Harvey Weinstein: Did his victims have a duty to speak out? No.

Harvey Weinstein is now thought to be a grade-A A-hole, thanks to the many women who have spoken out exposing his abhorrent behaviour. Any sane person can agree that someone who uses their power to force or coerce others into unwanted sexual encounters has failed in their most basic of human duties. Yet, this isn’t the end of the story. Some are now asking: why didn’t his victims speak out earlier? And, on the back of this kind of thought, they extrapolate to produce an emerging rhetoric: these women have failed in their own duty to protect others from Harvey Weinstein.

The logic here is: if Weinstein’s victims had spoken out earlier – to the police, press, or others with influence – then perhaps his unacceptable behaviours could have been stopped. Some go further, some think that because they could have prevented Weinstein by testifying, then these victims should certainly have done so: that they have a duty to speak out. By extension, if they have not spoken out then they have failed in one of their moral duties.

You might immediately reject this line of reasoning as missing the point. Weinstein is the boogeyman here, and it’s simple misogyny to flip it so women have to be their own saviours from sexual predators (once again); much in the same way that we reject the notion that women wearing short skirts causes rape, instead of the culprit obviously being people who are rapists. And I agree, but I think there is something deeper and, dare I say it, more interesting at play here when we consider the nature of victimhood and duties.

Let’s go back to the realities of the Weinstein case. Weinstein is a powerful man – he commanded enormous influence in the film (and fashion) industry. Indeed, Rosanna Arquette believes her acting career suffered because she rebuffed Weinstein. So it’s not a stretch to believe that it is costly for women to speak out against Weinstein: they might never become successful if they are effectively blacklisted by a Hollywood mogul, or their preexisting careers might fade into obscurity for the same reason. Furthermore, let us not forget that testifying to being sexually assaulted, violated, or coerced is not easy – even without the very real threat of losing your career, speaking out is in and of itself difficult, costly, often harrowing. Already beginning to crumble is the rhetoric of selfish women refusing to speak out because they glibly want to be film stars.

Another very real factor to consider in the Weinstein case is: even when women testify about being victimised, they are often not believed. Regarding Weinstein we can look to the testimony of Rose McGowan – in 2015 and 2016 she alluded to an influential studio executive who was a notorious sexual predator. She has now claimed Weinstein raped her in 1997. McGowan went on to write that:

A (female) criminal attorney said because I’d done a sex scene in a film I would never win against the studio head.

And even when victims are to an extent believed, perpetrators sometimes get away with it. Recently, director of public prosecution Alison Saunders reminded us that acquittal of someone accused of rape does not necessarily mean that the defendant is innocent of rape. Moreover, for a variety of reasons many reported rapes do not make it to court.

So we see that not only is testifying often extremely costly to the testifier, but the cost may not even carry with it a high probability of a successful payoff. It just doesn’t seem worth it. Therefore, victims, like those women assaulted and coerced by Weinstein, can be forgiven for their non-performance of the duty to speak out and prevent harms to others. Right?

While I agree there are high costs to testifying – and often very low success rates for preventing harms even when women do speak out – in investigating further we find that this isn’t a case of, given these reasons, then forgiving the victims for their non-performance of a duty to testify. In fact we find that no such duty exists. I come to this conclusion from simple intuition (I admit): it seems crazy to me that I can be burdened with a duty which is highly costly for me to fulfil (e.g. to testify) through no fault of my own, and it is an especially crazy notion when that incidence which has supposedly created the duty is something really terrible (e.g. sexual assault).* This rejection of the duty to testify only covers victims and those for whom it would be very costly to speak out – not those who knew of Weinstein’s wrongful actions but for whom it would not have been very costly to speak out (for example, if they were also in powerful positions), and, of course, not those who aided or covered up his actions.

Some might argue that victims always have a duty to testify they have been victimised (in whatever way: a robbery, a fraud, an assault, and so on), it’s just that we forgive these people when they don’t perform this duty, as we recognise how costly it may be for them. I don’t buy into this line of reasoning. This leaves the same taste in my mouth as victim blaming does, and suggests that through no fault of your own your moral character can be tarnished – by having the stain of not fulfilling some duty attached to yourself, even if you are retroactively ‘forgiven’ for your failure.

All in all, the reason Weinstein’s victims did not and do not have a duty to testify on his abhorrent behaviour is primarily because no such duty exists.** I argue that by the nature of victimhood no duty springs into existence. However, we should still keep in mind that in cases like Weinstein’s, it is particularly costly to testify – both because of the nature of the victimisation (sexual assault and coercion) and because of the powerful nature of Weinstein himself. Together, we then find that because there is no such duty to testify, these women who speak out have gone above and beyond. In fancy terms they have committed a supererogatory act: more than is required of them by morality. And so, just as when anyone goes above and beyond the call of duty, they should be praised. Highly and sincerely praised.

