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December 29, 2017

What changed to finally get America's attention on sexual harassment and abuse?

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles

Okay, here's a question about this year's flood of sexual abuse and harassment accusations:

Why now?

What is it about this specific moment that has made people ready to accept and act upon the reports of abuse and harassment that, frankly, always have been there for us to hear?

Why are we listening now, and not just continuing to ignore them?

I have to concede that nothing qualifies me to answer this question. I'm a guy without a #MeToo anecdote to give me any authority, and I haven't done any formal research. But I do want to throw one thought out there — one observation that might explain why we seem to have hit a social tipping point right now.

And, fair warning, it's about the money.

I agree with many people who've written on this topic that harassment and abuse aren't sexual expressions — they are expressions of power. Power — over money, job security, grades, legal entanglements, and professional and social reputation — allows abusers to intimidate their victims into silence. Women who speak up risk losing their careers, while the men who are accused know that an army of people who depend upon them for future pay, employment and recommendations will come to their defense. What she says, he says to forget. So people do.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair

So what has changed? Well, the thing about using money to buy power is that at some point, you actually have to spend it.

It's not hard to notice that amoral, powerful people are pretty greedy, too. Over the past generation, they've sucked up more and more of our nation's money by cutting workers' hours, shipping jobs overseas, eliminating benefits, and getting cheap on (if not outright stealing) pay.

That changes the equation when you're trying to cover up abuse. If the people you are abusing no longer have any job security, good pay, or promising future to protect, they have a lot less incentive to keep quiet about what you are doing to them. And if you're ripping off the other people you employ, too, they no longer have much of an incentive to look away and defend you.

Yes, many brave women have risked it all to speak up in the past. They would not let money buy their silence. But we never seemed to get to that social tipping point that we have reached now, when entire industries are demanding reform and men who once wielded unquestionable power are losing their jobs.

As a fan of great stories, I love the hero's journey... but I cheer for the ironic downfall, too. For too long, we as a nation celebrated greed, selfishness, and arrogance, allowing a small class of wealthy, powerful men to exploit us and push our nation to the brink. Thank goodness for the women who are speaking up now... and giving some of those wretched abusers a final push over that cliff.


© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.