Anatomy of Complicity in Rape Culture

By now, you've likely heard of Harvey Weinstein.

He is a powerful former movie producer who spent decades using sexual advances to humiliate and torture women. His trail of tears finally caught up with him, after years of being protected by the most powerful media establishments, leading to a remarkable and overdue fall from grace: spousal separation, job termination, and all his dirty laundry aired.

Let me not bury the lede: The wide-spread problem of sexual assault is not because of the Weinsteins of the world in their gluttonous villainy, but in the unsung 'supporting cast' of enablers.

II. Dramatis Personae

You've also probably heard about Harvey's encounter with Lupita, and his non-encounter with famous director Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino, of course, is famously implicated in this non-encounter: All of Tarantino’s films were financed by Weinstein in some capacity, and the two have been close friends for more than two decades. Tarantino is being dragged as taking away from the general response of #metoo which is showing how many sexual assault victims exist in these United States.

Tarantino's narrative about Weinstein's action, I think, is super-helpful for answering this simple question posed by the Rolling Stone: Why wasn't this all reported sooner?

They answer: "The simplest and sadly familiar answer to this question is familiar from recent allegations that have come to light against other serial sexual abusers (Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly and President Donald Trump): Weinstein is a powerful and influential man, and we live in a society where women are systematically discouraged from coming forward with stories of harassment and rape."

Weinstein's power and the systematic discouragement of listening to women needs to be unpacked a bit more. Weinstein is the least interesting character in this drama of vulnerability. In our rush to prepare the pitchforks for the most easily cast villain, we may be over-looking super-important "supporting" characters who, under current legal approaches will be never be held accountable, but actually are the root of the problem.

This is an anatomy of rape-culture: a look into the structures of sexual predation and increased vulnerability for those not sufficiently empowered to consent or resist.

III. Silence as Consent, Unchained

Let's begin with Tarantino.

His statement can be summarized mostly by this part of the interview:

“I knew enough to do more than I did" beyond “the normal rumors, the normal gossip. Everyone who was close to Harvey had heard of at least one of those incidents” chronicled in the first few articles, he said. “It was impossible they didn’t.””

Let's delve more deeply into the mental tricks Tarantino did to make himself more comfortable with rape culture.

First, Tarantino knew that Weinstein had harassed Mira Sorvino, because Sorvino told him about it when she and Tarantino dated back in the ‘90s.

"She told him that not long before, Mr. Weinstein had massaged her without asking, chased her around a hotel room and even showed up at her apartment in the middle of the night." “I was shocked and appalled,” Tarantino says. “I couldn’t believe he would do that so openly. I was like: ‘Really? Really?’ But the thing I thought then, at the time, was that he was particularly hung up on Mira.”
Tarantino said that "he had failed to consider whether the women he knew were part of a larger pattern of abuse."

More than that, he explained Weinstein's actions away in his mind as *not* being part of a pattern.

“I thought Harvey was hung up on her in this Svengali kind of way,” Mr. Tarantino said. “Because he was infatuated with her, he horribly crossed the line.” Not only had he failed to consider that his friend and patron was a serial victimizer, he invented an entire alternative hypothesis, and ignored all evidence to the contrary.

Complicity usually begins for most people when they are confronted with evidence of egregious behavior and they proffer one of three explanations:

1.       This is not a part of a larger pattern.

2.       This was a one time thing.

3.       This occurred in an unusual circumstance.

All of these answers, however, elide the real question that people who don't want to be complicit in rape culture must ask themselves: Do you know a person who has crossed the line? Have they been held accountable for their actions?

Ours is not to reason why but to prevent further acts.

Tarantino's girlfriend's problem, however, did not cause Tarantino to act with any decency.

"The problem was resolved, he said he felt at the time, because he and Ms. Sorvino were dating. “I’m with her, he knows that, he won’t mess with her, he knows that she’s my girlfriend."

This leads us to the next piece of complicity in rape culture ideation: In the isolated (set of) cases of victimization I know, no further harm will come to this person.

This line of reasoning appears courageous from allowing wimpy compassion to substitute for justice.

Stopping harassment is insufficient, without any accountability of victimizer to those victimized. Personal relationships have no relationship to systemic justice.

Tarantino revealed another leg in the footstool of rape culture: “I chalked it up to a ’50s-’60s era image of a boss chasing a secretary around the desk."

