A turning point in the war on sexual harassment?

The naming, shaming and dethroning of a growing number of powerful men for reprehensible behavior toward women is long overdue. The United Nations has deemed gender-based violence a “global pandemic,” affecting one woman in three around the world. Rising consciousness of this problem is critical since a culture of complicity is one of its most powerful enablers. It is hoped that this moment marks a paradigm shift in thinking about and reactions to such behavior.

The unraveling of a powerful norm — tolerance and acceptance of sexual harassment — began with allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein, a Hollywood kingmaker, has been accused by dozens of women of sexual harassment, sexual violence and rape. He denies all charges of nonconsensual sex, but says that he “came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”

The charges are not new, but they got no traction until this year when stories in The New York Times and the New Yorker confirmed what had long been whispered. Once the dam broke, the trickle became a flood. Some women have come forth, despite signing nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) that bought their silence.

Allegations against Weinstein have particular power since they confirm an open secret. At the Academy Awards ceremony in 2013, the person announcing the nominees for that year’s Best Supporting Actress joked that “you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” The response to that comment was revelatory: it was greeted with laughter rather than the outrage it deserved.

Allegations against other Hollywood figures followed, but to think that this is merely the latest incarnation of the “casting couch” is delusional and denial. A study 10 years ago found that 27 percent of college women reported some form of forced sexual contact after enrolling in school. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reckons that it received about 30,000 charges of sexual harassment in 2015.

More recently, U.S. media figures such as Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (Fox News), and Mark Halperin (NBC) have been accused, as have leading figures in Silicon Valley. Eleven women accused then candidate Donald Trump of sexual harassment in 2016, charges he denies. The fact that he could be caught on tape virtually confirming an abusive mindset and still be elected president — with significant support from women — speaks to the permissiveness of U.S. culture regarding such behavior.

To call this an American problem is also delusional. After the Weinstein allegations were aired, more than a dozen female aides in the European Parliament complained of harassment by male lawmakers. Women have shared their stories from around the globe under the #MeToo hashtag. The World Health Organization estimates that 33 percent of women worldwide will experience either physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.

Sadly, Japan is within the global norm. In a survey released last year by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, nearly 30 percent of respondents in full- and part-time employment said that they had been sexually harassed at work; just under one-quarter (24.1 percent) of the perpetrators were the women’s bosses. Commuter train cars reserved for women during rush hour are a casual reminder of the pervasiveness of this problem.

Harassment and violence against women takes many forms, ranging from psychological abuse to sexual predation, assault and rape. But there is one common element to all these forms of assault: They are, at root, about power, not sex or sexuality. (It must not be forgotten that men also complain of harassment by male and female employers, in Hollywood and elsewhere.) Not only does power confer on individuals a sense that they can abuse those beneath them in the institutional hierarchy but that same power also grants a kind of immunity; abuse is compounded by the blind eye that others turn to the crime and its victim.

The solution to this problem is lifting that sense of immunity. No one can think themselves — or be — above the law. That demands education, not only of abusers, but the abused — to know that they are right to speak out and will be protected when doing so — and others so that witnesses and enablers understand that they too have a duty and a responsibility to protect the weaker party when such behavior occurs.

There will be no end to abusive behavior. It is too rooted in human psychology and shielded by norms about and expectations of social roles. That does not mean that acquiescence and acceptance are appropriate, either. We can however erode the shield that protects those who abuse their power and status, and ensure that victims are given every opportunity to protect themselves and seek justice when they are assaulted.