There’s so much more to be said here, and I have only scratched the craggy-faced surface of the wider issue Weinstein epitomises. Women’s voices are systematically ignored and devalued. Women are socialised to expect unwanted sexual advances. By many men women are viewed as objects to be consumed…

I’ve only highlight a little piece of the picture: the piece that shows these women who testify against powerful sexual predators have done something they had no duty to do. We should thank the women who have spoken out and will go on to speak out exposing the abhorrent, gendered ways they have been victimised by Harvey Weinstein. But we should not then admonish those who choose to not speak out, or choose to speak out in their own time. Hopefully the testimony of those who have spoken out has not been given in vein and Weinstein, and perhaps even others of his repugnant ilk, will get what’s coming to them (although I won’t hold my breath).

[Featured image cc: @rosemcgowan on Twitter]

* This second criterion is important. Consider a case where this doesn’t apply: I win the lottery. Some might argue that, even though this windfall I received through no fault or responsibility attributable to me, I nevertheless now have more duties than I previously did. We don’t baulk at the idea I have to pay higher taxes at great cost to myself. The precise reason for the difference in intuition I have here, compared with the Weinstein case, is that the duty has been generated by something good which has happened to me, not something bad.

** Perhaps in a world where testifying is somehow not costly – both in terms of testifying  in and of itself (imagine there is a pill to ease all pain of testifying you have been raped) and in terms of the proceeding outcomes of testifying (where women are believed, where people cannot buy off others with their influence, and so on) – we might be more inclined to think there is some duty to testify. This line of reasoning does to some extent appeal. But I remain convinced that it is a bit barmy to think that I can be lumbered with more duties just because of some bad thing that happened to me. In that world it would be the case that I can wake up, be raped, and then I’ve been raped and I now have this moral duty, which I didn’t have when I got up that day.

The importance of this change in cost though might come into force when we consider those who witness wrongdoing but are not victims – i.e. we might think that while witnesses for whom it would be very costly to testify/speak out do not have a duty to do so, whereas those for whom it would not be very costly (e.g. those themselves in positions of power) do have this duty.

‘Girl Crew’: the emptiness and hypocrisy of feminism’s fashion moment

If you wander down a high street in Britain or take a look at the increasingly commercial world of Instagram you’ll be bombarded with a heady stream of fast, throwaway fashion. I’ve recently been struck by the prevalence of what I’ll call ‘feminist-y fashion’: shops now carry items baring the bold EMPOWER WOMEN, the solidaric Girl Crew, and the strangely ‘identifying’ Femme, Her, and a crop top with a pair of crudely drawn breasts. I admit was particularly drawn to the items which directly referenced ‘pussies’ and periods in Swedish clothing retailer Monki’s Carnaby Street store… I’m sure lots of people (unwarrantedly) think those things are gross, and I’m more than willing to make such people feel uncomfortable.

[From top left clockwise to bottom right: Topshop, Topshop, Monki, Monki, H&M].

Great – we need more feminists! Instinctively, we might think the commercialisation of feminism and feminist fashion should be embraced. Fashion either follows existing trends – in which case we should be glad that people are already into their feminism. Or fashion informs future trends – in which case, brilliant: people are going to be encouraged, by fashion, to outwardly identify themselves as feminists. (Really, fashion has both these functions.) But this view of the power, usage, and consequences of feminist-y fashion is just too simplistic.

Perhaps adorning yourself in feminist-y fashion is merely a way to signify to others that you are part of some in-group. You might think that yes wearing such fashions functions ‘merely’ in this way, but that nonetheless this should be embraced as the in-group is now a feminist in-group. Being a feminist is now cool and so people will want to become one!

Not so fast. There remains two glaring problems. Firstly, the wearing of a t-shirt isn’t really doing anything. It’s entirely possible to wear a feminist-y t-shirt and hold misogynist views and/or act on these misogynistic views – either conscious of your hypocrisy or not. Feminism has a long history of radical beliefs and enacting radical change, and the feminist fight is not yet over. (If you don’t believe me – give British rape prosecution rates, worldwide pay gap statistics, or how many men there are called David compared to women in top CEO positions a quick little Google). Yet if feminism is reduced to signifying oneself as part of the in-group of fashionable feminists through the mere act of wearing the right outfit… Then we are able to claim we are part of the fight for justice without really doing anything at all. It is entirely possible to already be a feminist and then wear a feminist-y t-shirt, but there’s a problem with just wearing a feminist-y t-shirt. 

