One of the stranger educational experiences this past year has been learning about the diverse arsenal of abuses available to men in power. Luring women into hotel rooms and rubbing against their terrified bodies, a la the allegations facing screenwriter James Toback? Forcing them to ask permission before using the bathroom, as R. Kelly's accusers have alleged? Every time new accusations land, I've wondered, with foot-dragging curiosity, what specific, surprising fetish would horrify us this time. Harvey Weinstein's alleged abuse of women set the bar so very high.
The allegations against CBS chief Leslie Moonves, which came out late Friday, were a litany of behaviors we might now place in the mid-range of awful. The range for which we've employed a suite of clinical terminology: "sexual misconduct." "Forcible kissing."
The specific surprise with Moonves came not from any sexual pervertedness but from psychological perversity. "I recognize that there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances," Moonves said in a statement. "But I always understood and respected - and abided by the principle - that 'no' means 'no.' "
The specific surprise for me was that Moonves, a public voice in the Me Too movement who has also been involved in a national commission on eliminating sexual harassment, probably thinks he's a good guy.
He might have, as one victim alleged in the New Yorker, thrown himself onto her in a business meeting, trying to kiss her as she squirmed - but, by her own account, he eventually unlocked the door when she begged him to. He might have, as another woman alleged, pulled her skirt up during a different work conversation and begun to "thrust against her" - but, by her own account, she didn't tell him no. Fearing for her safety, she claimed in the piece, she instead scrambled to her feet and joked her way out of the room.
Over the weekend, Moonves’s wife offered him her support: “I have known my husband, Leslie Moonves, since the late ’90s,” Julie Chen tweeted. “... Leslie is a good man.”
Moonves might have obeyed the classic good-man rule: No means no.
But, if the New Yorker accounts are correct, he also obeyed a whole bunch of other garbage rules that have been condoned by society for a long time: A man's job is to pursue; a woman's is to fend him off.
Or maybe: Keep trying, and you might wear her down.
Or maybe: She might secretly want it; she just needs some convincing to turn a no into a yes.
For decades, a man could follow all of those rules and still be "a good man."
In other words, we’re no longer talking about a bad guy — we’re talking about a bad society. We’re talking about a bad society that has allowed “sexual misconduct” to regularly maraud under terms such as “dating.” And that has allowed some women to desperately reach for a door handle, wondering whether tonight’s the night they’ll be raped or murdered, while their dates stand by and bemusedly wonder, “Should I try one more time?”
Nearly a year into the Me Too movement, this is where the conversation needed to go all along, of course. To the part where we realize we don’t need a lice comb — we need a fumigation. But this is the part where the discussions get hard, and the solutions aren’t easy.
The staggeringly high bar set by Harvey Weinstein was necessary. Women's claims against him allowed no room for debate; everyone could tell he was disgusting.
But Weinstein also proved to be a useful distraction. Everyone could tell he was disgusting, including plenty of men who had also done gross things. They just weren't as gross as Harvey.
"James is absolutely not a Harvey Weinstein," said a woman who accused actor James Franco of sexual misconduct, on "Good Morning America" this year.
"Geoffrey Rush is not Harvey Weinstein," said actress Rachel Griffiths about her acquaintance. Rush stepped down from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts following accusations of "inappropriate behavior."
Thank God this doesn't seem as bad as Harvey Weinstein, I thought when I first read the New Yorker piece about Moonves, and then I hated myself: We were talking about the potential devastation of women's careers and psyches, and here I was, weighing the Moonves allegations not against genuinely good behavior but against a man whose preferred attire for a business meeting was reportedly an open bathrobe.
But I can't have been the only person who thought that.
Our job is to live in the gray now. To wrestle with the society we've produced. To understand we're not talking about good guys vs. bad guys, but about good guys who are also bad guys.
It’s time to understand that we don’t have to be the worst in order to be very bad.
Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post’s Style section and author of “American Fire.”