Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Monday 30 October 2017

Sex and Power and the difference between them

Kevin Spacey's alleged abuse as reported in the Guardian
A couple of months ago it was Harvey Weinstein, and today it’s Kevin Spacey, and yet again, I fail to be surprised.

I’m not surprised by sex scandals involving politicians or by abuse perpetrated by men of power in any industry. There’s no less-bad and there’s no worse. All of these men, and, let’s face it, it is almost always men who perpetrate these horrors, are abusers. They all deserve our opprobrium. Is there really any difference between Jimmy Savile and Roman Polanski? Probably not much.

This whole thing doesn't surprise me, and the people involved don’t surprise me, for the simple reason that I don’t confuse sex with power.

Some consensual sex is about sex, but a lot of sex in all its forms, and certainly when it is exploitative and non-consensual, is about power. Sex between participants of unequal status, or age… or any of a number of inequalities is almost always about power. Almost all participants in many casual sexual encounters are unequal. Women are never equal to the men they engage with, simply because they are women. Inequality is perceived in race, age, intellect, wealth, talent… and on and on.

When an established actor in his twenties grabs at a juvenile actor he’s working with, it’s about power. When a  movie exec in his forties or fifties exposes himself to a starlet, it’s about power. When the President gropes anybody, it’s about power. When a consensual act follows, it’s still about power. Some people, and they’re mostly women, will consent to a sexual encounter based on a more powerful person’s promises. It’s a compromise, and it’s an unpleasant one, but some people do deal with these kinds of situations by seeing the main chance, by compartmentalising, or by being socialised to accept that this kind of behaviour by those they consider superior is somehow normal. Many people who are attacked in this way feel the attack both personally, as abuse, and even as criminal, and they’d be right. When kids are attacked it’s always abuse, and it’s always criminal.

If we accept that sexual attacks are about power, we can begin to see things differently. There are myths attached to all kinds of people, but the results are invariably the same. Artists are often portrayed as having more scope for transgression, and there might be something in that. We all know about Picasso, Hemingway, Schiele and others, and, too often we forgive them. Artists might be wired differently, but they could still be disciplined in how they choose to transgress. It’s simply about not causing others pain.

Politicians are an interesting case. Personally, I don’t believe that anyone who has responsibility for running a country is going to be the kind of person who goes home to a pipe and slippers, and to the kind of banal domesticity that so many live with.

Of course, Bill Clinton groped Monica Lewinsky, and of course there was a disparity in their personal and professional power. Monica Lewinsky exerted whatever power she could muster to expose him. Clinton is known for many things, but Lewinsky is known for having sex with the president. The power continues to be unequal. Interestingly, Hillary Clinton managed to maintain a relationship with her husband. Perhaps her power was to understand her husband’s nature, and to accept it. I think there’s something to admire in that, but I know there is no excuse for exploitation.

With great power comes great responsibility, and part of that responsibility is to be a person… not to use that power to abuse, coerce or compromise others. Often that abuse, coercion and compromise comes in the form of sex.

I am never surprised when I hear about yet another powerful man using that power to sexually abuse anyone: woman, child or another man. It’s a legacy of the patriarchy, and it’s a story as old as time.

Perhaps now is the time to change all of that.

It’s easy to condemn those we don’t know, or don’t have an opinion about. Harvey Weinstein isn’t known to us in the same way that a politician or actor has a very public persona. It makes it easier to despise Weinstein. We already have an opinion about a man like Clinton or Spacey, and often that public image is very positive. It’s harder to despise Spacey if we have admired his career, if we have liked the characters he has played, if we have been drawn to him because of a clever or funny interview. We have to despise him anyway. We have to strip these men of their power and their status. We have to cut them off from their abuse. It might be the only way to change the kind of power structures that have made the abuse, coercion and compromise of innocents part of the status quo.


  1. This, posted on my FB page. A good point, well made.

    Though part of would be inclined to say that it's easier to detest people we "like" when they do something vile than people we don't/have no opinion of. The familiarity we have with them makes feelings of betrayal all the sharper, even if it's not us that has personally been betrayed by the guise we have seen those we admire have sheltered under.

    I've seen a few Kevin Spacey films and often enjoyed his work. But to hear what has allegedly happened makes me sick. And while what Weinstein has done is just as bad, there is a sense of detachment in my loathing as, although I've probably seen his name many times, to me he was faceless until recently, so a sharper sense of outrage is somewhat denied.

  2. It doesn't undermine your general argument, but I seem to recall Monica Lewinsky was actually quite reluctant to expose her relationship with Bill Clinton, even denying it under oath. Unfortunately (from his point of view), she chose to confide in Linda Tripp, a co-worker who secretly taped telephone conversations with Lewinsky (not what I would consider the actions of a friend) and then passed those tapes to Kenneth Starr, who was investigating a completely unrelated business deal by the Clintons.