Secondly, fashions change. Perhaps next year misogyny will be in fashion – a bold, fanciful claim (I hope) – but not unthinkable. Indeed the latest decal trends of cacti and avocados are already beginning to eclipse feminism as the flavour of the season. If reduced to merely a fashion statement, feminism could be so yesterday: just like millennial pink (keep up).

Moreover, there is something deeply ironic about fast-fashion retailers, which are environmentally devastating and vulnerability-exploiting, selling us the feminist label. Take H&M as an example. They had the greatest number of feminist-y fashion items of all the stores I looked at: Girls Rule the World, not your baby, GIRLS SUPPORT GIRLS. Yet they have been rocked by claims that children as young as 14 were being forced to work for as little as 13p an hour in a Myanmar factory which supplies them, leading to a violent labour protest in March of this year. The good reasons we have for being feminists are also the reasons we should fight this kind of exploitation. Feminists believe people are equal regardless of some morally irrelevant features of themselves, i.e. sex or gender, and we should concurrently believe that just because you live in a less economically developed country does not mean you deserve to be exploited.

Furthermore, the link between vulnerability, exploitation, and the environment has long been discussed by people much more qualified than me. Here I am merely going to highlight two worrying facts.

It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans.

Women will suffer the worst effects of climate change.

In a world where one in ten people do not have access to clean water and climate change is as real a threat as ever, we should be asking ourselves: do I need that next fashionable t-shirt from H&M? I’m not saying we have to wear rags forever (or maybe we ought to), but we should at least be conscious in our clothing choices, and we should be aware of the hypocrisy of consuming throwaway fashion which self-congratulates us on our feminism. So we see that feminist-y items which are borne of throwaway fashion culture directly and indirectly exploit the most vulnerable people and women: and these groups are often one and the same. 

[T-shirts: H&M]

I’ve been using the words feminist and feminism(s) without even saying what these might mean. It’s difficult – people have often argued over what feminism is or what feminisms there are. What we can say is that feminism(s) are not a fashion statement – nor are they empty concepts, nor reducible to one snappy statement on an exploitatively made t-shirt. Minimally, feminism is a belief in certain things: perhaps that everyone is equal, or perhaps that women should have the same rights or opportunities as men. But it might even be more than that, it might be having these beliefs and doing something, taking action, based on these beliefs. Either way, it is clear that feminism(s) cannot merely be wearing a t-shirt with the word Feminism emblazoned across it. In fact, as we’ve seen, buying and producing these t-shirts might be deeply unfeminist after all.

And now a confession. I may have one of these t shirts. I have a shirt with GIRLS emblazoned on the front from Urban Outfitters. I bought it just before the latest wave of feminist-y t-shirts came out (hipster, I know). Do I wear this? Yes, it’s cool. Do I also feel a bit lame wearing it, because of all the problems identified? Also, yes. Am I going to stop wearing it? No – it cost me thirty quid (but I promise to not buy any more).

I’m not pro-choice. I’m pro-abortion.

The debate on the moral permissibility* of abortion is perennial and tests some of our deepest held ethical convictions. We need not look hard to find examples of this ongoing argument: most recently, a 13 year old in India delivered a child, the result of rape, after a decision was made to permit her an abortion – but far too late, at 31 weeks pregnantHere I argue that if we think abortions are permissible, we should call ourselves pro-abortion, not pro-choice.

There are many reasons to find abortion permissible, and many reasons to find it impermissible. We might think fetuses up to a certain gestational age are not persons, and it is not wrong to kill these non-persons. We might hold women own their bodies and the right to life of the fetus does not include unfettered use of this body that the fetus does not own (this is, briefly, J J Thomson’s, 1976 famous philosophical defence of abortion). We could argue it is better to terminate a pregnancy than bring a child into a situation in which they will not be adequately cared for. Or we might maintain that women are unequally burdened by pregnancy and childcare, and so if we care about equality we should permit acts, like abortion, which might mitigate these inequalities.

Those who argue that abortion is morally impermissible cite reasons such as the personhood of the fetus, and the wrongness of terminating a persons life in most circumstances. Some appeal to religious beliefs, arguing the word of God is reason enough to find abortion impermissible. Others argue that permitting abortion would lead to a slippery slope: if we have good reason to permit abortion, then we also have good reason to permit infanticide.** Of course, there are many, many more reasons in favour of, and against, the permissibility of abortion. And, of course, some are more or less convincing than others.

