In the years I spent living a beer-bottle’s toss from Sydney’s red-light district, Kings Cross, one sight that always struck me was empty baby seats in the back of cars that slowed to a halt beside sex workers.
It was the incongruity, the innocence, the secrets.
Now, every time a mogul is exposed for being a grub, a harasser or a rapist, I wonder about the ensuing conversations with their children, if they have them. Especially daughters.
Ivanka staring down her father about his penchant for “pussy grabbing” — because “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” She criedwhen he wouldn’t fully apologise.
Rolf Harris’s daughter Bindi had to stomach allegations he sexually assaulted teenagers, including one of her best friends. When she found out, she destroyed two of her father’s paintings in rage and struggled with suicidal thoughts.
Ultimately though, she stood by him, telling the court: “I realised we are all human, I had him on a pedestal and now I can see him as a father and man.” (So that is what fathers and men do?)
Is this how Bill Cosby’s daughters, Ensa, Erin and Evin came together to defend his reputation against 50 odd allegations of sexual assault? And what of the fourth daughter, painter Erika?
TV host Bill O’Reilly’s daughter testified against her father in court during a custody trial, saying she saw him choking her mother — his ex-wife, Maureen McPhilmy — and dragging her down some stairs, an allegation he denied.
Surely many men come unstuck explaining themselves to their daughters.
Confronting your family
After a long litany of personal accounts from women accusing him of sexual assault this week, Harvey Weinstein reportedly stormed out of his daughter Remi Lily’s home, yelling “you’re making things worse”.
She then called the police and said her father was depressed and suicidal. Imagine the scene: a powerful man grappling with sudden, complete impotence, exposure and condemnation, beseeching a disgusted daughter to understand.
Having to explain a pattern of serial contempt for women, let alone abuse and assault, would be gruelling for any bloke who wants his offspring to respect him. Though you’d have to say, fair cop: should have thought that one through, perhaps.
But you don’t need to be a father to understand what rape and abuse is. Frankly it shouldn’t be that hard to grasp.
The idea that men can simply say “Yeah I get it, I have a daughter” in response to shocking accounts of abuse has this week been rightly exposed as trite and pat, and another form of saying “Yeah I know heaps of gay people/have lots of black friends/sat next to a lesbian at a dinner party recently/wore a frock in a school play once.”
The new ‘thoughts and prayers’
Online, anger was triggered by actor Matt Damon, a protege of Weinstein’s, after he told a reporter: “Look, even before I was famous, I didn’t abide this kind of behaviour. But now, as the father of four daughters, this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night. This is the great fear for all of us. You have a daughter, you know…”
Twitter collectively eye-rolled.
E. Alex Jung tweeted; “‘I have a daughter’ is getting up there with ‘thoughts and prayers.”
Abigail Shirley wrote: “Dear Men, please remove the phrase ‘as a husband and/or a father of daughters’ from your vocabulary. Women exist outside your bubble.”
Jess Dweck retorted: ‘”As the father of 25 daughters, I’m starting to think women might actually be people.”
And as Louis Virtel explained: “It’s hard to topple the patriarchy when your ‘I have daughters’ argument is so, y’know, patriarchal.”
This is especially true when men aren’t also saying “I have sons — I need to work out how to teach them to respect women, and I recognise that will be bloody hard in this world. I don’t want to ever find out that my son has trapped women in corridors or pushed unwilling heads towards groins or pawed associates or made one single woman feel small, uncomfortable and violated. I want to teach my son to believe in women, and believe them.”
Because this is at the core of this week’s stunning revelations about decades of sexual abuse by one of America’s most powerful, prominent figures: women will speak if women are believed. Then more will speak.
A history of ignoring women
Those who have spoken before have been doubted, vilified, slut-shamed or cast as crazy, even when they have precisely zero to gain when speaking out.
Think of how the iconic Alfred Hitchcock indulged his obsession with Tippi Hedren in the 1960s; controlling what she ate and who she saw, making a mask of her face for his own use, asking her to “touch” him, informing her when he got an erection, trying to kiss her in his limousine, tricking her into thinking mechanical birds would be swooping on her in the final scenes of The Birds, not real ones, which pecked and terrified her.
In short, he introduced her to an enduring, searing kind of misery and, she says, destroyed her career.
Finally, she wrote in her memoir, one day he showed up in her dressing room and “put his hands” on her. “It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked or repulsed.”
She pushed him away, said she wanted to get out of her contract and never spoke to him again — or agreed to his demand that she make herself sexually available.
When she told her story, Hitchcock biographers and colleagues cast doubt on her claims.
She responded by saying: “They weren’t there. How about that? I was the one living that life. They weren’t. How can they possibly have anything to say about it?”
Over the past few months, this kind of automatic criticism has been muted in the face of mounting evidence.
After decades of incidents, of hurt, settlements and secrets, women have spoken, and women have been believed.
As a result, the ranks of those publicly seeking to expose and counter a culture of rape and abuse have thickened. And this makes the world a vastly different, and safer place.
Julia Baird hosts the Drum on ABCTV. Twitter: bairdjulia