The idea for the book [Against Our Will] grew out of Brownmiller’s activism, specifically, the consciousness-raising group to which she belonged in the early 70s, the New York Radical Feminists. One evening, one of its newer members, Diane Crothers, arrived bearing a copy of the Berkeley feminist magazine It Ain’t Me Babe, which earlier that year had printed a long account by a young female artist of being raped by two Vietnam veterans while hitchhiking home from her first women’s meeting. The issue Crothers had in her hand brought news of a stunning retaliatory action against the assault of a dancer by some men at a bachelor party, carried out by group called the Contra Costa Anti-Rape Squad #14. On the day of the wedding, this group had stuck flyers on the windscreens of guests’ cars, detailing what had gone on. “Sounds ugly?” asked the writer of these flyers. “Well, it is. It goes on all the time, one way or another. These pigs know the law won’t touch them, they can always insist the woman is a liar or a slut or crazy. [But] we women are learning to see through that nonsense. We hope you learn to, too.”
After everyone had read this story, Crothers announced that rape was an important feminist issue and that it should be explored by the group. Brownmiller, a journalist, wasn’t convinced. Like many people then, she thought rape was a “deviant” crime, one that any alert woman could surely avoid if she tried. But others disagreed. They wanted to talk. One woman, Sarah Pines, quietly began to describe how she had also been raped while hitchhiking. The worst part of her ordeal, she said, had been at the police station. “Aww, who’d want to rape you?” teased one police officer. Another insisted – does this sound familiar? – that she was too calm to be credible. The men involved were eventually given suspended sentences.
It was while listening to Pines, and to those who followed her, that Brownmiller began to see rape in another light, and when the talking was over she proposed that the group hold a conference on the subject, with research papers and panel discussions. “But I was a laggard,” she says, with a laugh. “The others told me: no, we will have a speak-out first, and then a conference.” The speak-out was held in a church, 30 women took part, and their experiences ran the gamut from street harassment to rape. One woman described how she had been raped by her therapist; another how she had been assaulted in her apartment after opening her door to a man who said he was delivering a package; yet another how she was molested by a junior doctor on a date arranged by his aunt and her mother.
The conference took place in a high school auditorium four months later – Brownmiller attended it on crutches, having sprained her ankle when she kicked a man who had goosed her in the street while she was handing out flyers for it – and by the time it was over she found she was able to look her own vulnerability “squarely in the eye”, something she had hitherto always refused to acknowledge. She realised that something important had been left out of her education: a way of looking at male-female relations, at sex, at strength and at power. She had, in other words, changed her mind about rape, for which reason she was now determined to write a book about it, one that would deploy examples from history, psychoanalysis, criminology, mythology and popular culture in the service of illustrating her conviction that “rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear”. Was she surprised, as she embarked on this project, that no one had attempted such a thing before? “No, not really. We were uncovering so many new truths then. The early 70s was a great time for us. Women were so brilliant in their analysis.”
Against Our Will finally came out in 1975, five long years after the first of the key texts of women’s liberation: Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Though it would later be attacked by, among others, the black activist Angela Davis for its attitudes to race (in his piece, Remnick writes that Brownmiller’s treatment of the Emmett Till case “reads today as morally oblivious”), its reception was mostly positive and it became a bestseller (much later, with pleasing neatness, it would be included in the New York Public Library’s Books of the Century).
Some of the sisters, however, were not happy. “People in the movement were starting to say: ‘We don’t need stars’,” Brownmiller remembers. “When I announced to my consciousness-raising group that I’d finished writing it, someone said: ‘Why don’t you be the first feminist without ego who doesn’t put your name on the book?’” She clicks her teeth. “She was jealous, of course. Another time, when I was giving a talk on a college campus, a woman raised her hand and asked: ‘Why did you put your name on Against Our Will? All your ideas came from our movement, after all.’” How did she respond? “I said: what page did you write, sister?”
