The silence is broken

October 19, 2017

Harvey Weinstein's exposure as a sexual predator has unleashed a powerful expression of resistance--in the form of millions of survivor stories, writes Jen Roesch.

THIS IS how a dam breaks.

It's been two weeks since the New York Times documented decades of sexual harassment complaints against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein--and nine days since Ronan Farrow published an article in the New Yorker featuring stories from 13 Weinstein victims, two of whom alleged rape.

As of today, at least six women have come forward to say that Weinstein raped them, and dozens more have detailed experiences of sexual harassment, assault and attempted rape. Low-level staffers, assistants and former aspiring actresses have been joined--and had their voices amplified--by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan and others.

To millions of women for whom sexism and harassment is a fact of life, the reaction was more recognition than shock.

But as the wave of disclosures grew--along with the number of powerful Hollywood figures who were revealed to have enabled Weinstein's crimes--it caused a bubbling anger to rise to the surface. A story that at first played like a celebrity scandal is giving way to a recognition of the pervasive reality of sexual harassment and assault far beyond Hollywood.


This week, a call for women to share their #MeToo stories of sexual harassment and assault exploded on social media. In the first 24 hours, more than half a million people used the hashtag on Twitter, and at any given time, more than 6 million people were discussing it on Facebook.

Journalist Mia Sanders captured the significance of the campaign in a post on Facebook:

It is true that not everyone who has experienced sexual assault or harassment feels like they can say #MeToo. For every woman who can, we will never know how many can't or won't. But if we never break the silence, there will never be room for them to speak.

#MeToo is a moment of spontaneous, collective bravery. Something that is usually impossible for us to say aloud has been made possible because of mass solidarity. This is a first, and hopefully, a beginning.

THE STRENGTH of this campaign and the wave of revelations about Weinstein is that they have exposed the sheer scale of the problem. More than that, they acknowledge that experiences too often taken for granted--just assumed to be part of what it means to be a woman in our society--are in fact experiences of oppression that shape and distort people's lives. They are not to be endured, but fought.

That fight will require asking some hard questions about why such high levels of violence and abuse persist four decades after the women's liberation movement. It isn't enough to say that we live in a culture that normalizes and excuses sexual harassment and assault, though this is sickeningly and obviously true.

In his bizarre non-apology apology, Harvey Weinstein said that he "came of age in the '60s and '70s when all the rules about workplaces and behavior were different. That was the culture then."

The sad truth is that in too many ways, the culture really hasn't changed so much since then. The response to Weinstein has shone a spotlight on the rampant abuse in Hollywood as more women have come forward with allegations about him and others.

An equally important element of this story, though, is how hard it has been to tell. There has been widespread praise for the women who have come forward and told their stories. But without taking away from the courage of these women, many of whom face threats and questioning even now, they are not the first to speak up.

Weinstein's record of abuse is not being exposed because women are finally telling their stories. It's being exposed because women are finally being listened to.

THE LIST of attempts to expose Weinstein or to seek action are almost as long as the list of his crimes. As early as 1984, before his rise to power, a woman on the crew for one of Weinstein's first feature films went to the chief producer to claim that he had attempted to rape her. Weinstein kept his job.

In the early 1990s, journalist Kim Masters reports being asked by Weinstein what she'd heard about him. "I hear you rape women," she responded.

In 1997, Weinstein raped Rose McGowan, according to her account of another hotel-room assault. She says she never pressed charges because she was told she could never win in court.

In 2004, journalist Sharon Waxman investigated rumors that Fabrizio Lombardo's job was to procure women for Weinstein while in Italy. Lombardo is the producer that Asia Argento says brought her to Weinstein's room on the pretense of a non-existent party--where she was then raped by him. Waxman claims the New York Times killed the story under pressure.

In 2005, Courtney Love was asked what advice she would give to young actresses coming to Hollywood. Saying she would be sued for libel, she responded that they should never accept an invitation to a Weinstein private party. She says she was later banned by the top Hollywood talent agency for speaking out.

In 2015, the Italian model Ambra Battilana went to the New York City police department after Weinstein grabbed her breasts and put his hands up her skirt. The police set her up with a wire and sent her to meet Weinstein in the hopes of procuring a confession.

The audiotape of that exchange, in which Weinstein admits to the assault and then tries to pressure her into his hotel room, is chilling and unambiguous. The police detectives on the case insist they had the evidence to pursue legal action. However, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance refused to file charges, claiming that Battilana was not a credible witness.

