There is a Chinese idiom which describes a situation where one bends to “five taels of rice,” thus sacrificing one’s moral integrity because one cannot afford to lose one’s livelihood.
I listened to NPR’s coverage of the Harvey Weinstein case yesterday. In my mind, I have little doubt that Weinstein did something inappropriate to many women. But what is disturbing is that the sexual assaults were not reported until years later. In fact, that is exactly what Harvey Weinstein’s defense lawyer uses to defend him.
In the case of one of his accusers, Miriam Haley, she continued to be in a business relationship with Weinstein years after the alleged assault. After the first alleged incident of assault (of forced oral sex), Miriam did not simply break off the relationship. She remained to be his friend and continued to ask Weinstein for work opportunities. And she reported another incident of sexual nature, in which she said was unwanted but she did not resist either. There are email records of the apparently affectionate exchanges between Haley and Weinstein many years after the alleged assaults.
My heart is heavy after listening to this. I have the highest regard for women, starting with my own mother. But it is a fact that women often have to depend on men for economic support and opportunities. We still live in a patriarchy where men control the jobs and the financial resources. Clearly, Miriam Haley was benefiting from maintaining an ongoing relationship with Harvey Weinstein. This is no different from the case where women stay in abusive marriages because they don’t have financial independence. We never live in an ideal world. Some women stay in abusive relationships because they need the medical coverage from their husbands. That they stay in such relationships does not mean that the abuses and/or sexual violence are not real. It just means that many women are trapped in bad situations. In the US, people tend to think that we live in a society where we have the freedom to choose how we live. But do we really?
My comments are not sexist. Even for men, many of us have to stay with a boss we despise or stay in a job we dislike because our livelihood depends on it. In a broad sense, most of us have to “bend to five taels of rice.” We can claim to be of high principle. In reality, however, we all have to eat, we all need medical care and we need a roof above our heads.
It is for this reason that I don’t approve of society’s contempt for sex workers. What determines who gets into sex work and who gets into a “respectable” professor. I contend that much is dependent on wealth inequality. Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, has written a very touching piece titled “Garbage and Flower.” It is about young women who get into sex work due to poverty. Have you met any rich women who are into sex work? Can the rich women claim any moral high ground because they don’t have to do the “dirty work” many poor women have to do?
Whenever we “bend to five taels of rice,” we have prostituted our dignity. The Harvey Weinstein story should be viewed in a much bigger context. It is not just about sexual violence. It is about a culture of silence where those living in the margins of society have to bend to the five taels of rice just to survive, suffer abuses and humiliating exploitation and remain silent about it.