Did she think its publication would change things? (It is widely agreed now that not only did the book shift attitudes to rape, it may have influenced some changes in the law, including making the victim’s sexual history inadmissible.) “Oh, yeah,” she says. “I thought it would change minds all over America. But I also feel that I was part of a movement. Even as I was writing it, rape crisis centres had begun opening, legislators had begun looking at the law around a woman’s past.” In the long term, however, things did not change nearly enough. “I remember being startled when it came out that DNA samples were not being processed properly in some states, and it was pretty horrifying when it became apparent that some colleges were not going to take accusations against, say, their football players seriously on account of what their alumni might think.”
What has struck her most forcefully about the wave of allegations in recent weeks? (As I write, no fewer than 122 high-profile men stand publicly accused of assault or harassment in the US.) “Well, I’ve been astonished that these perpetrators seem to have such weird sex lives, that is very important. They’re perverts, and I think that comes from pornography.” She sighs. “Unfortunately, the pornographers were in the end a lot more successful than Women Against Pornography.” In 1978, she attended the first national feminist anti-pornography conference in the US, held in San Francisco, which was also where she first saw the dungaree-clad Andrea Dworkin in action, addressing a Take Back the Night march in an edgy part of the city (“I immediately dubbed her Rolling Thunder,” she recalls in her 1999 memoir In Our Time). Back in New York, she and other members of WAP ran educational tours of Times Square – then still horribly sleazy – at five dollars a throw, transgressive invasions that would regularly see them thrown out of strip shows, and which, in their first year, attracted some 2,500 “tourists”, among them a pair of Benedictine nuns from Erie, Pennsylvania.
“At 15 years old I met a pimp. Two weeks later, I was thrown into the violent and abusive world of prostitution,” feminist gender rights campaigner and organiser Fiona Broadfoot tells me. “I was in a very vulnerable place and he quickly had a hold on me. “I was trafficked down to London where he stood me outside the Hilton Hotel dressed like a doll for people to buy me,” she plainly catalogues. “From then on it was downhill. Rape became an occupational hazard, and because I was working on the street, I was arrested and criminalised for loitering under the purposes of being a common prostitute. I’m 49 and I still have an eight-page criminal record from those offences that I’ve had to carry around with me my whole life.”
22 years after exiting prostitution, Broadfoot is seeking justice and is fighting to have her criminal record eradicated by launching the first ever legal challenge of prostitution-specific criminal records. Broadfoot is arguing that the government policy on the disclosure of prostitution-specific convictions are uniquely discriminatory to women: “a lot of these criminal records are from charges women got when they were underage… What’s more, women with difficult backgrounds are likely to go into prostitution and be charged for it more than men.” Four other women, who choose not to be identified, are also bringing their cases. All the claimants were pimped into prostitution when they were children and between them they have 100 criminal records. The case went to court on 26 July, where the defence’s request for a stay was refused but their request for a six week delay was agreed, which means the Home Office has to come back to them with a response.
“We’re optimistic about what will happen next,” says Heather Harvey, project manager at nia, the feminist domestic violence women and children’s charity which is supporting Broadfoot’s case and has just launched a major new research project, I’m No Criminal, to coincide with it, looking into the impact of prostitution-specific criminal records on women. One of the report’s major findings is that a lifelong criminal record is one of the key reasons women don’t exist prostitution. These discoveries add to writer and co-founder of Justice for Women Julie Bindel’s 2009 research report Breaking Down The Barriers, where she found that 49% of the 104 female sex workers she spoke to cited a criminal record as their reason for not attempting to exit.
“It’s unthinkable that you should have to disclose what is essentially a history of underage abuse,” Harvey says of the claimants. One of the women nia spoke to for their report was 62 and still working as a prostitute because “she couldn’t exit due to the multiple criminal records she had,” Harvey says. “She had given up hope of anyone ever taking her seriously”.
For former [prostitute] Charlotte* this was also the case. “I want to work in a caring profession and help other women like myself, but I know they always check your [criminal] record, so I don’t bother, I’m not going to stand a chance.”
Broadfoot was once fired from a role when her criminal record was discovered. “Once, not long after I left prostitution, still at the stage of scrubbing myself with Dettol to make myself clean, I was living in a refuge in Halifax where I hadn’t told anyone that I used to be a prostitute as I didn’t want to be judged.