But the exact tenets of the debate are here not my concern. I argue that if we agree abortions are permissible – as I believe – then we should buck the trend of labelling ourselves pro-choice but instead embrace what really are: we are pro-abortion.

Typically, we call people who think abortions are permissible pro-choice, and those who think abortions are impermissible pro-life. But, as we can see from our cursory review of the arguments for and against the permissibility of abortion, this dichotomy just does not capture the differing views in this debate. Consider: those who believe in the permissibility of abortion might not believe that a commitment to women’s choice is the deciding feature of the argument. They might purely think fetuses are not persons, and hold that as the most salient fact. They might choice think it is an important feature, but that this feature would not support the permissibility of abortions if it were the case that fetuses were in fact persons.

On the other side, those who are ‘pro-life’ are not dichotomously ‘anti-choice’. On any plausible view, proponents of the impermissibility of abortion will not blanketly think that women should not make any choices. Rather they will propose that reasons we have to think women are permitted to terminate pregnancies are outweighed by stronger reasons we have to believe that it is wrong to terminate a pregnancy (for example, given the right to life that the fetus may have).

Moreover, those who are ‘pro-choice’ cannot properly be said to be ‘anti-life’, as the stand-off between so-called ‘pro-lifers’ and those who are ‘pro-choice’ suggests. One can think that abortions are permissible, and yet also believe that fetuses have some right to life, just not an inalienable right (a right which can never be infringed or violated in any circumstance). This is the sort of argument J J Thomson gives: fetuses have a right to life, just not when this means the use of the body someone else has a right to control.

Importantly, those who are ‘pro-life’ are presumably not ‘pro-life’ in all circumstances. People rarely think the right to life is inalienable. So-called ‘pro-lifers’ might simultaneously believe the death penalty is permissible, in which case they certainly are not pro-life in all cases. They might also believe that it is sometimes permissible to kill in war; indeed most people are not complete pacifists. Or maybe they think, like I suppose many people believe, it is permissible to defend yourself with deadly force against someone who is fatally aggressing against you.

We have many examples of conservatives who simultaneously think abortions are wrong, and the death penalty is not: one thing is clear, they certainly are not pro-life. I’m looking at you, death penalty-loving, (now) abortion-hating Donald Trump… And all the other self-misdiagnosed ‘pro-lifers’.***

So, we see that ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ are just not fitting labels for arguments supporting and opposing abortion. Nor does this capture any relevant dichotomy between the views.

Proponents of the permissibility of abortion should call themselves pro-abortion. (And those opposing should call themselves anti-abortion). Why this term in particular? Because this most accurately reflects the position, and isn’t so much of a mouthful as ‘proponents of the permissibility of abortion’. But there is more to it than that. By using obfuscating, inaccurate terms like ‘pro-choice’ we remove ourselves from the reality of the view: we proponents think that abortions are okay. We should not, if we are truly committed to this ethical position, be afraid to say what we believe. And we should not be ashamed of this considered conviction.

If we are ashamed of this ethical conviction, or suggest we are by how we call ourselves, what hope do we have of signalling to those who have abortions that we are not ashamed of them and their choice? More broadly, if we have an ethical conviction, we should have reasons to hold this – not merely be blindly following some dogma. If we have reasons to hold a view, we should not be afraid to admit this, or indeed defend it. In the end, if you believe in the spade: call a spade a spade.

And that’s why I’m not pro-choice. I’m pro-abortion.


*The exact meaning of moral permissibility is debated. I find the best way to think about it is: when we say an act is morally permissible, we think that given our ethics or or morality as a system/scheme we are allowed to do this act.

**Michael Tooley (1972) doesn’t find this morally problematic. He argues that human fetuses and infants do not fulfil conditions required for a being to have a right to life (but other beings such as some adult animals in fact might fulfil these conditions).

***Note that I am not saying that you cannot consistently hold both of these views (for the death penalty, and against abortion), but rather that it is misdirecting to then call yourself ‘pro-life’.

Women only carriages: A sad solution to a sad problem? A weak response? Or a harmful precedent?

It’s a horrid fact: women are being sexually harassed on public transport. There are more incidences than ever being reported in Britain: according to British Transport Police, there have been 1,500 reported offences in 2016-17, up from 650 reported in 2012-2013.*  Moreover, this is a gendered problem: 70% of offences are those committed against womenOne response to this problem is women only train carriages. This solution was proposed by Jeremy Corbyn during his Labour leadership campaign in 2015, but the idea isn’t new: Iran, Japan, and India, among other countries, have some form of women only public transport.

