Sexual misconduct in Hollywood: stop blaming the victim

As the world faces a global pandemic, and the social media generation decides to take the issue of racially motivated police brutality into our own hands, there has been a distinct increase in allegations of sexual misconduct against A-List celebrities. Stars such as Ansel Elgort, Justin Bieber and Cole Sprouse have been accused, via social media, of sexual misconduct. However, when allegations are made using this platform, it becomes almost impossible for the industries of the accused to make informed decisions due to the surge of public opinion that is triggered. For me, and I’m sure many other members of the public, this begs the question: how can we know who to believe in the face of such allegations when social media obscures so many boundaries between what is morally right and wrong?

When Ansel Elgort was accused of sexually assaulting a minor, it was impossible to be a social media user and be unaware of it. Platforms such as Twitter expressed a tidal wave of shock and disbelief, for how could a young, good-looking Hollywood star at the peak of his career be capable of an act most commonly attributed to perverse, old men? In fact, the allegation itself was made via Twitter, by a girl known only as ‘Gabby’. In response, Elgort also used social media to issue an apology, along with his denial of the facts presented to his 9.9 million followers via Instagram. While the response to the post was mixed, with some believing and others disbelieving Elgort, no one can deny the strangeness of such a serious allegation being addressed via a social media app as opposed to via a formal legal process.

Surely, the same can be said for the woman making the allegation — should she not have gone to the police or contacted a lawyer instead? The fact that she didn’t have to go down this route to impact her alleged assailant’s life highlights a twisted element of social media culture, whereby those in the public eye are subjected to ‘trial by Twitter’ – based on allegations that have yet to be proven. However, this communal ‘cancelling’ of individuals could be avoided if platforms such as Twitter were held accountable to the key premise of the Western justice system: that one is innocent until proven guilty. Some may say this is impossible due to the nature of social media, but I feel we must do better — somehow — to avoid the destruction of careers and consequently lives based on an unsubstantiated accusation.   

On the other hand, we cannot forget as a society the courage it takes to speak out about sexual assault, via social media or otherwise. These women and men are brave because they know the legitimate risk they are exposing themselves to from those social media users who decide to vocally disbelieve them. Some of these disbelievers even go so far as to suggest that if they are telling the truth then they must have acted or dressed in a way that ‘invited’ assault. Although disbelieving a victim is not technically victim-blaming, when one questions an accuser even when they have no concrete evidence that the allegation is false, they are subscribing to the separate phenomenon of victim-shaming. Moreover, if a victim is telling the truth (which they are in the overwhelming majority of cases), they will now feel ashamed of speaking out, when in reality they should feel proud and empowered.

Of course, when one suggests or even implies a victim is responsible for the act committed against them, as some social media users do, this is victim-blaming, and quite frankly it makes me question how far we have come from a time in Hollywood when actresses were told to expect and accept sexual advances from males in positions of power if they wanted to ‘make it big’ in the industry. But since the MeToo movement took flight throughout Hollywood and its related industries in 2017, giving more and more victims of systemic sexual abuse a voice, the question must be asked: why, three years on, is society — albeit social media society — still actively willing to victim-blame?

My answer is a simple, one-word, yet multi-layered term: patriarchy. Social activist and feminist Jordan Hewson once stated:

“I am persistently surprised by not only the extremity but also by the subtlety of the patriarchy”

For anyone who doubts this statement, evidence of the subtle functions of the patriarchy in British society can be found in almost every industry contributing to the UK economy. For example, 84% of fashion school graduates are women, but only 14% of fashion companies have female CEOs. Additionally, 90% of film sets don’t have any female assistants in the crew. The most recent publicised victim of the patriarchy in the wider Western world is Vanessa Guillen, who spoke out against the sexual abuse she faced as a female soldier in the US military and was consequently murdered by her assailant. Convinced yet?

But what does the inherent patriarchal structure of our society have to do with the rape allegations against Hollywood A-Listers? Well, it has everything to do with them. How could it not? Powerful men are being challenged left right and centre and yet they somehow still have the upper hand with the more ‘believable’ story and the wrong ‘character’ to be a rapist. Take Jeffrey Epstein: although we all know he is guilty now and vilify him as a society accordingly, after his first conviction for soliciting prostitution in 2008 you would think he would become a recluse from society, hiding in shame and humiliation. However, as a powerful male billionaire, he not only re-entered society but actively re-branded himself as a philanthropist in 2012, as well as using his private jet to travel from country to country without any regard towards the ongoing investigation against him. Essentially, everyone knew he was a criminal, and many correctly assumed he was a sex offender, but given his gender and status he could return to society as though nothing had happened.

Now we have established why so many in society victim-blame those brave enough to speak out about sexual assault, we must ask ourselves what we can do as individuals to tackle the problem. Obviously, I don’t have all the answers and I won’t pretend I do. But I will emphasise one fact to those trying to help this movement — one that must be considered inherently feminist:

education is power

The more we, as individuals, educate ourselves, the more power we have to challenge and ultimately overcome the patriarchal obstacles put in place for girls and women throughout our lives. If we ever become victims of sexual assault ourselves before our society is fixed, we must find the courage to speak out and bring the individuals and systems responsible to justice. However, although I have no right to dictate the actions of victims, I would urge anyone speaking out to do this away from social media, due to the blurred moral boundaries it presents to both the accuser and the accused. Although it won’t be easy for any victim to process the trauma and speak out, I feel there is no better way to tackle this patriarchal pandemic than for all of us — women and men from all walks of life — to support each other, starting with believing victims and elevating their often unheard voices in the real world as opposed to the virtual.

By Ellie Smith

Image: by Alan Light via Flickr

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