Just days after this evidence surfaced, the New York Post published a full-page hit job on Battilana based on unnamed sources. The article featured highly sexualized photos and alleges the charges were part of a plot to blackmail Weinstein for a movie role.

Meanwhile, the Weinstein Company moved quickly to clean up and contain the mess. Board member Lance Maerov pushed for a new code of conduct, with detailed descriptions of sexual harassment. Then, Weinstein signed a new contract stipulating that if the company had to pay out settlements or if Weinstein was found guilty of violating the code of conduct, he would be forced to pay a series of escalating fines to keep his position.

THIS IS how women who spoke up against Weinstein were treated. They were either silenced through financial settlements and non-disclosure agreements or they had their names dragged through the mud and their careers destroyed. Others found themselves stonewalled and forced to leave their jobs. Several faced continued abuse and harassment at Weinstein's hands.

What emerges clearly from this pattern is that individuals did repeatedly attempt to speak out and to find mechanisms to protect one another. But at a systemic level, institutions were largely immune to change.

Maerov now laments that he doesn't "know what else I could have done." Bob Weinstein, Harvey's brother and the company's co-founder, has expressed a similar bewildered helplessness. He described to the Hollywood Reporter how he responded when women would come to him in tears with complaints: "I would often counsel people and say, 'You know have a choice here. Leave. Leave, please leave.' I don't know why some of them stayed."

Maerov and Bob Weinstein paint themselves as sympathetic figures who just didn't know what they could do. But their culpability goes way beyond the man who fails to speak up when his friend makes a sexist joke. They had the power to change the culture within the Weinstein Company, and beyond it.

Instead of designing contracts to mitigate the financial impact of settlements, pushing women out of their jobs and hiring lawyers to re-victimize victims, they could have responded swiftly and with support to complaints of harassment or worse. They could have made compliance with sexual harassment policies a condition of employment--and enforced it.

The ways in which not just Harvey Weinstein, but the Weinstein Company as a whole, wielded wealth and power to cover up predatory, serial abuse had a profound impact on shaping the broader landscape that his victims were forced to navigate.

Even as Weinstein was going down, his lawyer Lisa Bloom outlined a plan for placing favorable news coverage that would feature photos of him and his victims together.

This was the playbook that had worked for decades. That it no longer did was testament to the growing wave of confidence and solidarity that has changed the conversation in the last week.

BLOOM, THE victim-blaming lawyer who was somehow also responsible for advising Weinstein on gender issues, described him as a "dinosaur" with antiquated ideas about women. This fits a common narrative--one in which women are presumed to have achieved a measure of equality, and sexist ideas are a hangover from an earlier era.

But this obscures a deeper reality: The sexist ideas that flourish in and shape our culture are a reflection of the degree to which women have not, in fact, achieved equality.

This becomes painfully clear when you look at the persistence of workplace-based sexual harassment. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that anywhere between 25 percent and 85 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment, there are certain industries where women face much higher levels of abuse.

These include traditionally male-dominated industries with lower levels of female employment. Hollywood is one of them. From production crews to writers to directors and even to substantive roles on-camera, men dominate.

A day after the New York Times broke the Weinstein story, Science magazine published a report about scientists who alleged sexual harassment and violence committed by a renowned biologist in Antarctica. In this remote isolation, the women were literally powerless to defend themselves, and when they returned, they faced powerful repercussions for speaking up.

This physical isolation and danger is echoed by reports of the systematic harassment of women in the National Park Service. In stories that in their own way echo those of Weinstein's victims, sexual come-ons turn very quickly to physical violence. In these male-dominated industries, the presence of women represents a threat--and harassment a means of intimidation.

The pressure for women to "tough it out" is immense. Denise Rice, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service who suffered three years of harassment, captured the dynamic in her statements for a HuffPost feature: "You don't cry in front of the guys, you don't show weakness in front of them. And you don't file. You just don't file. You suck it up and deal."

It was only after she was physically assaulted with a letter opener that she finally reported. And then her worse fears came true. There was an investigation, but it was one in which her entire life and the humiliating details of her harassment were made public. Her assailant retired before action could be taken, but her career was effectively destroyed.

This type of harassment helps to keep women out of male-dominated industries--ones which often enjoy substantially higher wages. A shocking 88 percent of women construction workers experience workplace harassment. Only 6.3 percent of women worked in male-dominated industries in 2016.

