We must start holding celebrities accountable for sexual misconduct

Michael Jensen

It’s no secret that Hollywood is having a rough year — and no, I’m not just talking about declining box office sales or its seemingly endless stream of lackluster sequels, remakes and reboots. Former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey and screenwriter James Toback have all been accused of sexual harassment. And the problem isn’t limited to Hollywood insiders — even former president George H.W. Bush was forced to apologize in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct.

The number of victims who have come forward, now numbering in the hundreds, boggles the mind. It’s difficult to contemplate how someone as famous as Spacey or as influential as Weinstein could get away with abuse for years — even decades — without facing any real consequences. Fame can mislead the public, protecting abusers from legal repercussions. It’s past time for us to reevaluate the way we treat beloved celebrities and public figures.  

More than any other, the case of Jimmy Savile illustrates the disastrous consequences of inaction. Savile was a beloved BBC television and radio personality who entertained Britons with his eccentric personality for over 30 years. During this same period, there were rumors and allegations of sexual misconduct, but nothing seemed to stick and Savile continued to enjoy his success until his death in 2011. Then, the victims started coming forward.

In total, there were more than 500 victims aged 2 to over 75. Many were disabled, and much of the abuse occurred in hospitals and infirmaries under the guise of charity. If Savile hadn’t been a beloved public figure, it’s unlikely that Britain’s National Health Service would have given him such privileged access to vulnerable patients. It’s also unlikely that he would have been able to abuse so many for so long, despite widespread rumors about his predatory behavior. 

Similar scandals can be found closer to home. Bill Cosby enjoyed several decades as a comedian before countless accusations of sexual assault affected his career in any meaningful way, and Fox News chief Roger Ailes sexually harassed dozens of women for almost two decades before he was finally forced to step down. 

Every case is appalling, but the underlying problem is much larger than the sum of its parts. In almost every instance, it took far too long and cost innocent people far too much before action was taken. Savile effectively got away with it. Hollywood gossiped and even joked about Weinstein’s predatory behavior and Spacey’s affinity for young boys, years before they generated a
public backlash.

Abuse never happens in a vacuum, and, more often than not, someone knew about it. Of course it might suck to hear that one of your favorite celebrities did something despicable — but the costs of continuing to look the other way are unacceptable. We can — and we should — do better. 

Jensen is a neuroscience senior from The Woodlands. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @michaeltangible.