Anita Hill, Thurston Moore, and the slow decline of sexual harassment
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Clarence Thomas's Senate hearings that led to his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice, which the country has been paying dearly for ever since. The whole thing was a disaster, of course, but one extremely important and good thing came out of it all; Anita Hill's brave testimony of enduring some really ugly sexual harassment at Thomas's hands ignited a public conversation about sexual harassment. And while we have a long, long way to go on this issue—most women endure sexual harassment, often on a regular basis still—the idea that sexual harassment is wrong has really taken hold in a way that simply wasn't true in 1991. It's an important first step.
There was a conference honoring this 20th anniversary that I sadly had to miss, but that can be watched here. The Nation had an excellent issue dedicated to it, with memories and reflections from a variety of writers, including one from Jessica Valenti on being 12 years old because she believed Anita Hill.
"I believe Anita Hill": it was a battle cry of sorts then, and to an extent now. It seems like a straightforward statement—between Thomas and Hill, you find her story more believable—but if you really start to scratch at what happened then, it turns out it's quite a bit more complex than that.
I was 14 when the whole thing happened. I wasn't really politicized yet, so I don't really recall having a strong opinion on it. Not that thinking deeply about the question was really an option; in my community, believing that Hill as both lying and making a mountain out of a molehill was an article of faith. That these two ideas people held simultaneously directly contradicted each other didn't seem to occur to anyone, much less me. Not at the time. She was lying, and anyway, he was just flirting with her and clearly she's an uptight prude with an agenda: faith, not reason supported this conclusion. Being skeptical of it would have received the same hostile treatment that all widespread faith beliefs are protected by.
I mainly, at that point in time, liked reading books and listening to CDs, and it was the latter that pulled a brick out of my mental wall on this issue. Sonic Youth had a song on their 1992 record Dirty titled "Youth Against Fascism", and it had the lyric "I believe Anita Hill/Judge will rot in hell" on it. It almost feels like an understatement to say that this lyric blew my mind. A man standing up for a woman—a woman he didn't know, especiallly—in a dispute between a man and a woman over sexualized mistreatment? I had never experienced that before, and probably thought of it as simply impossible. Most women treated other women who spoke up about this stuff like pariahs, so the idea of a man calling bullshit, and being so angry about it, was just unbelievable to me. It felt so incredibly subversive. I didn't want to be caught listening to that lyric. It seemed dirty to suggest that there was any alternative to simply enduring sexual harassment in silence.
Because, like Jessica, being young didn't mean I wasn't already well-versed in the problem of sexual harassment. By my first year of high school, I'd had teenage boys and even men try to get me into their cars with them on isolated roads (thank god my parents warned me about that one), had guys grope me in the hallways, had guys make lewd gestures at me, and generally been sexually abused at the hands of my male peers and occasional, scarier incidents with older men. Like Jessica, I think I had no idea that this would be a lifelong problem. What I did know was this: It was not a compliment. You often hear, though far less than you used to, this notion that cat-calling was a compliment and only stupid women could therefore object to it. But it was, along with Hill's mendacity, an article of faith in my community that I was ugly and probably a lesbian and no one male could ever actually want to defile themselves by liking me. Thus, it was literally impossible for a lewd gesture to be a compliment. Most of the boys who did this stuff to me would have sooner endured someone putting a cigarette out on their arms than actually have anyone believe for a second they thought that someone like me was anything but scum for spitting on. I had no illusions, none, about what cat calls and groping meant. It was putting you in your place, a casual reminder that you had no value in their eyes and, more importantly, so little value to the community at large that no one would ever come to your defense. And no one ever did.
That's why "believing" Anita Hill was such a complex and frankly radical thing to do in the early 90s. It wasn't just that you were accepting her version of events. Many of her fiercest critics seemed not to deny that the events she described happened, after all. To believe Anita Hill was also to believe that Thomas was wrong to do the things he did. "Youth Against Fascism" made this clear. Thurston Moore didn't just affirm that he believed that Hill's testimony was factually accurate. He said that treating a woman like that was so wrong that a man who did such things would "burn in hell". He said that it was a man's fault if a man chooses to sexually harass a woman. No one around me was saying those things.
I think the message must have wormed its way into my head, because by the end of high school I was standing up to guys who sexually harassed me. It didn't make anyone defend me, of course. Most people who see a woman speak out against injustice treat her the way they treated Anita Hill—they're furious that she's making a scene, not that he abused her without cause. But standing up for myself made me realize that I didn't need to internalize the shame these assholes were dishing out. I could be proud of myself, even if no one else around me agreed that I deserved that. Hey, Thurston Moore agreed with me, you know, and none of these fools were making Sonic Youth records, so what do they know anyway?