“I thought: I’ll work with children because I don’t want to be near adults, I don’t trust them. I started the course and was the happiest I’d been in a long time. It made my life worth living,” she explains.
“Then a Disclosure and Barring Service check was carried out as I had to do a placement in a school, and when they found out about my record of prostitution, I had to leave the course.
“I was basically frog-marched off the premises.”
Like many women who are trying to exit, Broadfoot’s record only forced her back into prostitution. “I went back and conned myself with that classic lie that I’d rather be working as a prostitute earning more money than I would be working in a shop.”
Along with nia, a number of charities want the removal of these criminal records, including Manchester-based women’s charity MASH and Beyond The Streets, a charity campaigning to end sexual exploitation.
QotD: “Why won’t the so-called ‘sex workers’ rights movement’ help ex-teenage prostitutes have their convictions wiped?”
The Government’s policy in relation to the retention, recording and disclosure of criminal convictions arising from street prostitution (soliciting) offences is inhumane and impractical, and the claim, brought by a group of formerly prostituted women, will argue for the first time that retaining the criminal records of women abused into prostitution as children is effectively a record of their own abuse.
It is also a gross violation of their private lives. All women were internally trafficked while under the age of 18, and none had chosen to sell sex.
The Judicial Review, which, if successful, would result in the criminal records of the applicants – all of whom were abused into prostitution as teenagers – being expunged, would be a crucial step towards recognising prostitution as a human rights violation perpetrated by the pimps and punters.
The campaign was born in 1997 out of a conversation between myself and Fiona Broadfoot, a sex trade survivor and one of the claimants in the case. When Fiona and I met, during the run-up to a conference on violence against women and girls in 1996, she had recently left prostitution, having been pimped onto the streets aged 15. Fiona told me that she had recently exited the sex trade and was trying to help other women do the same.
Fiona had set up a support group called the Street Exit programme, which consisted of supporting women wishing to escape prostitution. Fiona did this work in her own time, with neither funding nor expenses to pay her sizeable phone bill.
She told me that finding a job she wanted to do was a nightmare because she had a bad criminal record. Every single one of Fiona’s convictions were for street prostitution-related offences, and when she applied for jobs, particularly if the job would involve her coming into contact with children or vulnerable adults, she was required to disclose her previous convictions.
This also applied to volunteering posts, and would, in a grotesque twist of irony, exclude her from running Street Exit, had it not been a one-woman show without charitable status.
We decided to work together, alongside other campaigners and sex trade survivors, to achieve two distinct but connected aims – to fight to decriminalise the women, men and children selling sex, and to penalise and deter the men (because it is always men) who pay for sex, and therefore drive the demand for prostitution.
The polarised debate on the sex trade has been vicious and angry. The dominant view has long been that “prostitution has always been here and always will”, and “decriminalising the entire sex trade will make it safer for the women”. Those that espouse these views refer to prostitution as “sex work” and argue that criminalising sex buyers (referred to as “clients”) puts the women in danger.
I have never met anyone during my decades of campaigning against the sex trade who supports the criminalisation of prostituted people, and yet it has proved impossible to put aside our differences and form a united front.
When Fiona and I contacted members of the pro-prostitution lobby to ask if we could form a united front to argue for the decriminalisation of the women, we were told, in somewhat hostile terms, that they would not work with abolitionists. We were further told that if we dropped our efforts to criminalise sex buyers then they may consider joining forces with us. We refused.
In 1998, when Fiona and I (with others) set up a re-education scheme in an attempt to deter men from paying for sex in West Yorkshire, over 40 pro-prostitution lobbyists in the region met to discuss ways in which they could scupper the initiative. It would have been a better use of their time to be fighting to decriminalise the women, one would have thought.
The abolitionist campaigners continued to try and build bridges. In the mid-2000s, at the annual Police Vice Conference, I approached the then chair of the UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP), which takes a firm view against abolitionism, and asked if we could work together to lobby police to support the decriminalisation of the women. She agreed, and we jointly presented our list of demands to the delegates. Our alliance was short-lived, however. I was told shortly after the conference that many members of the UKNSWP objected to working alongside those of us that refuse to see prostitution as a job like any other.
