Bill Clinton: A reckoning

The most remarkable thing about the current tide of sexual assault and harassment accusations is not their number. If every woman in America started talking about the things that happen during the course of an ordinary female life, it would never end. Nor is it the power of the men involved; history instructs us that for countless men, the ability to possess women sexually is not a spoil of power; it’s the point of power. What’s remarkable is that these women are being believed.

Most of them don’t have police reports or witnesses or physical evidence; many of them are recounting events that transpired years—sometimes decades—ago. In some cases, their accusations are validated by a vague, carefully couched quasi-admission of guilt; in others they are met with outright denial. It doesn’t matter. We believe them. Moreover, we have finally come to some kind of national consensus about the workplace; it naturally fosters a level of romance and flirtation, but the line between those impulses and the sexual predation of a boss is clear.

Believing women about assault—even if they lack the means to prove their accounts—as well as an understanding that female employees don’t constitute part of a male boss’s benefits package, were the galvanizing consequences of Anita Hill’s historic allegations against Clarence Thomas in 1991. When she came forward during Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and reported that he had sexually humiliated and pressured her throughout his tenure as her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it was an event of convulsive national anxiety. Here was a black man, a Republican, about to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and here was a black woman, presumably a liberal, trying to block him with reports of repeated, squalid, and vividly recounted episodes of sexual harassment. She had little evidence to support her accusations. Many believed that since she’d been a lawyer at the EEOC she had been uniquely qualified to have handled such harassment.