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Our Future: The Shifting Politics of Sexual Assault

by Kyle Mangione-Smith
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Dec 7, 2017

When the initial allegations regarding Harvey Weinstein broke some weeks ago, I didn't pay them much attention. Though, what it did immediately draw my mind to was a talk that I had to sit through this past summer in conjunction with my internship at Cannes film fest. It was mandatory for the 200 interns, ranging from high school students to recent college graduates. It addressed an issue that's nearly impossible to avoid in some form or another if you're young, inexperienced, and involved in the film industry: sexual assault.

For an hour a group of individuals, ranging from film fest organizers to producers to actors, did their best to express to our group that yes, sexual assault and harassment are real threats at an industry event such as Cannes, and that there are plenty of people that will take advantage of us if given the opportunity. Clearly, it had been enough of a problem for students in the previous years that those administrating the program found it necessary to put us through this drill. Thinking back on that experience, it was almost laughable to think that it was somehow groundbreaking information that Harvey Weinstein, a figure already known within the industry for being a piece of work, was a bit of a creeper.

But as days past following the allegations, it became clear that they weren't going to be glossed over in the way I had expected them to be. It was evident that Mr. Weinstein's career was effectively over. Then only a matter of days later, Buzzfeed ignited the flame that would inevitably bring Kevin Spacey's career crashing down to a similar fate. And that moment, if any, signaled a significant change. In recent years Kevin Spacey's aggressive behavior to young gay men has moved beyond being an open secret into being near-common knowledge that no one particularly cared to talk about. The Buzzfeed story regarding Anthony Rapp's encounter with Spacey wasn't even the first article to "break" Spacey's unspoken sexual advances - over two years ago Gawker ran a series of articles containing dozens upon dozens of accounts of Spacey's aggressive attitude towards young men.

Kevin Spacey (left) and Anthony Rapp

None of this information is in any way new, not even to the general public. Films depicting the Hollywood film industry lean on the cliché of the skeevy big shot producer for that very reason; it's so known that this is just the way things are that the skeevy big shots themselves are fine with such depictions in films, knowing perfectly well that there isn't much anyone could do. Or so it seemed at least, up until the last few weeks. So why the shift?

Well, politics in America have shifted more in the last year than they have in the last few decades, with Trump of course sitting keenly at the center. Much like Spacey, information regarding Trump's history of sexual assault is easily accessible and verifiable online. That is of course a single piece of a larger puzzle that makes Trump who he is, but in a sense it's both uniquely important and also representative of how he's shifted politics as a whole. Trump has made respectability in politics optional. He's made it possible for our government to act as vile and despicable as they want, both in action and in ideology, and openly embracing a history of sexual assault without shame is just a facet of that.

But the fight against sexual assault has been gaining traction and relevance for a good few years now, certainly preceding Trump's moment in the political spotlight. There was a notable shift within progressive politics about a decade ago to address sexual assault more earnestly, and acknowledge how pervasive it is. Discourse regarding consent, rape culture, and the frequency of sexual assault has undeniably come to a head within mainstream American culture in the 2010s. The idea that sexual assault isn't just coming from the creeper living alone down the street, but from your friends, your family, your coworkers - that's a concept that undeniably modern in terms of its relevancy within mainstream culture. And it was only through serious political efforts on behalf of feminists and other leftist political groups that we've arrived at that point.

Donald Trump

In that sense, Trump served possibly the biggest blow to the attempt to root out sexual assault imaginable. He showed that regardless of the effort that's been made to shift the public consciousness regarding sexual assault, someone who's openly known for his sexual abuse could be successful enough to be elected president of the United States. People might act like they care, but when it comes down to it, they're willing to overlook sexual assault to salvage their reason for voting for (or against) someone. Enough people, at least, for an abuser to win the highest seat in our government.

Spacey and Weinstein have been known abusers for years, along with countless other powerful figures within the film industry. What's changed is that it's no longer possible to ignore how many people in power get away with sexual assault. Its no longer possible to deny how pervasive an issue it is when Trump's presidential run was able to overcome the locker-room-talk scandal. So naturally, the politics used to fight sexual assault need to shift with the culture at large.

Enough people have realized that it's not enough to broadcast statistics and engage in polite political discourse regarding consent and rape culture. If we don't take direct, swift, and radical action to root these men out, then they're only going to continue getting away with it. They'll gain more power, their actions will be spoken of less, and when they are spoken of they'll simply be brushed away. So as it stands, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey will likely never work in Hollywood again, and that alone is huge.

Kyle Mangione-Smith is a filmmaker and student living in Boston.


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