In my view, the key reason why abolitionists, and not the pro-prostitution lobby, are leading the way in the campaign to change the law in regards to the criminalisation of those selling sex is because we believe that the women (and men) involved in the sex trade are victimised. We consider prostitution per se to be harmful, and an abuse of human rights. The other side is so keen on sanitising this vile trade that they spend more time arguing in favour of decriminalising pimps and punters than they do exploring the abuse the women face at the hands of the buyers.
In order to build a coherent argument as to why prostituted people should never be viewed as criminals, it is necessary to be clear and honest about the violence and abuse inherent to prostitution. If we win this case, our next step will be to introduce a law in England and Wales that will criminalise the men paying or attempting to pay for sex. They are the criminals, not the women they use and abuse.
I don’t like the films of Quentin Tarantino. I think Woody Allen’s work is rubbish, and Brett Easton Ellis’s books suck. Am I allowed to admit to this now?
For so long, I’ve been held back by the sexist male genius paradox, which decrees that any failure to appreciate the genius of a sexist male artist must be down to one’s own failure to rise above the sexism. It’s a problem many women have, though we’re only finding out about it today.
I know that to some this will sound terribly unsophisticated, but there is a relationship between misogyny in art and misogyny in real life. It’s a complex one, as female writers have been outlining in recent discussions around thrillers and true crime, and it’s obviously not the case that artistic description equates to real-life prescription. Nonetheless, when male artists produce works which consistently prioritise the inner lives and/or fantasies of men, something has gone wrong. There’s a limit to how much women should have to transpose art in order to see a world in which they, too, are human. How good is a book or film when it demands so much on-the-spot correction from the reader or viewer?
Like so many women of my generation, I’ve spent years pretending to laugh at “ironic” sexism, refusing to “stigmatise” extreme pornography and bestowing serious, straight-faced analysis on the useless art of self-styled genius men. Why have I done this? Because I want to be thought of as someone who has a sense of humour, someone who’s open-minded, someone who’s intelligent. I want to be seen as someone who “gets it”, even when I don’t.
Deciding a work of art is irreparably flawed just because the entire worldview underpinning it, the characterisation, the narrative drive, the humour, the whole lot relies on the assumption that women are not fully human – well, that’s a bit naïve, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I be able to get over that?
Well, no. No, I can’t and I won’t. I’ve struggled with this “hang on, is it just me?” feeling ever since I watched my first James Bond film at eight years old and concluded that rape, in some circumstances, must be OK. From now on I will be the little boy in the crowd pointing out that the misogyny-in-art Emperor is stark bollock naked.
Just as the “best” postmodern theory tends to be appallingly written in order to fool us that the difficulty is in the ideas, the nihilism and misogyny of the “best” male directors is so glaringly obvious we end up assuming we’ve missed the hidden message (so we use “hyper-reality” as a posh way of describing unimaginative exaggeration). The real creativity isn’t in Manhattan or Inglourious Basterds; it’s in the imaginative contortions critics have gone through to make these films seem more than the sum of their parts.
There’s nothing unsophisticated in recognising that an industry mired in sexism will produce art that is tainted by sexist beliefs. There’s nothing childish or bourgeois about calling time on representations of the human condition which fail to accommodate half the human race. For too long genius has been defined as male, far removed from such petty concerns as granting consideration to the female gaze. This isn’t just unfair; it’s dull.
“You just didn’t get the irony/humour/bathos/[add your own technique]” is the male critic’s version of that lesson girls are taught from the first time they’re groped in the playground: abuse is flattery. We just haven’t learned to read it correctly. From now on I suggest we don’t even try.
QotD: “If femininity is so powerful, who do men make no attempt whatsoever to become more feminine?”
If femininity is so powerful, who do men make no attempt whatsoever to become more feminine? Why do men want to remain masculine if masculinity is fragile but femininity is empowering? If femininity is empowering, why are the few feminine men there are being mocked by society? Why would femininity only be empowering for women? That would imply empowerment looks different for women than it looks for men.