This is one of many factors that keeps women concentrated in low-wage jobs--which, ironically, constitute the other highest concentration of reports of harassment. Whereas the abuse in male-dominated industries is rooted in exclusion, in the low-wage sector, it reflects women workers' weaker bargaining power and lower social position.

Women make up more than 75 percent of the 10 lowest-wage occupations in this country and face particularly high levels of abuse. Nearly half of those women are women of color, and Black women report substantially higher levels of harassment.

WHILE WOODY Allen worries that the renewed attention to sexual harassment will lead to a "witch hunt" atmosphere in which "any man who winks at a woman in the office has to look for a lawyer," the reality is that the extent and degree of sexual harassment is dramatically underestimated.

Take the example of agriculture: In one California study, as many as 80 percent of women reported being abused or raped in the fields. Due to the nature of the work, these women face particularly appalling levels of violence, which is often perpetrated by armed men in physically remote locations. Because many of these workers are also undocumented immigrants, speaking up can mean risking deportations and losing one's children.

But Allen's comment speaks to a larger assumption underlying how our society treats sexual harassment. The myriad ways in which women are degraded, disempowered and treated as objects in the workplace are recast as innocuous gestures. Women who complain are treated as oversensitive. But these are precisely the assumptions that create a hostile workplace environment.

The vast majority of us spend most of our waking hours at our jobs. That these jobs are marked by epidemic levels of sexual harassment is significant in two ways. First, it helps to maintain women's unequal and subordinate status. Women who endure harassment face greater barriers to speaking up and advocating for themselves or others--either against their own harassment or conditions more generally.

Second, the ways people experience their lives at work has an ideological impact that radiates out into society as a whole. If women have second-place status, are vulnerable to abuse, and are ignored or retaliated against when they speak up, this helps to shape broader perceptions.

A workplace culture that tolerates harassment and assault helps to legitimize it beyond the workplace.

And what Weinstein illustrates so dramatically is that there is a web of powerful institutions--from the media to the courts to the producers of popular culture--that help to entrench these ideas and keep women from speaking up.

Far from being a relic of a past era, the persistence of sexual violence is a reflection of the entrenched and deepening inequality women face in this era.

In the same week that the Weinstein story broke, the U.S. House of Representatives voted for a bill implementing a 20-week abortion ban, mandatory insurance coverage for birth control was eliminated, and the Department of Health and Human Services defined life as beginning at conception.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rolled back gains won by campus anti-rape activists, abortion clinics remain under assault--and, of course, an admitted sexual predator sits in the White House.

Women remain disproportionately poor, concentrated in precarious and low-wage work and are more likely to lose their jobs due to family needs. They still earn less than men and carry a larger share of the care of children, sick family members and the elderly. With the fraying of the social safety net, more and more of this burden is falling on women.

WHILE ALL of this can feel overwhelming, especially in the absence of a strong and visible women's movement, understanding these connections can also begin to point to a way forward.

The avalanche of stories of sexual violence--committed by friends, families, co-workers, strangers--can make it feel like this is everywhere and nowhere, everyone and no one, at the same time.

And there is a sense in which this is true. It isn't just powerful, wealthy men like Weinstein, Trump or Cosby who commit sexual assault. This violence is experienced in the family, at school, at work, at home and in the street.

But sexual harassment and assault are also embedded in a set of social relationships that are structured and enabled by the most powerful institutions in our society. It flows from, and in turn reinforces, the unequal status of women.

Confronting a culture that demeans women and tacitly accepts such violence is a powerful step. It is not a small thing that millions of women are finding their voices--and that millions of men are starting to listen. This is particularly true for a form of oppression that is experienced individually and often in secrecy and silence.

But if this is to be a beginning, then it can't stop at the level of individual behavior--even if that is where we so often experience it. We need to find ways to raise our voices against the institutions and entrenched inequalities that shape and distort our lives--and to demand that they change.

This may have been the year that a misogynist was elected to the White House, but it is also the year in which millions of women--and others--took to the streets to protest him when he got there, an overwhelming outpouring that few could have predicted.

It might also seem improbable that a conversation that began with Hollywood celebrities has touched such a deep chord and brought attention to the pervasive reality of sexual violence.

But this speaks to the growing rage of a generation that has been told feminism is dead and that those battles belong to the past--but who live in a present shaped by an intensifying and brutal war on women. It is a rage that has no organized expression as of yet, but it is nonetheless real.

We are long past due for a revived women's movement--one that can challenge the toxic sexism and violence our culture is steeped in, and the system that generates and sustains them.

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