Politeness and civility are the great enemies of decency and justice. Tarantino’s generous heart could see where Weinstein from was coming from, but his empathy did not extend to seeing the predation Mira expressed. Other (powerful) men behaved that way. So perhaps it would be weird or strange for him to say too much about the actions of his friend Weinstein, when other folks are doing it to.

Tarantino shows us yet another way to miss the point of listening to victim's stories and acting with them as an intercessory for accountability.

How widespread the behavior is is not the question. Have they been held accountable for their actions? Ours is not to reason but to prevent. 

IV. 12 Hours a Stage: Sabotaging Lupita Nyong’o's Autonomy

Lupita Nyong’o's story is more tragic. But it also reveals how people who weren't Weinstein's friends willing enabled predation for decades.

These 'supporting cast members' did not, of course, wield the knife of sexual assault. But they did tie the victims up, gag them, and draw the victimizers a map to their location. In other words, they are just as responsible for rape culture, and, should be held just as liable for its negative externalities.

"A woman who was a producer herself cautiously advised me to “keep Harvey in your corner.” She said: “He is a good man to know in the business, but just be careful around him. He can be a bully...
I looked at the actress who I was informed had just worked with him on a project, searching her face for any sort of indication that she too had been made to feel uncomfortable by this powerful man, but of course I saw nothing…
I met a female assistant when I arrived there. I was expecting that it would be a group of us, as it had been for the reading, but she informed me it would just be Mr. Weinstein. She would sit with me until he arrived. She seemed on edge."

We sadly must begin with the recurring characters: The Silent Sisters. It is uncomfortable to talk about the role women play in rape culture against other women, to say nothing of the endless violence they continuously inflict upon queer men and women.

Those of us who have victimized or made to experience escalating vulnerability have a duty to tell similarly situated others who could be harmed what we know.

When I was at the University of Chicago, it was known far and wide by the black students that a  then Assistant Professor maliciously treated male-identified black doctoral students poorly, and actively discouraged non-black graduate students from intellectually engaging in in the academic work of the black graduate students.

When the students gathered to share their experiences with other graduate students-- the faculty could not be bothered to care about their younger colleague and tenured him anyway -- we named names and provided eyewitness accounts of malicious, boorish, racist behavior so that the younger students could avoid this faculty member on their committees, exams, etc.

Similarly, rape culture persists through polite euphemism. "Be careful" and "bully" are less useful than "don't be alone with him", "he will try to touch you", etc

A lot of these stories reference another central character type. "The driver" and domestic staff.

These household staff know what's up. If you are a driver, and you suspect something. Anonymous tips, discrete photographs, and travel logs to reporters should be produced. Reporters who don't run with the story should be outed and shamed.

Weinstein "ordered a vodka and diet soda for himself. I asked for a juice. Harvey was unimpressed with my choice and told the waiter to bring me a vodka and diet soda instead. I declined and said I wanted the juice. We went back and forth until finally he turned to the waiter and said, “Get her what I tell you to get her. I’m the one paying the bill.” I smiled and remained silent. The waiter left and returned with a vodka and diet soda for me."

Why did the waiter return with something she hadn't ordered?

Waiters, of course, like many people, are in very economically vulnerable positions. Courage could cost them a paycheck and leave them homeless. But savviness is the answer, not complicity.

The waiter should have asked the manager what to do, and the manager should have ensured that Weistein's guest got her soda, and that no complaints from Weinstein about the waiter, effect the waiter's tenure.

Rape-culture ends when the waiter chooses to respect Weinstein's guests' autonomy.


There’s an old adage that evil flourishes when the good do nothing. I think that formulation is not quite right, and absolves too many people for the active harm they perpetrate on behalf of people whom they are convinced are the “real villains.”

The savage truth is that most people care more about anything else than they care about compassion and justice. Civility and politeness are the chief weapons in this arsenal of silence.

The reputations of the accused and the belief that we have no discernment to pick sides are also key pillars of rape culture. But like the evil of slavery, who was more likely to tell the truth about how slavery worked: the masters or the slaves? The vulnerable and the victimized always see structures of power more clearly, and their voices should spurn action.

All who look away not only enable rape culture, but they are facilitator the rape.

Evil is not non-action; it is the banality of choosing to be oblivious and carrying on your life as if nothing is happening.