This rethoric about femininity being so ~empowering~ is funny to me because the women who use that rethoric fail to see that men try to force femininity upon women (and not on themselves). If something is truly empowering, it cannot possibly be forced upon you. If something is being forced upon you, it is far more likely it is a tactic used for keeping you in a subordinate role.
QotD: “The cliché that when women are liberated men will be liberated too shamelessly slides over the raw reality of male domination”
The cliché that when women are liberated men will be liberated too shamelessly slides over the raw reality of male domination — as if this were an arrangement in fact arranged by nobody, which suits nobody, which works to nobody’s advantage. In fact, the very opposite is true. The domination of men over women is to the advantage of men; the liberation of women will be at the expense of male privilege. Perhaps afterwards, in some happy sense, men will be liberated too — liberated from the tiresome obligation to be ‘masculine.’ But allowing oppressors to lay down their psychological burdens is quite another, secondary sense of liberation. The first priority is to liberate the oppressed. Never before in history have the claims of oppressed and oppressors turned out to be, on inspection, quite harmonious. It will not be true this time either.
This season has seen the phenomenon turned up to eleven however, and me riveted to all and any interaction between India Willoughby, a news presenter, journalist, and trans woman, and the various other housemates. Now I do realise, yes, that trans women are not a monolith, and I don’t doubt there are many in the trans community have been watching Willoughby alienate as many viewers and potential allies as possible from between their fingers, just wishing she wouldn’t. But still, she has, and the uncomfortable truth is that in her behaviour, I can recognise instantly a near perfect microcosm of some of the larger trans activism I have been observing over recent times.
For seven days I have remained glued as a group of adult women, all trying their camera ready best to be as respectful and supportive as possible, attempt to deal with a sulking, bullying, manipulative, and aggressive Willoughby, as she in her turn contrives to continually centre herself and her needs in all things, and ensure others feel obliged to do the same. Even in a mixed sex environment, she has remained at the epicentre of all house conflict, showing next to no interest in the feelings and needs of others, and managing to maintain a steady narrative of victimhood, even as her peers dance desperate attendance in their varied attempts to appease her. One can feel a bit dirty considering this entertainment, but there is empathy too. Willoughby comes across as almost pathologically self absorbed, but at the same time so abjectly miserable, that a want to help ease her distress is only natural. It is in this response to Willoughby, and its fascinating parallels in the way wider society (and in particular women) have responded to the huge and sudden rise of trans ideology, that I am most interested.
For those sensible enough to give a wide berth, I offer an example of an incident occurring with all the women together in the kitchen. The chat is easy, amicable. Willoughby then enters the room, at which they all immediately stop what they are doing and stand alert, looking nervous. Upset and angry at having been misgendered by Amanda Barrie, an actor in her eighties, and having already refused to accept Barrie’s multiple apologies, Willoughby straight away adopts a combative stance, squaring her shoulders and jabbing at the air with a pointed finger: “I am the transgender person here,” she says, “and I am annoyed.” Nobody at first speaks a word, except eventually Barrie, whose one turn at speaking up for herself prompts an immediate accusation of aggression. At this Barrie stands down as others then scurry to try to placate Willoughby and diffuse the situation. The women lower their voices and make soothing noises: of course, they can completely understand why she’s upset. But this appears only to infuriate Willoughby further, who responds by becoming louder and yet more intimidating, air jabbing hard in Barrie’s direction and shouting right at her: “I AM A REAL WOMAN OK? I’M GLAD THAT’S SINKING IN. I’M GOING TO SAY IT ONE MORE TIME SO IT REALLY PENETRATES — I. AM. A. REAL. WOMAN!!” By which point Barrie looks genuinely alarmed. “Yes darling,” she says, far too quickly, her voice pitching at a high octave. Others nod vigorous affirmation: “Of course you are and I totally respect that.” Yet still Willoughby is not satisfied, and still she continues on the offence. As a last, rather desperate grasp, it is suggested that perhaps not talking about it at all might help to make it less of an issue? This is clearly the final straw, and a furious Willoughby storms from the room.
