Roy Herndon Smith, December 29, 2017
On December 14, 2017, ABC interviewer Peter Travers asked the actor Matt Damon,“We’re also in the age of people charged with sexual misconduct. This is everywhere. How do you react to that? Especially you, as the father of four girls.”
Travers’ question alienates him and potentially Damon from the sexual cruelty—coercion, harassment, abuse, and rape—that pervades American society. In Travers’ question, the issue is not this reality, it is “people” being “charged with sexual misconduct.” He assumes that he and Damon are not implicated in this “sexual misconduct,” as either targets or perpetrators; rather, they are observers of it. He implies that, for men who are not “charged,” “sexual misconduct” is a real concern only if they are in protective relations with women, say as fathers of daughters.
Damon’s response exacerbates the alienation Travers constructs. He begins with what he intends to be a supportive comment about “#MeToo.” “I think it’s wonderful that women are feeling empowered to tell their stories.” Damon indicates that he may have a nascent awareness of the tone deafness of using the word “wonderful” to describe women’s accounts of their abuse and trauma when he adds that “it’s totally necessary.” The more insidious alienation lies in what Damon considers to be “necessary.” Not confronting the reality of pervasive sexual cruelty. Not even women actually exposing this reality. No, what is “necessary” is “women … feeling empowered.”
In his next comment, Damon suggests the reason for his alienation. Damon states and restates twice, each time in different words, a truism that everyone involved in the discussion of sexual cruelty knows, and no-one denies: “there’s a spectrum of behavior”; “there’s a difference between … patting someone on the butt and rape or child-molestation”; “they shouldn’t be conflated.” He explicitly recognizes that all the “behaviors” on “the spectrum” “need to be confronted and eradicated,” but he does not talk about ways to confront and eradicate, or even reduce, these behaviors. Instead, he criticizes, as “retribution,” the calls for Al Franken’s resignation from the Senate because of his admitted past sexual misconduct and the damage done to Louis C.K.’s career following his admission of sexual misconduct. Damon then states, “And the fear for me is … the clearer signal to men and to younger people is, deny it. Because if you take responsibility for what you did, your life’s going to get ruined …” In short, Damons’ main concern is not about, to use his language, the necessity of confronting and eradicating “sexual misconduct,” but about the damaging effects of charges of sexual misconduct on the men who have committed it. And his examples reveal that, while he states that his concern is about “men and young people” in general, he is consumed by his “fear” that prominent men, like himself and Travers, will suffer consequences similar to those suffered by Franken and Louis C. K. for not being “perfect”—for their “sexual misconduct.”
Damon reveals his being “totally,” to use his word, out of touch with, the reality of sexual cruelty, when he implies that Franken’s and Louis C.K.’s lives have been “ruined” by the “outrage” against them. Franken and Louis C. K., like Damon and Travers, are multi-millionaires. The punishment they have suffered for their “sexual misconduct” has increased, not lessened, their notoriety and, thus, star-power.
The real outrage here is threefold. First, Damons’ focus on the minor damage done to rich and powerful men who have committed sexual misconduct distracts attention from the truly life-ruining effects of the whole spectrum of sexually cruel behaviors on less powerful targets—for example, on the women who have lost the entry level jobs through which they supported their families because of their bosses’ sexual harassment of them. Second, his unintended (to give him the benefit of the doubt) propagation of the demonstrably false fantasy (see Al Franken and Louis C.K.) that if anyone admits to any kind of sexual misconduct, they will find that their lives will be “ruined” discourages people from reporting and taking responsibility for sexual cruelty. Third, he repeats the false stereotype of those who expose and call for the punishment of perpetrators of sexual cruelty as hysterical would-be destroyers of good men, an image that, for millennia, people in power, usually, but not always, men, have used to discredit and punish anyone who reports sexual cruelty.
Damon’s and Travers’ alienating discourse is an instance of an engrained social behavior that unintentionally reinforces patterns of cruelty. Confrontation of sexual cruelty requires confrontation of this alienation.