5 Reasons Why #MeToo
Is Not a Witch-Hunt
Woody Allen was interviewed recently by the BBC regarding the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. He stated that:
“You also don’t want it to lead to a witch-hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself.”
This has come at a time when many powerful men have been accused of sexually assaulting women – from Bill Cosby to the POTUS – and in a week where the MeToo hashtag has exploded, revealing the extent sexual harassment and assault people (especially women) are exposed to. #ΜeToo has been like lifting a rock to find all the dark and predatory creatures that lurk beneath it. Creatures that many of us suspected were there but have tried not to come face-to-face with for fear it would be too much to handle.
But it is high time these acts of sexual harassment and aggression were brought into the light. We need to be aware of the extent of them. So Allen (A powerful man with a more than dubious sexual past) should not be referring to the revealing of sexual misconduct as a ‘Witch hunt’ because this term is both misleading and disingenuous.
So here are 4 reasons why I cannot agree to the term ‘Witch-hunt’ and would suggest we call it instead a ‘Revelation of sexual aggression .
1) The power dynamic
When the Witch hunts occurred during the middle ages, most involved government and church authorities who started investigations that often included secret informants and torture to acquire their information and confessions.
Therefore the persecution initially came from those in power. It was a top-down approach. Some Historians believe that the witch hunts were possibly a form of social control and the reason for the witch-trials may well have been to centralise authority, impose cultural uniformity or dominate factions of the church. In other words the gain was for those in power. Conversely those who were persecuted were generally not powerful figures within the government or the church – although some may well have wielded some small influence within their local communities. Midwives, herbalists and healers may not have been literate but they would have held some influence on the people within their small communities. However many more of the victims of the European witch-trials were also entirely powerless. The old, poor, frail, ill or young. People who were unable to defend themselves. Those in low social positions.
In other words witch-hunts were introduced by the powerful to control and dominate the powerless.
When we talk of sexual harassment or sexual violence it is very rarely (if ever) about sex. It is about power. Sexual violence is not a crime driven by high sex drives and passion, but a violence driven by a desire for dominance. It may be about overtly exerting physical power and dominance (e.g. rape), covertly maintaining privilege by stating entitlement (e.g. Street harassment) or by the policing and controlling of sexuality.
Namely sexual violence is committed to control or dominate.
By comparing the Weinstein case with the Witch-hunts Allen inverts the power balance, insinuating that modern-day women hold the same power as the church and government officials did back in the middle ages, and that the men they accuse are in the position of powerlessness. To state that men (many of whom wield power, whether that be physical power, holding positions of power or holding social power) who are accused of acts of sexual violence (committed to control and dominate) may be ‘witch hunted’ is preposterous.
2) The term ‘Sexual violence’
It is essential that when we give something a definition that we understand what it means. It should be recognisable and universally understood.
The World Health Organisation defines sexual violence as:
“any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.” (1)
It includes within the definition of coercion the following:
“Coercion can cover a whole spectrum of degrees of force. Apart from physical force, it may involve psychological intimidation, blackmail or other threats – for instance, the threat of physical harm, of being dismissed from a job or of not obtaining a job that is sought.” (2)
If we go by this definition and then take a look at the allegations coming to light about Weinstein or the stories being shared by the #MeToo campaign, we can begin to understand the sheer magnitude of sexual violence that occurs on a daily basis for women (and men – often by men) around the world. All the stories I have read thus-far have certainly fallen into the WHO definition of sexual violence, whether they be stories of coercion, physical assault or rape. These stories may be anecdotal, but unlike the stories told during the Witch-trials, they are neither fanciful nor based upon a fear-based hysteria. In fact they appear to be a sad fact of life experienced in the daily lives of many people.
I question the validity of the term ‘Witch-hunt’ when calling out those who have committed any sort of sexual violence. By speaking up against sexual violence women are not scapegoating men but highlighting the enormous societal and cultural issues that have led to sexual harassment and sexual violence being a far too common occurrence.
3) The term ‘Witch-Hunt’
The term ‘Witch hunt’ as used by the Oxford English dictionary is:
“A campaign directed against a person or group holding views considered unorthodox or a threat to society.” (3)
And yet when we look back at the Witch Hunts that took place in the middle ages, the supposed threat to society was uncategorically false. Witches did not endanger the society. They did not wither crops. They did not inflict diseases nor create bad weather. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest they made pacts with evil spirits or that any of the magic, ‘devil worship’ or imagined harm that the witches were accused of was in any way real.
Conversely sexual violence – overt or covert – is a very real threat to our society. It has a very real and profound impact on the physical and mental health as well as well as impacting on the social well-being of its victims. Sexual crimes – and those who sanction, encourage or justify these acts as, well as those who ignore them or play-down their impact are a threat to half of the population of the world. So I argue that it would be more befitting to sate that a Witch-hunt is:
“A campaign directed against a person or group holding views considered unorthodox or a group of people who are falsely perceived to be a threat to society.”