On Friday night India Willoughby became the first contestant to leave the Big Brother house, and I don’t doubt for a minute her fellow contestants all breathed a large sigh of relief. Nobody likes eggshells between their toes. As a viewer I also breathed a sigh of relief. It is painful to watch a fellow human engage in such blatant self sabotage, continually projecting their own lack of self acceptance onto others. Rejection as self fulfilling prophecy is not my idea of a good time.
But considering we are now at a point in our history at which many are pushing for an ill defined concept of gender identity to replace sex as both a protected characteristic, and the way in which we categorise others as either male or female, I believe it is worth exploring how responses to India Willoughby in the Big Brother house might reflect wider societal attitudes. For as Willoughby pointed an accusatory finger at Amanda Barrie and shouted that she is a real woman, so too do transactivists and their supporters point fingers at the masses, shouting that there can be no debate; that trans women are women, and if we do not align with this new idea we can consider ourselves terrible people, dicing on the wrong side of history. To which the general response can be summed up neatly as, ‘Yes darling! Of course you are and I totally respect that.’
The problem is that while you can perhaps legislate for speech and expression, you cannot legislate for conviction. In other words, you might be able to force people to say a certain thing, but you cannot force them to truly believe it. The contestants in the Big Brother house felt bound by enough social pressure to express a belief in Willoughby as female, (as I too feel bound by enough social pressure to concede, as a matter of courtesy, female pronouns to an individual I do not, in fact, believe to be female,) but their true feelings leaked fast out of every interaction they shared. Crucially, it was in this gap between expression and belief that so much of India’s distress seemed to lie.
It is a fact that no natal woman has ever felt the need to approach another, and shout at her that she is a real woman. And in return, no natal woman has ever felt the need to say to another, of course you are and I totally respect that. Such an exchange serves only to reveal that neither party wholly believes what they are saying. And so here lies the crux: trans women know they are not women in any concrete, material sense, which is what has given rise to all the various mental gymnastics regarding sexed brains and souls trumping the bare facts of ones reproductive system. In an attempt to relieve distress and provide a theoretical framework for validation, the truth must necessarily be bent, squeezed, and hammered square into a round hole. But the actual truth of our physical selves does not require endless validation. As a biological woman of average height and blue eyes, I’ve no need to harangue, manipulate, or bully others into confirming my femaleness, or the fact that I am 5’4″ tall, because these facts are self evident. I’ve no need to develop mind bending theories around height or eye colour, and insist that others subscribe to them under threat of being made a social pariah, because I am secure in the knowledge of what is real and true about myself. Nobody has ever once felt the need to say to me, “I believe you have blue eyes and I respect that,” because in the face of an obvious truth, this would be a ridiculous thing to say.
The root of Willoughby’s rage, and that of the trans activists demanding ever more outrageous expressions of validation, lies here. When we are asked to go along with such blatantly false claims as trans women have periods and can get pregnant, it is because any previous acknowledgement that trans women are women simply wasn’t enough to fill the void created by that undercurrent of self doubt. Trans women know exactly what the majority of women (and some men too) are doing: placating, humouring, pitying, and playing along, either due to a belief that it is no skin off their nose, or out of fear, and a self serving need to be seen as right and good. The behaviour of the Celebrity Big Brother contestants is being writ large across the country, as is India’s response. Understand that it will never be enough to state that trans women are women. Instead we must change everything: our language, our social behaviour, and even our inborn sexualities.
The danger of course, as perfectly demonstrated by the conflict in the Big Brother house, is that this level of pretence corrupts human relationships and ultimately causes more distress than it relieves. We cannot get along while lying to each other on such a fundamental level, and legislation that forces us to do so paves the way for more problems than it solves. There is no respect inherent in dishonesty and — more importantly — absolutely nothing at all wrong with the truth: that trans women are trans women; distinct from natal women by virtue of their biology, but entitled to live as they wish, worthy of the same rights, respect, and representation as anyone, simply by virtue of being human beings. There is nothing wrong with embracing the reality of being trans.
