In a November 4th interview with PBS Newshour, Alec Baldwin discussed the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. As Marlow Stern writes in The Daily Beast, one exchange went like this:
“You heard the rumor that [Weinstein] raped Rose McGowan. You heard that over and over, and nothing was done. We’ve heard that for decades and nothing was done,” said Baldwin. When the interviewer said “well nobody said anything,” Baldwin replied, “Well but what happened was Rose McGowan took a payment of $100,000 and settled her case with him. It was for Rose McGowan to prosecute that case.” [emphasis mine]
I understand why some found these remarks distasteful. On the other hand, and intentionally or not, Mr. Baldwin put his finger on an issue which ought to concern advocates for women’s autonomy. It is one thing to praise the courage of those who have come forward with truthful allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men. Their willingness to tell what happened to them seems to be propelling Hollywood and the media toward a new, and unambiguously better, standard of treatment for women, men, and children whose youth and vulnerability have been ruthlessly exploited in the past. We can all celebrate that.
But it’s another thing entirely to suggest that the (mostly female) past victims of such exploitation did the wrong, the dishonorable, the cowardly thing by choosing to accept a confidential financial settlement in lieu of publicly exposing their abusers. This second argument strikes me as profoundly mistaken. It seems to impose upon the victims of exploitation a duty of self-sacrifice, in behalf of future victims, that under the working conditions which apparently existed until quite recently, could well have resulted in the destruction of their personal reputations and of their ability to work in their chosen professions.
Had a fair process existed for adjudicating complaints of abuse and exploitation, and had that process been open and accessible to victims, then perhaps we might ask questions about victims who rather than reveal their mistreatment chose instead to accept a confidential settlement from the abuser. But this, by most accounts, was hardly the case for victims such as Rose McGowan and many others. Faced with the reality that publicly reporting their abuse would (at least) accomplish nothing because they would not be believed or supported, and (at most) result in their own punishment by abusers who were often in a position to inflict it, some chose to take what justice they could find, in the form of a confidential settlement. That is a choice which should be respected even as we applaud the willingness of victims to come forward, under the suddenly different conditions of now, and tell their stories publicly. To do otherwise is to be dishonest; is to treat individual victims of abuse as though their abuse occurred in a setting where they could have, but chose not to, achieved a more just societal standard by publicly exposing their abuse.
Alec Baldwin’s remarks capture part of this truth — that the secrecy in which many cases of abuse occurred, and were resolved, probably kept the issue from the general public’s knowledge for a long time. If he was also suggesting that the victims of abuse, by choosing to accept settlements instead of going public, were somehow to blame for the abuse, or have no cause to complain about it now, then that claim cannot be accepted. The source of blame for injustice is not the victim, but the perpetrator and the culture/society which (perhaps subliminally) permits and supports his actions. Victims in such a setting should feel free to choose among the limited options available to them, including the option of settling with the abuser individually and moving on with their lives.