When I sat down to write this book, aghast at the stories countless women were posting with the hashtag #MeToo, I had a moment of doubt. Because I am a heterosexual, white, affluent, Western man, a citizen of the European Union, in short, supposedly immune to discrimination, I was afraid that anything I might say would lack legitimacy. At least, that is, if I was trying to produce anything more than distant musings, arm’s-length observations; at least, if I hoped to achieve any sort of full personal engagement with this issue. In time, though, my doubts subsided: there was no need for me to talk about women at all—their singular nature, their essence. In any case, I wouldn’t have known how. What I needed to conjure up, instead, was the world that we all share, a world in which a stunning inequality stubbornly persists, even now, an imbalance subtly fed by our common perceptions and our everyday behavior. In that case, it was enough to be human, really, to be able to claim legitimacy. To think otherwise, to believe that some dark veil could forever divide feminine from masculine—to believe in a mysterious and unbridgeable difference—would have betrayed the very meaning of what I was sitting down to write.
As I ventured deeper into the accounts of sexual harassment and even rape that women had been providing since October 2017, I felt a surge of disgust. The disgust gradually turned into dismay. These men are revolting, no doubt about it. Often, pathetic. Many are shameless pigs. Above all, though, they’re men just like me. And it is the very fact that they are men that makes them pigs. Even if I was unwilling to accept it then and there, a part of my identity as a man had just been thrown into my face. It would be pure hypocrisy to deny it. Even if I had no distinct acts of harassment on my conscience, I could see, emerging vaguely in the background of these stark depictions of grim tableaux, the ways in which I myself had long been conditioned to view and desire women. I make no claim to any new gender theory, much less do I intend to lecture about feminism. But really, if I stop to think about it, I’m speaking mainly to men. For that matter, I’m basically writing about them, too. I’m addressing them as a man, and I’m writing about my own problem. Because I’m convinced that, above and beyond all the media hype, women today have clearer ideas about themselves than “we” do. At least when it comes to what they do want and what they don’t. In contrast, behind an increasingly fragile façade, my fellow men are having a hard time accepting the collapse of their empire of virility, a decline and fall that is unmistakably heralded by the worldwide impetus and power of #MeToo. They are struggling, I am struggling, we are struggling to redefine our ambitions as men, our fantasies as men, our behavior as men, our desires as men. In short, our place in the world. Our relations with women. Our identity. Even if most of us know perfectly well that we have no choice but to change. The stunning arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn at New York’s JFK airport on May 14, 2011, as he was about to board a flight to Europe, did not bring with it any larger debate about the Situation of Women. And yet the whole business resulted in a worldwide media storm. The case involved a powerful man accused of sexual assault on a woman who was dependent on him—much like what happened in the Weinstein case, six years later. He, the accused man, was the managing director of the International Monetary Fund at the time and a sure bet for future president of the French Republic. She, the alleged victim, was a young Guinean maid working at the Manhattan hotel where he was staying. It emerged in the aftermath of his arrest that the man was a perpetually randy sexual predator. He was forced out of his executive perch at the IMF and was effectively ruled out as a potential presidential candidate back in France. But he dragged down no other men in his calamitous fall. There was no domino effect. There were certainly other women, their claims suddenly cast in a far more credible light, who brought their own descriptions of the appalling behavior to which he’d subjected them. Our eyes were suddenly opened to DSK as a sexual glutton, a libertine pig, a diseased lothario. He was depicted as unhinged. In a word, an abnormal individual.
The producer and movie tycoon Harvey Weinstein was also spectacularly toppled from his pedestal—reviled by Hollywood en masse—in the wake of a strongly accusatory article in the October 5, 2017, issue of the New York Times. His fall, however, resulted in an explosive chain reaction. Because here, with repercussions that went well beyond the individual actions of an isolated predator—however monstrous—we were suddenly presented with the larger system we live in, revealed in the harsh light of day. The fundamentally unfair rules of our modern civilization were now illuminated by the pitiless light cast by the personal accounts offered by millions of women. Why this sudden tsunami? Why this surge of scandals in every walk of life, with resignations of cabinet ministers and members of parliament, expulsions of college professors, and firings of business executives across the face of the globe? Unquestionably kairos played its part—sheer chance, contingent circumstance, simple opportunity. The election to the White House of an aging playboy oozing virility to a degree that verged on the burlesque, an impulsive and proven harasser, also surely played a part. We should remember that, in the fall of 2016, in the thick of the American presidential campaign, it was hard to give serious credence to this buffoonish uber-male parading through the mass media like the circus come to town. He appeared to the eyes of the world a little bit like one of the last living exemplars of a species on the verge of extinction. And yet: Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. There was no denying it: in brutal defiance of the belief system of the progressive elites, the archaic world of the alpha male—dominant to the point of caricature—with his meek and picture-perfect “trophy wife” at his side (these are Trump’s own words), still existed and was, in fact, in a state of rude good health.