What is wrong though (and not only wrong, but a doomed and deeply flawed strategy) is to force people — either by law or social coercion — into pretending to believe something they do not, in the hope that they will eventually come to accept it. That way lies anger, resentment, and almighty, explosive backlash. There is space in this world for everybody, but living successfully with others requires generosity, open discussion, compassion, and honesty.
Forty years ago this week, Roman Polanski went from being one of the most celebrated film-makers in the world to becoming the United States’ most notorious fugitive from justice.
On 1 February 1978, after 42 days in jail, Polanski fled the US while awaiting final sentencing, having pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. On these facts, everyone agrees. There are no hazy conspiracy theories – we know exactly what happened because Polanski admitted to it and later wrote about it in astonishing detail in his autobiography, Roman by Polanski, published six years after he left the US and went to France, where he still lives. There are some quibbles about who said what, but the generally agreed facts are as follows: in March 1977 Polanski, who was then 43, took a child, Samantha Gailey (now Geimer), who he knew was 13 years old, to Jack Nicholson’s house to take photos of her for a magazine. There, he gave her champagne and, according to her, quaaludes. He then had sex with her, drove her home and, the next day, was arrested.
The facts have never altered. What has changed is how this case is discussed in the public sphere. For a long time, the simple – and somewhat simplistic – divide was that while people in mainland Europe viewed Polanski as a tragic artist undone by US prurience and corruption, Americans saw him, as he put it in his autobiography, as “an evil, profligate dwarf”. But, in truth, for many British and US actors, working with Polanski never lost its cachet, and arguably had even more once he became excluded from the US mainstream. Sigourney Weaver, Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kate Winslet and many more have appeared in Polanski movies in the decades since his conviction, and questions about why they were working with a convicted child rapist were seen as tacky, proof of a rigid mind more focused on gossip than art. When Winslet was asked last September whether she had any qualms about working with Woody Allen, another director accused (but, unlike Polanski, never arrested and never charged) of a sex crime against a minor, she replied: “Having thought it all through, you put it to one side and just work with the person. Woody Allen is an incredible director. So is Roman Polanski. I had an extraordinary working experience with both of those men, and that’s the truth.”
When the Harvey Weinstein story broke last October, the reaction among the movie industry was wide-eyed shock that someone so many of them knew and worked with could be a rapist. “I didn’t know. I don’t tacitly approve of rape,” said Meryl Streep. And yet only a decade and a half earlier, Streep had stood and applauded when Polanski won best director at the 2003 Oscars, not so much tacitly approving rape as explicitly celebrating a convicted child rapist. If only anyone had known about Weinstein they would never – never! – have worked with him, movie insiders say. And yet, for the past 40 years, many of them have been falling over themselves to work with a self-confessed child rapist, even defending him by pointing to his artistic credentials. Debra Winger described Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland in 2009 as a “philistine collusion”. Reactions to Weinstein come soundtracked with the distinct sound of bandwagon-jumping; thanks to the #MeToo campaign, the public mood is firmly on the side of listening to victims, and Hollywood has keenly followed suit. On Sunday night, at the London Critics Circle awards, only months after defending Polanski and Allen, Winslet spoke tearfully about “bitter regrets I have at poor decisions to work with individuals with whom I wish I had not. Sexual abuse is a crime, it lies with all of us to listen to the smallest of voices.” Yes, if only there had been some way Winslet could have known about these decades-old cases before signing on to work with two directors accused of sex crimes! This kind of hypocrisy about Polanski makes you wonder how serious the industry really is about dealing with this problem, as it claims to be.
Seeing sex as emotionless and the body as a tool is depicted [in the story of the sex worker] as positive; this is ‘how it has to be done’ and a woman who can’t separate the body from the Self isn’t the right person for the job. (…) When the woman repeats her mantra: I am not here, it will be over soon, what should I have for dinner?, only ten more minutes, focus on the money – the story of the sex worker is there to support her. It says: No, you are not here. You are a businesswoman, an entrepreneur: what is being prostituted is only a ‘thing’. Deal with it, you are strong, a heroine! The story of the sex worker acts as a cheerleader standing on the sidelines, cheering for the split Self.
Kajsa E. Ekman, Being and Being Bought – Prostitution, Surrogacy and the Split Self