Is this a sad, but ultimately necessary, solution? Or, at best, a weak response to a wider problem, and at worst a solution which sets an ultimately harmful precedent?

Proponents of women only train carriages might reason that the numbers speak for themselves. Women are being sexually harassed, and it’s happening now. So we need an immediate solution to an immediate problem. Within minutes of asking a group of friends whether they had ever been harassed on public transport, the distressing answers came flooding in.

A man had his penis out on the bus in Paris and he put it on me. I didn’t realise – I cried. I was violated.

Yes, we agree people shouldn’t harass others, but they do. And it’s awful. Therefore, we need a solution now. The most obvious, and most immediately effective, solution then seems to be to separate harassers from those who are likely to be harassed: women.

But this is where those who vehemently argue against women only train carriages find traction for their own counter-argument. Instead of creating spaces women can be sure they’ll be safe in – they argue we should make all spaces safe for women. Minimally, women only carriages are merely a plaster on the greater wound of dangerous patriarchal attitudes which view women as bodies to be wantonly handled. Maximally, women only carriages will in fact reinforce harmful notions that being sexually harassed as a woman is, well, a woman’s problem: that you as a woman have to sort it out, not those who are doing the harassing. Similarly, we, of sound mind, agree that the problem of rape is a problem of rapists, and we shouldn’t have to or need to fix this by not drinking too much, stopping wearing short skirts… or avoiding all places where rapists might be.

Taking these arguments as responses to one another, a deeper ethical question emerges. Here we are in one respect arguing about whether it is (a) better to prevent (serious) harms (the harassment of women) now, or (b) allow some harms to continue now, by not having the women only carriages, but in the longer term potentially prevent a greater number of harms by positioning the problem (harassment) as a wider societal problem which should be fixed by changes in attitudes. We might speculate that if we have women only carriages, there will be less impetus for forcing through changes in patriarchal attitudes which help to encourage the sexual harassment of women: after all women could just get out of the way of harassers if they don’t want to be bothered… Right? And, again, women only carriages seem to reinforce the notion that instead of the problem being women being harassed as part of a wider social problem of the patriarchy (which it is), that the problem is with women and men sharing space, and so women should remove themselves from public spaces.**

Nonetheless, would I be willing to open myself to a greater risk of sexual harassment, so that attitudes could change slowly over time and more women in the future would be saved from that selfsame harm? It’s a tough call.

There is another sticky ethical question that, in its answer, will give us more reason to support or reject women only train carriages. Think of this: if we are to have women only train carriages, we will need to determine who are, or are not, women. What does this mean for women who have male genitalia: does their biology preclude them from access to such safe spaces? Although a perhaps more pressing problem for rape crisis centres, I think this should not be too worrisome. In fact, transwomen report higher rates of sexual harassment than transmen, and so, if the aim of women only carriages is to protect women from sexual harassment on public transport, transwomen should also have access to service.

Furthermore, how would we police access to these carriages? Would we require it to say ‘Woman’ on a person’s ID, or does self-identification suffice? One (pedantic, I think) argument is that men could insincerely declare: “I’m a woman” and if we aren’t to demand that all women have (a) identification, (b) have the government recognised their gender, then we must let these ‘insincere women’ into women only carriages. This could happen. Some men would be pedantic and awkward and rude enough. But I’d wager that most men aren’t this terrible; and the novelty of being this annoying while trying to make some point about gender identity would wear off pretty fast. Maybe it wouldn’t, but if we had other reasons strong enough to have women only train carriages I think self-identification would work enough in practice such that those who felt the need to be in women only carriages could be.

So what should we do? I think it’s clear there are good reasons for and against women only train carriages, and I’m certainly not dismissive of the ‘immediate solution to an immediate (and awful) problem’ reasoning: some people suck, we need to find ways to stop these sucky people affecting others, and soon. Yet, on balance, the reasons against are just too strong: we do indeed need a fundamental attitude change to women which will in turn change behaviours towards them, and this should be part of a wider fight against the patriarchy. Indeed, not only does the women only carriages solution not go far enough, but it seems likely to, in the long run, make the problem worse. Women being sexually harassed is not a women’s problem – it is a problem of harassers whose attitudes are shaped and reinforced by harmful patriarchal attitudes – and yet women only train carriages may serve to suggest just the opposite.

*Note, an increase in reporting does not necessarily equate to an increase in incidences of harassment.

**This sort of ethical conundrum not unique to this particular debate. Should we plough aid into places which might in the short term benefit greatly, but in the long term would suffer because, for example, local industry has been left reliant on foreign aid? Should we spend lots of money saving a few critically ill people now, or focus on research which will save many more lives in the future for the same money?