In the past few months, man after powerful man has been publicly called out for sexual harassment and assault—from Hollywood to some of the country’s most trusted newsrooms and everywhere in between.
It might feel like the fervor is finally dying down. But, in Zainab Salbi’s eyes, the work has only just begun. Salbi is a women’s rights activist, journalist and the host of PBS series “#MeToo, Now What?”
“We have named the villains, or the predators, or the accused,” she said in an interview with Rewire. “If we limit the discussion about them individually, we make it about them. And, this is my argument, it’s not about them.”
The high-profile people who have been accused of harassment are products of our culture—a culture they helped create, for sure, but also a culture we all participate in, knowingly or not, Salbi said.
“#MeToo, Now What?” aims to deconstruct parts of our culture contributing to sexual harassment that is so widespread and ingrained, Salbi said, that both women and men accept it as the status quo.
Some people are oblivious to the extent and seriousness of this type of harassment because it’s widely encouraged and reinforced, including through racism, pay disparity and harmful media representation—things that don’t typically get associated with sexual harassment, she said.
So, now what? That’s where we all come in. Salbi talked with Rewire about having difficult conversations of your own about sexual harassment, and what she sees as the future of the #MeToo movement. (This interview has been edited for length.)
Rewire: One of the things that makes moving forward difficult is how uncomfortable it is to have these conversations. How can we talk about sexual harassment in a productive way?
Zainab Salbi: I was (at) a dinner, talking about the show, and men got defensive. They made it all about these other men and not about them, not about the culture, not about the structure. … That day (at the dinner) it was not resolved but the next day every single man emailed me (about the conversation and said they understood my perspective).
You have to keep on forward. We’re in the middle of it, we’re in the middle of the storm, we’re not outside of it. The job right now is to hold the uncomfortable positions that we are all in and not shy away from it but keep on pushing. We need to push forward until a behavior change happens.
My advice for women and men: Stay in the uncomfortable place—stay and push forward. There will be a way out of this, and the only way for all of us to get out of this is actually if we have the uncomfortable conversations today—not tomorrow, today. If we each own what we need to own, our own complicity and complacency in it.
Do something—it’s not good enough to feel bad. Talk to women, talk to men, talk to family, change, change, change. A lot of people are taking it for granted, this structure that discriminates against women. Women, we also take it for granted, we became numb to it. Don’t take it for granted, push forward for structural change.
Rewire: What’s a good rule of thumb for entering these discussions?
ZS: It is possible, not only on this subject but every subject, to have a calm conversation. To do that, for me, it takes a couple of steps: A safety of the place, safe and nonjudgmental, even if I disagree with you. It’s the only way of active listening—if I really try to understand the logic of this person and not judge them.
In order for me to change the situation, I need to understand the logic… and when I understand it, then I can find different ways of, how do we change that reality?
I need to engage in a way that they (can) hear me and listen to me. I change my tone so I can be heard. When they heard my rage and anger, they shut down. When I start speaking calmer, they started hearing more. I moved from being the activist to the journalist but… I’m not shying away from showing my emotions, my hurt. All of these things help in pushing the discussion.
Rewire: The finale of “#MeToo, Now What?” is airing on PBS right before a “Frontline” special on Harvey Weinstein. Do you think there’s more to say about Weinstein?
ZS: Definitely. It is one thing to name Harvey Weinstein and the men who have been named so far, but they are creators of culture, they are the leading creators of our culture, whether it’s Matt Lauer or Harvey Weinstein. The culture they created still stands, and the money they made out of it also still stands and it’s with them.
The hardest job is to look at deconstructing the culture that Harvey Weinstein has created. In some of my discussions with men, they said, “We were told all our lives, if we are persistent, we’ll get what we want. Now the culture is punishing us for that.”
You need to examine the messaging for men and women, examine the image of beauty that (Weinstein) put out there (through the type of women he promoted). Examine where the money is and how is the money—his money as well as the money made in that industry—forwarded to women filmmakers and new images of women.
Women need to demand far, far, far more. It’s not enough that (we) don’t want to be touched inappropriately anymore. We should be demanding that we are part of the stakeholders of these cultural (decisions). We need to represent ourselves far more and be in the decision of that.
Rewire: “#MeToo, Now What?” addresses wage discrimination, too. What does that have to do with anything?
ZS: With waitress wage discrimination—they make (something like) 3 dollars and 13 cents per hour—and that actually comes from slavery. Their living is dependent on tips and it actually makes everyone accessible to harassing that woman, because her role in that restaurant is actually to get enough favors from all sides so she can get tips so she can pay her rent.
You’ve got to adjust her wages to a livable wage so you do not reinforce her vulnerability. I interviewed waitresses, I interviewed women who are activists in the restaurant industry. Seventy percent of all American women have worked as waitresses—and have been exposed to sexual harassment (in that role). (Later in their careers, they’ll) tolerate less intensity (of sexual harassment) because its never as bad as it was at the restaurant: “It’s not as bad as when I was grabbed in the restaurant, or when I was a teenager.”
When you’re underpaying someone, whether it’s a nurse or a janitor, you’re enabling her being treated (as) less. She is less value to you than the man who is getting paid much more for the exact same job. You are more able or more capable of treating her (as) less sexual-wise.
Rewire: What do you think is the future of the #MeToo movement?
ZS: The movement has just started, it’s not resolved yet, so it’s hard to give resolution to something that is in the middle of the process. But what I came out learning is that there are particular areas you can choose and focus on. You could focus your energy on policy reforms, on wage reforms, on your own individual behavior. (But) how does change happen? Do you start with individual behavior change or policy behavior change or legal behavior change?
You need to push all of them. You’ve got to actually push all of the levers. And sometimes you don’t know what’s going to lead to impacting what. Sometimes policy leads to change in culture, sometimes culture leads to change in policy.
(And there’s) the racial component, which I don’t think has been discussed a lot—the history of how white women and black women look at (and experience sexual harassment) in a different way. I am fascinated with this only because I believe it informs how we can move forward in the future. I’m pro looking backward for a second so we can move forward for a lifetime.