Daily Telegraph, Wednesday 13 February 2019
It was just a deal. The women knew what was going on and ‘allowed themselves to be abused’. They did it to get parts in films, even if it was a ‘kind of blackmail’. Such behaviour is very rare and the #MeToo movement has turned into a ‘witch-hunt’.
These are the ‘thoughts’, if they can be dignified with the word, of the actor Steven Berkoff on the Harvey Weinstein scandal. For most outside observers, the once-powerful Hollywood producer is toxic, best left to the courts in New York where he faces trial on charges of rape and sexual assault.
Weinstein denies both the charges and the wider allegations against him, which have been made by dozens of women. But now Berkoff, who is playing the disgraced producer in a London theatre, has chosen to weigh in with a diatribe that reveals antediluvian ideas about sexual violence.
In an interview about his role, Berkoff says he regards Weinstein’s alleged behaviour as ‘totally abhorrent’. But that hasn’t stopped him defending the disgraced producer in terms that amount to a classic piece of victim-blaming, as well as revealing a profound ignorance about the meaning of consent.
Berkoff doesn’t believe that Weinstein’s relationships with his accusers were consensual, at least in the sense of a man and a woman finding themselves attracted to each other. But then he promptly changes his mind, arguing that Weinstein ‘knew himself to be unattractive and assumed his power would attract women’. So these women, many of them young and taking the first steps in their career, were attracted to the producer after all? Berkoff doesn’t really believe that either, characterising Weinstein’s sexual activity with his accusers as part of ‘a deal’.
It cannot be said often enough that consent, unless freely given and in the absence of any form of coercion, is not consent. Yet Berkoff goes on to recycle one of the most pernicious myths about sexual assault, concluding that the women were not only ‘aware of what was going on’ but ‘allowed themselves to be abused, because they felt there might be a cheque or a part’.
That isn’t what the alleged victims have claimed, in their sometimes graphic allegations about being groped by the producer or forced into unwanted sex. They were certainly aware of Weinstein’s status in the industry and frightened, with good reason, that they wouldn’t be believed if they made such explosive allegations against him.
But Berkoff has decades of tradition behind him when he chooses not to listen to the women – and in his view of these sordid events, we’ve got things back to front. ‘Using power for sex is the worst kind of blackmail,’ he concedes, ‘but in a way [Weinstein] is a victim of his time’. A time, in other words, when women have been able to use the #MeToo hashtag on social media to speak for themselves – and some people have found their accounts compelling.
Not Berkoff, however. Like many privileged men before him, Berkoff thinks the fact that hedidn’t witness sexual harassment in the film industry means it almost never happened. ‘I never saw it in any film I did. The directors behaved with impeccable dignity,’ he insists with unshakeable confidence in his ability to see what went on behind closed doors. ‘Which makes me think it’s been blown out of proportion. It’s like a witch-hunt; they’re diving on everybody, looking for victims.’
Who ‘they’ are isn’t clear – shady figures urging biddable women to make spurious allegations, perhaps? There are so many misogynist assumptions here that it’s hard to know where to start, but one thing is very clear: if this language sounds familiar, it’s because exactly the same defence is trotted out whenever it emerges that a well-known man has been accused of sexual misconduct.
Back in the 1990s, a long list of celebrities rushed to the defence of Bill Clinton when he was accused not just of an affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, but of sexually harassing a number of other women. They talked about Lewinsky in the most pejorative terms, and some of them (notably the playwright Arthur Miller) denounced the whole thing as a witch-hunt.
This time round, the scandal is moving into the courts. In the coming months, Weinstein’s alleged behaviour will be examined in a forensic setting, which is right and proper. Berkoff’s remarks, confused as they are, are unlikely to affect the outcome of that case. But they are a reminder of the ignorance that still surrounds the issue of consent, even to the point of imagining that women can agree to their own abuse.
If ever there was an argument for mandatory sex education in schools, this is it – and for retiring the language that frames every accusation against a famous man as a ‘witch-hunt’.