The Weinstein and Westminster Scandals Should Make us Reflect on the Connection Between Power and Sexual Violence


1). What started in October with the rapid fall of a once untouchable movie mogul has grown in the intervening weeks into a full blown crisis for institutions across Britain and the US. The British Prime minister has had to hastily convene cross party meetings and cobble together a semblance of an HR system at Westminster after a series of accusations against MPs and ministers from both sides of the house. Her defence secretary has had to resign after revelations of inappropriate advances toward journalists and lewd comments to one of his own female MPs. Her first secretary of state is also under investigation. In the US, allegations against Harvey Weinstein ranging from aggressive propositioning to rape continue to accumulate. The actress and producer Brit Marling wrote a powerful account in The Atlantic of her experiences with the mogul: “I, too, sat in that chair paralyzed by mounting fear when he suggested we shower together. What could I do? How not to offend this man, this gatekeeper, who could anoint or destroy me”? The scandal there has now claimed the career of Kevin Spacey and has expanded to a predictable questioning of the peculiarities of the film industry; its glamour, its shallowness, its obsession with young female flesh, often paired with less than youthful male co-stars. The same form of questioning was heard after the abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile was exposed in the UK and has often been raised regarding the abuse carried out by religious institutions and care homes like Haut de la Garenne.

The terms sleaze or sex scandals that have in the past been used to refer to such revelations hardly seem appropriate in this instance. It’s also worth remembering that this is only the latest salvo in the now permanent crisis of British institutions embroiled in accusations of systematic sexual abuse and cover-ups. The expression ‘Sexual Abuse Scandal ‘might as well be built in as an autofill for newspaper headline writers. And yet despite the near ubiquity of abuse revelations on the contemporary social landscape little is done to try and draw the commonalities together. We walk dumbfounded from one crisis to another, each time raising up the same sense of shock and surprise. Perhaps the subject is just too large and the issue of sexual violence too ingrained in the dark corners of human societies to be worth treating at a general level. Certainly it seems that way in the case of the UK government’s unwieldy public enquiry into historic sexual abuse allegations, which has had a turnover of leadership comparable to many Premier League football clubs. Framed in the way it has been, there is something almost inevitably self-defeating about its scope. How can an enquiry, which in its range and manpower becomes an institution in its own right, be able to investigate, appraise and recommend remedy for abuses committed in seemingly every type of institution in the land? Since the scandals in Westminster and Hollywood have predominantly involved the abuse of adult women the focus has understandably been on the issue of sexism and misogyny; just as in the case of Savile and child abuse in the Church the focus has been on paedophilia. I wonder though if there’s not a more general way of capturing an important aspect of all these cases from Weinstein to Westminster, from the Catholic Church to care homes. Why not talk about relations of domination and their direct link with sexual abuse?


lateromancenturion2). Our understanding of domination is strongly conditioned by the historical legacy of slavery. A dominated person is someone in chains, forced to work under threat of death. Their status is that of property, owned by a master and disposed of as they see fit. Slavery is also a complex institution requiring the collaboration and complicity of wide sections of the society in which it exists. Its eventual abolition across much of the developed world in the 18th and 19th centuries was due to multiple factors, only a few of which involved what we might now call “changes in attitudes”. Since we tend to associate relations of domination with historical slavery and its outward appearance it has taken a long time for the issue of modern slavery to be taken seriously. Only in 2015 did the UK bring in the Modern Slavery Act, which while being a step in the right direction of recognising modern relations of domination, in practice merely reiterates the common understanding of domination as “servitude and forced labour”. It does little to break down precisely what constitutes a basic condition of servitude.  I’m bringing up slavery as it represents the most extreme example of a relation of domination. However unless we have an account of precisely what a relation of domination actually is in itself we won’t be able to recognise less extreme forms, which I suggest are much more prevalent.

The Canadian philosopher Philip Pettit, drawing on the ancient (specifically Roman) understanding of domination cited three criteria for a person to be in such a relation. A person dominates another if:

-They have the capacity to interfere.

-On an arbitrary basis.

-In certain choices that the other is in a position to make.

This is a useful albeit somewhat formal definition, not least as it doesn’t depend on the slave/freeman distinction. It also emphasises that it is the capacity to interfere, not actually occurring interference that is the dominating condition. By this account a person could be in a relation of domination relative to one person or group but not to another, and perhaps only within a particular field of choices. Think about Weinstein and Brit Marling again. As an aspiring actress and screenwriter her field of possibility crossed over with his field of influence. Relative to her he was “…this gatekeeper, who could anoint or destroy me”. The language here is not an accident. The power to anoint or destroy, to bind or loose, is symbolic of power at its most dominating. Think too about the power Jimmy Savile held over the children he abused and to an extent over the staff at the BBC, who, relative to him – the big star – were mere flunkies.

Another element of dominating relations which Pettit discusses is the absence of contestation. Put broadly, contestation is the ability of a person to find redress for an abuse, either through the courts, or through extra-legal means such as disciplinary proceedings or even local forms of community or family resolution. The capacity for contestation is a brake on the ability of the master to do what he wants with impunity (his arbitrium in the Latin understanding). Absence of contestation is a major contributing factor in the ability of a person to interfere with another on an arbitrary basis. There is after all nothing to stop them. Even in the presence of nominal procedures for redress, the ability of a person to challenge abusive behaviour can be thwarted by prejudice, the reluctance of others to assist owing to the influence of the perpetrator, or structural reasons which shield powerful people from the consequences of their actions.