4) Witch-hunt is a gendered term.
During the witch trials in the middle ages a document known as the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), was used to establish ways to identity witches, convict them of the charge of witchcraft, and then execute them for the crime. The entire document sets out to demonise those who are female. In fact one section of this document was specifically written to establish why it is that ‘Women are chiefly addicted to Evil Superstitions’. The document did not state that only women could be witches – and in fact some men were tried and executed for witchcraft – but in these document much was written about the reasons why women were more susceptible to the evils of witchcraft. “because in these times this perfidy is more often found in women than in men, as we learn by actual experience, if anyone is curious as to the reason, we may add to what has already been said the following: that since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft” (4)
The Malleus Maleficarum states about women:
“What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours! Therefore if it be a sin to divorce her when she ought to be kept, it is indeed a necessary torture; for either we commit adultery by divorcing her, or we must endure daily strife.” (5)
It also states:
“When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.” (6)
Interestingly one of the main reasons that the document reported that women were more susceptible to evil was because they were more carnal than men and therefore “the word woman is used to mean the lust of the flesh.” (7) So, although the document does not suggest only women could be witches, most of those who were accused of being witches were female. Therefore the witch-trials were a gendered issue. Women were feared because they were seen as wicked, weak and carnal creatures that were naturally evil. Women were barbarically tortured and killed as witches for 300 years because they were feared by men in power.
In the case of the witch-hunts women were accused of being evil because of their supposed carnal nature; they were imprisoned, tortured, forced to confess and often executed for these so-called ‘crimes’ whereas Allen’s words suggest that he fears that all men will be open to accusation of sexual harassment or violence and will be forced to defend themselves in a similar way to the women accused of witchcraft in the middle-ages. But by inverting the term ‘Witch-hunt’ Allen downplays the spilled blood of tens of thousands of women and deprecates the barbaric crimes upon women carried out during the middle ages.
5) The Salem Witch Trials are synonymous with McCarthyism
The Salem witch trials occurred in colonial Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693. What started as 3 children going into ‘fits’ resulted in 3 conveniently powerless women (Tituba – a slave; Sarah Good – a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly and poverty-stricken woman) being accused of witchcraft and this in turn started a frenzied avalanche of accusations. During the time period over 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft of which 20 were actually executed.
When Arthur Miller published the play The Crucible in 1953 he used it to symbolise McCarthyism in the 1950’s. McCarthyism is a byname for defamation of character or reputation by means of widely publicised indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges. (8)
By stating that speaking out against sexual harassment and sexual violence may create a ‘Salem atmosphere’ Allen is scaremongering, feeding male paranoia and surreptitiously suggesting that men will be subjected to a type of modern-day McCarthyism by having to face accusations of sexual misconduct that are erroneous and unsubstantiated; causing them to be driven out of their jobs or victimised. This harmful narrative also plays into the age old notion that women are over-emotional and hysterical thus their stories can be neither believed nor trusted.
And yet statistics suggest that in the UK alone there are far more sexual crimes committed than are reported. The estimation is that only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police (9) and the #MeToo campaign has highlighted that the figures of unreported sexual harassment and sexual crimes is far more serious than that. And yet conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator. (10) It would appear that victims are more likely to report the most serious sexual offences to the police but less serious sexual offences go under the statistical radar. They are simply not being reported. Frequently cited reasons for not reporting the crime were that it was ‘embarrassing’, they ‘didn’t think the police could do much to help’, that the incident was ‘too trivial or not worth reporting’, or that they saw it as a ‘private/family matter and not police business’ (11).
These statistics suggest that there is an enormous number of women and men not reporting sexual crimes against them and are simply putting up with them. Perhaps clocking them down to experience or living with the shame and guilt for a lifetime. This is not at all similar to the unprecedented and unusual case of the Salem Witch Trials where mass panic, fear and hysteria lead to scapegoating, persecution and the death of 20 innocent people. There is no Salem atmosphere – no hysteria and frenzy in the case of Weinstein, nor in the #MeToo phenomenon only uncomfortable revelation.
The #MeToo campaign and the high-profile cases such as that of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein in the US or Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris in the UK highlight something incredibly important: The sheer amount of sexual harassment and sexual violence that occurs on a daily basis on a global level. It is not something we can disassociate from our modern-day, Western Society nor is it something from our cultural past. And it is high time this issue was brought to light. It is time we ask those who perpetrate, sanction or ignore them to be made accountable. It is a ‘Revelation of sexual aggression’
4, 5, 6 & 7. http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org/downloads/MalleusAcrobat.pdf
10 & 11. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140713175815/https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/an-overview-of-sexual-offending-in-england-and-wales
Other useful sources: