Cleaning up the mess

DON Burke blames social media, the “Twittersphere”, sex abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Aspergers and a “witchhunt” for the situation he now finds himself in – as a powerful man who’s not in control.

But it’s another Don he should be looking at.

A little more than a year ago, when Donald Trump’s infamous “grab them by the pussy” tape surfaced only weeks before the US election, it was thought to be a game changer. There was no way in the world a man who boasted of indecently assaulting a woman – because that’s what grabbing a woman’s genitals without warning and consent is – could become president.

But he did.

It’s useful to remember the context in which Trump boasted of indecently assaulting women at will. You could grab at women’s genitals because “when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything”, he said.

He was powerful, in other words. Rules, even laws, applied to others.

Why have the Weinstein allegations prompted this wave of public outing of men accused of abusing their power, that has had an impact here with allegations against Don Burke, and the prospect of others?

Almost a year to the day after the “pussy grab” tape was made public, the New York Times accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of three decades of sexually harassing and abusing women. It wasn’t the first time Weinstein had been named in media articles as a powerful man accused of sexually predatory behaviour. The earliest Weinstein warning was in the late 1990s.  

But the October 5 article was like a tiny crack at the base of a very large dam wall. It prompted more alleged victims of Weinstein’s to speak about their contact with him, and others to condemn a Hollywood culture that had normalised the “casting couch” to the point where it wasn’t even seen as morally bankrupt – not to mention potentially criminal – if a woman was threatened, intimidated or coerced into sex.

Then even more men and women accused other Hollywood men, and later politicians, of sexualised behaviour in settings with serious power imbalances.

The questions have been asked many times over the past two months: Why now? Why have the Weinstein allegations prompted this wave of public outing of men accused of abusing their power, that has had an impact here with allegations against Don Burke, and the prospect of others?  

Actress Ashley Judd, whose experiences with Weinstein more than two decades ago featured in the October 5 Times article, explained it this way: “Women have been talking about Harvey amongst ourselves for a long time, and it’s simply beyond time to have the conversation publicly.”

It’s beyond time because Donald Trump – the man who boasts of sexually abusing women and whose “you can do anything” boast is both menacing and sickening in what it says of his view of women – was elected president, and there’s nothing anyone can do about that.

But there is something people can do about his rampant sexism and racism - and that’s call it out where it occurs in the rest of society. The president might be a sexist, racist pig with no sense of how that debases the country he’s supposed to lead, but millions of Americans are very publicly saying he does not represent who they are.

In Australia there’s an additional reason why men abusing their power in a sexualised form is particularly jarring. For the past five years the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has revealed what can happen when powerful men believe they “can do anything”, and other powerful men let them get away with it.

Don Burke sees himself as a victim of “the Harvey Weinstein thing”. In his mess of an interview with Tracy Grimshaw this week he denied quite specific incidents involving young women, threw himself on the mercy of the Australian public to decide if he was “the most evil person that has ever lived”, blamed his problems on his “ribald sense of humour” and a perfectionism that led him to terrify people, and both accepted and questioned why a “witchhunt” somehow ended up with him.

Powerful men finally outed for abusing that power do tend to drop into victim mode. Harvey Weinstein responded to the Times article with a statement that included: “Though I’m trying to do better, I know I have a long way to go. My journey now will be to learn about myself and conquer my demons.”

Reports suggest his “journey” might also include consequences much more serious than just conquering his demons.

Abuses of power are betrayals of trust. Because of the power imbalance the person in the less powerful position relies on not much more than trust in any interactions with the more powerful person. A man grabbing at a woman’s breasts or genitals, suddenly introducing sexualised commentary with the intent to shock, upset or coerce, or taking advantage of a situation where a “No” would have significant consequences for the person saying it, betrays that trust, and it’s not a minor thing.

People have rightly asked what the powerful men around Burke were doing for all those years, given a number have publicly slammed him this week and put their names to it.

It’s been said that Burke was too much of a cash cow for those powerful men to do anything about it. That doesn’t wash. These are the kind of powerful men who would haul another man outside if he tried anything on his wife or daughter. They could and should have said “No” to Burke all those years ago, particularly when, by their own words this week, they knew what was going on.

They didn’t act, and so we had the boys’ club, where mates looked after mates, and powerful men employed “mini-me’s” who understood what was required to stay in with the club.

And years later women journalists are left to clean up the mess and cop the flak that goes with it, because that’s what women do. 

This story Cleaning up the mess first appeared on Newcastle Herald.