These facts serve to remind us that relations of domination do not exist in isolation. Like the historical institution of slavery they require the active collaboration and complicity of a host of others. Think about how many people turned a blind eye to the behaviour of Weinstein. Think about the cover-ups and the advice given to women not to pursue complaints against high value stars and officials, or of the care home staff and police who refused to believe the testimony of victims. And think also of the capacity rich and powerful people have to pay off complainants to keep their abuse out of the public domain. Where money and influence are involved the network of power extends to the potential legal repercussions against those who speak out. And in a world where the media walk in step with politicians and the superrich, the threat of having one’s life torn apart by their attack dogs is all too real. There are often too many parties interested in seeing the structures of power which allow sexual abuse to remain undisturbed. For instance, to question how Savile was able to operate with impunity is to question the nature of celebrity and the role a monolithic institution like the BBC or Fox News (which has also been mired in scandal) has in raising them up. To question the power of politicians to abuse their staff similarly puts the whole form of parliamentary power under the microscope. At least it should, if the journalists involved were not also polluted by the same material. A few individuals might quickly be made example of, if only to appease the sense of outrage and give the establishment time to reorientate itself, to put in more procedures to ensure the machine keeps on turning. Risk management not justice is the order of the day.


3). The Romans had two ways of conceiving relations of domination. Where the power in question related to public power, such as the State or its institutions, they used the term Imperium, from which we receive the words empire and emperor. Where the power in question was private such as the family, or in the modern world a private corporation, the term used would be dominium, which relates to the domus, the home and consequently to notions of household management and property. It is the latter term from which we get our modern lexical understanding of slavery as related to private ownership and property rights more generally. This is not the place to elaborate on the complex genealogy of these concepts and how they have impacted on modern Law and our experience of power in social life. What seems clear however is that in the contemporary era the distinction between private and public power seems less and less tenable. The State and the non-State are no longer divided down lines which would be recognisable even to people living a century ago. The influence of trans-national forms of governance such as the EU, IMF, the World Bank and huge communications and media corporations like Google, Facebook and News International threatens the centrality of the nation state as the key operator in political life.

Another problem is that liberalism has tended to focus on the threat of state interference (imperium) at the expense of seeing how private domination, particularly that of large corporations has grown exponentially in the post-war era, given impetus by the developments in communications technologies and the internet. The global dominance of economy in human affairs means that one single form of governance, originating in notions of household management (combining the Roman domus with the Greek oikos) now holds sway. No longer does the State attempt to hold back the violence of the market, and no longer is private economy a bulwark against interference by the State. Under global capitalism State and market, public and private, operate as two elements of the same power. More and more of us today are subject to dominating relations produced by this total global economy, which sees everything and everyone in terms of measurable, calculable units.

slave violenceSlavery, the most extreme form of domination has since the beginning been associated with sexual violence. It flows directly from the status of a person as the property of another to be enjoyed as they see fit. Sexual violence was routinely deployed against slaves of both sexes by colonialists in the Caribbean and slave owners in the United States. In the ancient world the master’s sexual use of his slaves was a natural consequence of their thing-like status. Where restrictions on the sexual abuse of dominated persons have historically existed they have tended to take the form of appeals to the moral character of the master rather than the humanity of the victim. Codes of chivalry, notions of nobility or virtu, religious commitments and other such regimes have often been the sole restraint to unfettered rapine in peacetime as much as war. In the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, a compendium of dream interpretations written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, it is considered a positive portent if the master dreams of sexually using his slaves, since it shows him deriving satisfaction from his property. Wherever relations of domination exist we find sexual violence, not because the absence of restraint allows pre-existing violent desires to go unchecked, but because such relations in themselves produce that violence. In a condition of domination my will is absent, completely or partially consumed by the other. What I want or don’t want is irrelevant.  As Brit Marling wrote: “Consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it”. Dominating power by contrast, whether by an individual, a bureaucracy or a State, is ultimately domination over the ability to refuse, to say no. Under domination one cannot ‘not’ comply. And under such conditions my body and person are available for use by the one who wields power.

It’s clear that the position of Brit Marling and of Westminster staffers, or even the victims of Savile was not that of slaves. But they were within a relation of domination to a certain degree, limited but enough to allow abuse to occur under certain circumstances. We should then acknowledge that domination exists on a spectrum that correlates with an increased risk of abuse.  The thing like quality of a person tracks with perfect symmetry this spectrum of relations of domination. The more dominated a person is – the more thing like they become – the more their body is rendered as something for the master to take pleasure from as they desire. Sexual possession of the dominated body is not a pathology external to power, it is its most visceral sign. In an era when the household, the domus, the oikos, has become the model for globalised humanity, it is worth remembering that it is in the house that we find the most common and most acute relation of domination; that between parent and child. And it is also worthwhile remembering that of all human institutions it is within the household that most sexual violence takes place. Only in a return to politics, in opposition to globally triumphant neo-liberalism, might humanity start to take the problem of domination in wider society seriously again; to see in every accumulation of power the real possibility of violence and to cut it off at the root, before the victims pile up.

About Duncan Simpson

a Londoner who writes on philosophy, history, politics and theology. Simpson originally trained in the natural sciences before taking up post-graduate studies in philosophy at Birkbeck College London specialising in modern political thought. He has worked in the biotechnology sector for over nine years. Current focus includes the intersection between the history of religion and contemporary current affairs and the legacy of ancient Roman political and legal thought. He maintains the Askesis blog.
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