and making aggressive passes.

It was a thoroughly poisonous atmosphere. I knew that to complain would invite ruin: first through what's now called "gaslighting" — claiming I'd imagined everything — followed by accusations of sexual panic and homophobia.

A definite no-win situation.

Ironically, life in a New England college town had been among my Arkansas wife's girlhood dreams. Instead, she found herself patronized to her face when she opened her mouth — always by academics, never ordinary New Englanders, I should stipulate.

I quit before they could fire me.

But it was a real learning experience. In consequence, although definitely not Mr. Sensitive, when it comes to sexual abuse I've always understood what women are talking about.

Much of the time, it isn't even about desire — apart from the desire to put you down and keep you there.

That said, my situation was far less threatening than the women preyed upon by disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. First, there was no possibility of physical force. Second, my antagonists' power was limited to the precincts of one provincial academic department.

All I had to do was walk away.

No harm, no foul.

Not so Weinstein. As the head honcho at one of the most successful movie companies in the world, he had the wherewithal to advance or ruin an actress' entire career. Based upon first-person accounts in Ronan Farrow's lengthy New Yorker expose, he was a calculating predator who set the same trap repeatedly in luxury hotel suites in New York, Hollywood, London and Paris.

He'd invite a young actress to meeting in his hotel suite, greet her with drink in hand wearing nothing but a bathrobe, and then pounce, sometimes violently. A big time Democratic donor, Weinstein followed the script as written by Donald J. Trump. You remember how it goes: "When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything."

If certain of the New Yorker allegations could be proved — alas, they probably cannot — Weinstein belongs not in some luxury European rehab, but an American penitentiary. He's more than a sexual harasser; he's a rapist.

Also, apparently, a bully in other ways. "Lucky me," commented the British actress Kate Winslet. "I somehow dodged that bullet. The fact that I'm never going to have to deal with Harvey Weinstein again as long as I live is one of the best things that's ever happened, and I'm sure the feeling is universal."

Although he's produced humane films such as "Good Will Hunting," "The Crying Game," "Pulp Fiction," and "Shakespeare in Love," tales of his temper tantrums are universal.

That said, Weinstein didn't invent the concept of the Hollywood casting couch nor the louche sexual ethics of the movie business generally. Trading sexual favors for sought-after parts is as old as the theater. The ancient Greek dramatists Sophocles and Euripides were famous for their adventurous love lives. Indeed, one of the most interesting articles to emerge from the Weinstein affair was Slate's recounting of a British fan magazine's 1956 expose entitled "The Perils of Show Business."

Incongruously illustrated with cheesecake photos, it featured the following rules from actress Marigold Russell that working women everywhere would be well-advised to heed: "One: When you have to talk business, stick to offices — and office hours. Two: Refer invitations and offers to your agent. Three: Don't give your home phone number, give your agent's."

Actress and director Sarah Polley writes that her agent wouldn't let her meet Weinstein alone when she was 19, which told her all she needed to know. She also figured that "the idea of making people care about [Hollywood sexual predation] seemed as distant an ambition as pulling the sun out of the sky."

Me, I'm so vain that I can't imagine wanting intimacy with somebody that didn't want me back. Which in the final analysis makes a bully like Weinstein seem almost pathetic to me, although not to his victims, I'm sure.

That said, there's also something smug and ugly about these ritual media stonings. For a columnist like the New York Times' Bret Stephens to write that Weinstein's "repulsive face turns out to be the spitting image of his putrescent soul" strikes me as seriously over the line.

We sinless pundits hide carefully behind our bylines.

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