The seismic fault, at the very heart of society, between the old world of glorious virility, on the one hand, and—on the other—the ideological maturity reinforced by the economic autonomy women had attained was becoming increasingly and unmistakably hard to ignore. And therefore, all the more intolerable.
Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, in fact, a growing number of women had challenged the limitations intrinsic to their status as second-class citizens, managing to climb to positions that made them equal to men, if not actually to supplant them. First in the realms of school and higher education, and then, in the course of time and in the face of resistance that endures to the present day, in the professional and political worlds. These women did nothing more than take modernity at face value. Still, there has been a growing gap between women’s aspirations to acquire the means of earning a living in accordance with the modern principles of equality, on the one hand, and the persistent, die-hard resistance, and even resurgence of male behaviors which deny them that equality in everyday life. The culture of patriarchy in its most abject manifestations, radiating an aura of bad faith, has become all the more intolerable as an ever deeper moat has been dug to thwart women’s real-world ambitions. Lest we forget, the French Revolution did one big thing: it enshrined in concrete terms the aspirations of the bourgeoisie to free itself of the yoke of a corrupt aristocracy, a noble class that was already philosophically illegitimate. Making male domination really and truly intolerable would likewise require a new and broad-based awareness resting upon long-acknowledged principles which have, nonetheless, in the real world, been flouted on a daily basis.
The film producer Harvey Weinstein became the poster child for this brand of concrete inequality of the sexes, in the face of this modern world that loudly and parodistically proclaimed gender equality. Why Weinstein in particular, rather than any other random famous serial sexual harasser plucked from the ranks of thousands, and cast in the image of the former managing director of the IMF? Because DSK represented nothing more than a randy male, in a constant, frantic quest for sex. With call girls and other prostitutes. With women who were his social equals, and women who were not. With female journalists who were there to interview him, with office assistants, secretaries, housekeepers—with any woman who crossed his path. This type of behavior, of course, is a significant part of the culture of domination. But it’s not its fundamental and underlying principle.
Weinstein, on the other hand, as depicted in the many eyewitness accounts, was not so much hell-bent on purchasing or procuring himself sexual services, whatever the cost and whatever the means. The rape he practiced was something more radical. He wanted the women he invited to his hotel suite—and whom he received dressed in a bathrobe, supposedly to discuss the launching or the promising continuation of their film careers—to know beyond any shadow of a doubt the real reason they were there. That they were there to submit, consciously and willingly, to him. He wanted to relish the sheer sensation of their dependency. Of their passive obedience. That is why he demanded, without the slightest rhetorical camouflage, as shamelessly as possible, that they massage him, take their clothes off, slide between the sheets with him. Not only did he not fear the gross incongruity of the situation, he actively encouraged it. One female journalist, who interviewed him before the onslaught of the impending media thunderstorm, was astonished to see that he didn’t even bother to deny the charges of rape that were already starting to make the rounds. If anything, he relished his reputation. According to their own accounts, there were women who felt humiliated, defiled, unworthy of being loved, after he had sexually imposed himself upon them, and yet who not only chose not to report his actions to the police for years on end, but even sought out his attention, his gratitude, his friendship. They were hoping for some form of reparation, some act of kindness on the part of their torturer, in order to offset their by now abjectly debased self-image. Weinstein used women’s bodies as a way of fully enjoying his power. When he succeeded in taking possession of them, he thrilled to the knowledge that they were offering themselves to him without desire, merely because they consciously accepted his dominance. In the far-fetched hypothesis that they took any pleasure, most likely that knowledge would only have somewhat diminished his pleasure. So he did nothing to seduce them, to assuage whatever reluctance they might have felt; quite the opposite, he always pushed things to the limits of the intolerable, he worked to humiliate them by means of his openly indecent and unashamed attitude. His enjoyment of women’s bodies was a direct expression of his enjoyment of his own power. It was therefore not so much a sexual thirst he was slaking: it was really his thirst for power. He needed them in order to assert his own power. As far as he was concerned, the only will that counted was his.