As Hollywood continues to grapple with sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, one male star has revealed he knew more about the producer’s actions than he initially let on.
“I knew the story about Gwyneth from Ben [Affleck] because he was with her after Brad [Pitt], and so I knew that story,” Damon admitted during his interview alongside actor George Clooney. “I never talked to Gwyneth about it. Ben told me, but I knew that they had come to whatever, you know, agreement or understanding that they had come to, she had handled it. She was, you know, the first lady of Miramax. And he treated her incredibly respectfully, always.”
Damon also said he had heard of Weinstein’s reputation as a “womanizer,” but said he didn’t think that was any of his business.
“I knew he was a womanizer. I wouldn’t want to be married to the guy. But this level of criminal sexual predation is not something that I ever thought was going on. Absolutely not,” Damon said.
The “none of my business” excuse
Though Damon said he was sorry if he missed an instance of a woman being harassed at a public event he attended, his initial dismissal of Weinstein’s behavior as “none of his business” represents how men too often turn a blind eye to the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and assault against women — or how they don’t want to face the fact that men they associate with could be capable of such acts.
“I think that [Damon’s] comments really demonstrate a barrier that I think a lot of people have, which is that recognizing that the situations are not always just limited to the two individuals you hear about at the get-go,” Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said in an interview.
“I think we still, as a culture, have such a hard time imagining that anybody we associate with is capable of committing acts of sexual violence,” she said. “And yet, the reality is that the vast majority of people who are perpetrating acts of sexual violence are doing so against people that they know and that they associate with.”
During the Good Morning America interview, Clooney even conceded that most men remain unaware of the widespread issues facing women, saying: “Many, if not most women, have at some point in their [lives] faced this type of behavior. And that’s a little bit of a surprise to some of us, that it’s this big, this prevalent.”
The Harvard Business Review noted several sociological and psychological reasons behind men’s failure to realize or act on instances of sexual harassment, assault and gender discrimination. One example is the bystander effect, which allows men to assume someone else will act. One study HBR cited found that men “overestimate their male peers’ sexism,” which makes them less likely to intervene; another determined that men remain reluctant to participate in gender-based initiatives because, psychologically, they “don’t think it’s their place as men.”
To be allies, men must speak up and intervene
Even so, it remains critical that men make the fight against sexual harassment and violence their business.
“This is an issue that impacts all of us,” Houser said. “Everybody has other people in their life for whose safety and well-being they’re concerned. We know sexual violence cuts across all societal categories, so nobody is immune to being impacted … Sexual assault is an issue that has ripple effects through our culture. And flat out, we need everybody to be on board to take it seriously.”
Damon’s comments about Paltrow “reaching an agreement” with Weinstein, Houser added, are “really ignoring the big picture.”
“I mean, if you could go so far as to say, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t want to be married to the guy, I know he’s a womanizer’ — I mean, what do we need to do to help men recognize that you can and should be influencing the behavior and norms of your social circle?” Houser said. “Men get very upset if we talk about men as perpetrators. They quickly say, ‘Oh, we’re not all perpetrators!’ They don’t like being tainted by association.
“And yet these comments really reflect part of that difficulty. No one wants to be tainted by association, and yet we need people to speak up about their associations to promote standards of respect and equality and fairness and kindness and trustworthiness that we all want in our own lives.”
Though Damon said Monday he would try to give his daughters some “sense of self-esteem” to make the “right decisions” and “protect themselves” going forward — even though women can be victims of sexual harassment and assault regardless of how they dress or present themselves — Houser said men can take far more concrete steps to prevent sexual harassment and assault.
In anticipation of seeing sexual harassment or assault take place, men should “practice thinking about what [they] might say, rehearsing in [their] head, having a few scenarios in [their] back pocket that [they] feel comfortable using is important,” she said. “If you’re somebody who’s never really thought about that, you should. You should think about that ... ‘What am I comfortable doing or saying so that I am living by the values that I want to see reflected in my culture or in my community?’
“People need to understand that intervening to promote respect and equality instead of disrespect and exploitation does not always mean being confrontational with people in your social circle,” Houser added.
More subtle steps men can take, Houser proposed, include writing a letter to the editor or inviting a local rape crisis center to do prevention programming or bystander training in a workplace or other association “to provide some concrete steps.”
Men need to be cognizant of bad behavior that’s not necessarily criminal
As Damon’s dismissal of Weinstein’s womanizing makes clear, however, it’s not just rape or overt sexual assault that men need to realize are problems.
“While it is true that individual offenders are responsible for their own individual actions, we need to recognize that many times there is a sanitizing of your thoughts and behaviors based on the norms that are present in our communities and in our culture,” Houser said. “It’s not enough to be outraged about things that are clarified in our criminal code … [Those aren’t] the only things that are a problem. And there are lots of things that happen in our communities and in our environments that normalize really problematic behaviors, that normalize thought patterns, and that silence and push out opportunities for people to speak up about who’s causing harm in our communities.”
Men’s efforts in combating sexual harassment, then, should include “learning a little bit more about those things on the spectrum that are not criminal acts,” Houser said.
“It’s really easy to speak up about rape; it might be easy to speak up about sexual harassment that might involve physical touching or grabbing, or something that’s much more overt,” Houser said. “I think we have a harder time identifying and reacting to the subtle comments, the sexist jokes, the so-called ‘locker room talk’ — things that still [happen] everyday in our culture. You want to talk about how you’ll deal with that in your personal life, you want to be encouraging your places of employment to have the appropriate policies and procedures in place, you want to make sure you have training in place to communicate to all people that are employed there what the expectations are.
“We need to be honest about this stuff and ask for what we need, and I think what a lot of people need are concrete examples and practice on how you really operationalize this so that you can be an agent to change.”