The Politics of the Weinstein Problem

Categories: #MeToo

Since the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it’s clear that there’s a problem developing in contemporary politics—and, if we’re going to be candid, there are already a lot of problems in contemporary politics. But the problem that I’m referring to has recently become more and more prevalent as there have been more and more scandals breaking surrounding the sexual misconduct of powerful men. The variety of disgusting, demeaning behavior that these men have exhibited towards women reflects a misogynistic culture that permeates throughout all facets of our society and that in particular privileges White, affluent heterosexual men. Yet, unfortunately, the problem of men sexually disrespecting women is nothing new, but rather an issue as old as politics itself. However, as culture has evolved to become more cognizant of women’s rights, a new and alarming problem has emerged—partisans’ strategic, performative solidarity towards survivors. 

Performative solidarity towards survivors

By circumstance, issues regarding sexual violence against women became a common theme during the 2016 presidential election, a race already deeply infused with gender politics by virtue of Secretary Clinton’s candidacy. Prior to campaigning, then-candidate Donald Trump had already been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault by fifteen different women. This troubling history was only further exacerbated later in the election season, when tapes from a 2005 Access Hollywood interview leaked to the press, where Trump bragged about forcefully kissing and grabbing women “by the pussy.” Then, in response to negative reactions following these allegations and the tape, Trump resurrected decades-long sexual allegations surrounding former President Bill Clinton and held a press conference with women who had previously accused Clinton of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape.

Although not ideal, I understand why the format of a divisive national campaign likely left little space for nuanced conversations regarding gender and sexuality. However, what I can’t comprehend is why far too many conversations and actions surrounding the women in these stories were oftentimes framed in ways that were neither genuine nor empowering. When Trump’s Access Hollywood tape was released to the public, while Democrats decried his crude statements, many responses were also coupled with an undercurrent of poorly concealed partisan glee that, in many ways, undermined the sincerity of their supposed condemnation.

For many Democrats, Trump’s lewd comments were not just a manifestation of rape culture to be seriously discussed, but a surefire talking point from the moral high ground that could win over moderate Republican voters and secure the presidential election. While capitalizing from an opponent’s blunders is not unusual in Washington, you have to admit— the idea of essentially using women (who had already been vilely objectified by Trump’s comments) as an object to further a broader political agenda created an uncomfortable ethical ambiguity. And yet, this ambiguity was more concretely explored and enacted in Trump’s response to the overwhelming political backlash against the Access Hollywood tape, wherein he literally used women as political props.

Ninety minutes before the start of the second presidential debate, Trump hosted a panel with four women—Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Kathy Shelton. During the press conference Jones, Broaddrick, and Willey repeated decades-old sexual allegations against Bill Clinton, wherein Jones accused Clinton of sexual harassment, Broaddrick accused him of rape, and Willey accused him of sexual assault. Additionally, Shelton spoke against Hillary Clinton’s integrity towards survivors, stating that as an attorney, Clinton had gotten her rapist an unjust plea deal and laughed during her rape trial.

Following the press conference, the four women later attended the debate with visible seats in a clear act of defiance against the Clintons. While more cynical minds may brand these women’s attendance as nothing more than a political stunt, in truth, their presence at the debate should serve as a visceral reminder to all survivors’ advocates that every politician, regardless of who they are, should be held accountable for their actions. In the words of Hillary Clinton herself, “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.”

And by participating in an extremely national forum to share their accounts, Jones, Broaddrick, Willey, and Shelton chose the method that they best believed would allow them to be heard, believed, and supported by the public. Yet, in reality, Trump’s panel could barely qualify as an opportunity that enabled these women to place themselves in a position of empowerment. Instead, Trump strategically positioned the women around him and weaponized their suffering in a way solely intended to distract from the sexual accusations against him. Almost all press coverage surrounding the event glossed over the content of the women’s testimony and instead focused on the intense drama surrounding Trump’s act of political theatre.   

Since the results of the 2016 election, further instances of men abusing their power to sexually degrade women have continued to surface. In April 2017, investigative reports revealed that five separate women had been paid nearly $13 million by Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly to settle sexual harassment lawsuits. Later, in June 2017, a report revealed how women in tech experience an overwhelming culture of sexual harassment while working in Silicon Valley. And just this month, October 2017, it was revealed that more than a dozen women had accused Hollywood media mogul and major Democratic donor Harvey Weinstein of sexually harassing, sexually assaulting, or raping them.

“Political strategists, and Republicans in particular, began analyzing whether or not Democrats would now be faced with a “Weinstein problem”

Almost immediately following the news about Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, political strategists, and Republicans in particular, began analyzing whether or not Democrats would now be faced with a “Weinstein problem,” given that Weinstein was a major Democratic donor. They began questioning how the Democrats would appropriately return the money that they’d received from Weinstein and also how they would distance themselves from a man who has now rightfully become a social pariah. How would the loss of such a large donor effect DNC campaigns? Would any Democratic candidates find their poll numbers lower due to their past connections?

Let me be clear, Democrats need to make an obvious effort to denounce Harvey Weinstein, reject his money, reject his friendship, and reject everything that he embodies. Yet, whether or not Democrats are going to suffer in the next election cycle because of their connections to Weinstein is not the problem at stake. The problem is that we’re becoming a society that puts a premium on what is politically advantageous rather than what is simply the right thing to do. With each scandal surrounding sexual violence against women, we’re seeing an alarming trend where women are written as the objects rather than the subjects of carefully crafted statements intended to injure political opponents. And after the political strategists and pundits enact the maximum amount of damage by using women as cudgels of morality, these women are simply forgotten and discarded as nothing more than pawn sacrifices in a game of electoral chess.


Emily Wasek recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a major in Government and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. While in college, Emily served as president of Women’s Initiative in Leadership, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of female leaders.
Much of Emily’s previous work has focused on the intersection of women and political progress. Her honors thesis, “A Women’s Place in the State House: Exploring Backlash Effects of Women’s Increased Descriptive Representation” examined whether women’s increased elected presence resulted in a legislative backlash that could increase policies counterproductive to women’s interests. As a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, her white paper “Mobilizing Change in Central America: Fostering Women’s Networks to Combat Gang Violence” analyzed how women’s coalitions could be used to enhance anti-gang policies in Central America.