Woody Allen and Rejecting the Monster Myth

By: Kaethe Morris Hoffer

I enjoy (many) Woody Allen movies, even though I've long believed he molested his daughter. I sing along when I hear Michael Jackson on the radio, even though I think he was a pedophile. I'd even vote again for Bill Clinton, even though I've always regarded the women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault as credible. 

It's not that I think there shouldn't be consequences for abusive sex--I just believe that we should be able to hold predators accountable while still making space for them in our society. Condemning someone's worst acts simply doesn't require that we stop acknowledging their humanity or talents. Allen, Clinton, Jackson: I think all these men engaged in some monstrous acts of violation. But I don't think they are monsters, and the idea that only monsters engage in sexual violation is a myth we need to reject.

I am the Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, an organization whose mission is to create accountability for sexual harm and eradicate sexual exploitation. I've spent the better part of the last twenty years standing with individual survivors of rape and prostitution, urging police and prosecutors to believe victims and initiate prosecutions, and filing civil lawsuits to create accountability when the criminal system fails to act (which is very often).

But does vilifying those who engage in sexual predation actually help survivors? To begin with, the more we insist that being decent or admirable is fundamentally incompatible with engaging in sexually abusive behaviors, the more difficult we make it for individual survivors who are abused by people whose humanity and/or talents are undeniable. While most people never engage in sexual abuse, most of those who do have good qualities that are plentiful and undeniable.

The monster myth isn't only a problem because it increases hostility and skepticism towards victims who report being harmed by apparently or otherwise decent men (or, rather less often, women). Extreme rhetoric and draconian penalties also discourage violators from taking responsibility for their actions: admitting to a sex offense is tantamount to declaring oneself an irredeemable degenerate. The legal consequences include lifetime pariah status and never-ending career and housing limitations pursuant to sex offender registry laws.

When Dylan Farrow recently wrote about being sexually violated as a child, she challenged readers to name their favorite Woody Allen film before and after reading a description of the sexual abuse he inflicted on her--quite explicitly endorsing the idea that it is not possible (or acceptable) to celebrate a person's talent and believe they engaged in sexual abuse. I can't blame her. An unwillingness to acknowledge that individuals can be capable of both extreme good and extreme bad is not unique to her, and our entire culture bears responsibility for the fact that she regarded celebrations of Allen and his work as a personal rebuke to her—a message that she should be silent and "go away."

So I understand that admiration for Allen feels like a slap in the face to his accusers. But still, I don't think that standing with victims requires adherence to the view that only evil men engage in rape. This view is far too simplistic, and it promotes the idea that evidence that a man is capable of kindness, love, respect, or gentleness, somehow constitutes proof against allegations of him engaging in sexually violating behavior. Just last week, for example, Barbara Walters implied that she could not believe Dylan's allegations because she has personally seen Allen be a loving and attentive father.

As a society, we must stop acting as if there are only two legitimate responses to an accusation of sexual violation: either choice A) "He is a monster" or choice B) "She is lying (or mistaken)." We must stop this because as rape victims quickly apprehend, most people quickly gravitate towards option B. For as long as those victims who do speak up are mostly disbelieved and disregarded, the great majority of victims will continue to nurse their wounds in silence, and that minority of men who engage in sexual predation will have little incentive to change their ways.

To prevent sexual violation from occurring, we must be willing to see that otherwise good people might be perpetrators. Consider, for example, what Woody Allen said to People Magazine in 1976: "I'm open-minded about sex.  I'm not above reproach; if anything, I'm below reproach. I mean, if I was caught in a love nest with fifteen 12-year-old girls tomorrow, people would think, yeah, I always knew that about him."  I find this quotation chilling, but it is not proof that he is a monster. Despite this quote—which rather clearly suggests a sexualization of pre-teens--I imagine that the majority of people in his inner circle--people who were exposed, as Barbara Walters has been, to his genuine capacity for loving and attentive kindness--viewed him as someone who "couldn't" be a man who would sexually violate a seven year old.

For as long as our rhetoric about sex offenders continues to be as extreme as it is, accusing someone of rape will continue to be taboo (perhaps more taboo than engaging in sexual violation).  And expectations that only 'monsters' are capable of rape will continue to limit our ability to acknowledge or respond to conduct that violates dignity and integrity--let alone attitudes or comments which suggest that an adult is inappropriately sexualizing children. 

The Power of Survivor Voices

By Katie Feifer

In the wake of the deeply disturbing accounts of how Jerry Sandusky, a coach at Penn State and a boys’ mentor and advocate at (now closed) The Second Mile molested and raped young boys over many years, whose assaults were witnessed and discussed with authorities but never stopped, many are writing about the impact sexual violence has on its victims. And several writers are writing eloquently about the effects of the silence so many victims live with, unable to disclose the harm done to them. Others are writing about the effects many victims live with when they dodisclose the harm that was done to them.

Sexual violence hurts and wounds its victims, without a doubt. Even talking about it can hurt survivors.

Jane Brody, writing in the New York Times about The Twice Victimized of Sexual Assault notes “More often than not, women who bring charges of sexual assault are victims twice over, treated by the legal system and sometimes by the news media as lying until proved truthful.”

On the other hand, not talking about it can hurt survivors. Donna Jenson writes powerfully about this in a Chicago Tribune article Speaking Out About Staying Silent, “My silence had layers. The first layer was fear. The second got formed from believing it was somehow my fault; this wouldn't happen to a "good" child. Another was shame for having come from a family that would abuse and not protect its children."

And Roger Canaff, in a blog post about the repercussions from Jerry Sandusky’s alleged crimes coming to light noted “Victims are usually never more alone than after the abuse is discovered, whether they purposely revealed it or not. Siblings, non-offending parents, even grandparents are suddenly distant or much worse. The victim, after all, has “torn the family apart,” interrupted possible financial support, brought shame upon the family because of a ‘splash effect’ that will surely color the whole clan, etc, etc. The fact of the perpetrator’s utter and sole guilt for all of these depredations simply gets lost…”

A classic case of being damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And yet.

We believe that using survivor testimony is critical if we are to change our laws and our culture around sexual violence. When we listen to individuals tell their stories, we can be moved to change even more than when we simply read statistics.

Anne Ream, director of The Voices and Faces Project, was recently quoted in a Chicago Tribune article Shedding Light on the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors: "A story can be a conduit to change people's minds and hearts about public policy, about institutions, about the way we look at victims of sexual violence and trafficking. The only way we can challenge and change the way the world responds to sexual violence is to bring these stories to the attention of the public."

We believe one of the reasons why shifts in attitudes and cultural norms about sexual violence have been so slow in coming is that those who can persuade us best, the survivors themselves, are too often silenced. Those of us who speak out are applauded by supporters for being brave and courageous. And in this climate, we are.

We are also all working toward a time when it won’t require bravery to tell family, friends, and authority figures when sexual violence is done to us. One first step toward that end is for all of us to listen with respect to the survivors who are speaking out and testifying. All of us can meet that challenge by reading and ‘listening’ to articles like the ones quoted here, and to encourage our own social circles to do the same.