I was 17 and working at a shoe store in the mall. My manager, who was in his 30s, had a calendar in the back room where he counted down each day until I turned 18 and would then be “legal.” For my friend Mary, it was a store owner who asked her personal questions like whether she liked to touch herself in the bath. Though these experiences both clearly constitute sexual harassment, at the time, neither of us could bring ourselves to use those words. “He always hits on the youngest girls on staff,” I said. “He was just a socially awkward old fart,” Mary told me.
It’s not just me and Mary. It’s also the 34 women (so far) who have reported experiences of harassment, assault and event rape at the hands of of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, including model and actress Cara Delevingne, who posted on Instagram about an audition early on in her career where Weinstein had fetishized her sexuality. And it’s Jennifer Lawrence, who recently spoke about a “degrading and humiliating” experience early on in her career. And America Ferrara, who revealed she had been assaulted at the age of nine. And, honestly, it’s likely you, too, or at least someone you know. According to Statistics Canada, there were 636,000 self-reported sexual assaults in Canada in 2014. (Though numbers are likely much higher, as we know sexual assault is a notoriously under-reported crime.)
If there’s any upside to the allegations against Weinstein, it’s the major conversation about workplace sexual harassment, predatory behaviour and men in positions of power that was sparked by the New York Times‘ bombshell exposé. One thing that has come clear: while our stories vary, they are sometimes eerily similar. And the common thread throughout is our unwillingness to name it for what it is: Sexual harassment. Rapist. Predator.
Instead, we rely on euphemisms: “Ladies’ man.” “Very friendly.” “Old school.” “That’s just how he is.”
Even George Clooney, who has become more outspoken about feminist issues since marrying human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, spoke about Weinstein’s reputation for being a “dog” who hit on younger women. He condemned Weinstein’s actions as “indefensible” in that same interview, but his admission that he knew of Weinstein’s “reputation” speaks volumes.
Reframing the office perpetrator as a run-of-the-mill chauvinist gives bystanders an excuse to be apathetic. “He’s married and hits on younger women but it’s okay, he’s harmless. Nothing to see here!” Which is really easy to say when you’re not the women being targeted.
And for those of us who are harassed and assaulted, owning the label of victim takes work. Nobody likes the connotation that they are weak or defenceless. But more than that, nobody wants to really believe that people are capable of evil. We constantly accuse feminists of hating men and being “snowflakes” who live to be offended, but the truth is, women are often going out of their way to see men in a positive light. We don’t want to believe that someone is intentionally hurting us. We don’t want to believe that our work, our talents or our looks are being exploited. We don’t want to believe that our very personhood is being ignored.
So, we go into denial mode. We downplay the incidents, one by one, and tell ourselves that it wasn’t really that bad because to acknowledge the truth is too painful. As Hollywood is learning this week, denial is a very powerful force.
We also must face how women are socialized to placate and play nice. When we’re a minority in a setting, those instincts get cranked into overdrive. Women make a lot of money for Hollywood but few of them hold any positions of power. The idea that a young woman on a casting couch can easily rebuff the creepy old producer ignores how power works. Oscar Wilde taught us years ago that everything is about sex, except for sex. Sex is about power.
This is especially true of workplace sexual harassment, where the perpetrator is able to get away with being lecherous because he is often the gatekeeper to work, money and opportunity—and women who do not play along are never let into the club. So we laugh awkwardly at the comments, we freeze up or we tell ourselves, “This can’t be happening” and disassociate.
When I first started to work as an actress, i was working on a film and I received a call from Harvey Weinstein asking if I had slept with any of the women I was seen out with in the media. It was a very odd and uncomfortable call….i answered none of his questions and hurried off the phone but before I hung up, he said to me that If I was gay or decided to be with a woman especially in public that I’d never get the role of a straight woman or make it as an actress in Hollywood. A year or two later, I went to a meeting with him in the lobby of a hotel with a director about an upcoming film. The director left the meeting and Harvey asked me to stay and chat with him. As soon as we were alone he began to brag about all the actresses he had slept with and how he had made their careers and spoke about other inappropriate things of a sexual nature. He then invited me to his room. I quickly declined and asked his assistant if my car was outside. She said it wasn’t and wouldn’t be for a bit and I should go to his room. At that moment I felt very powerless and scared but didn’t want to act that way hoping that I was wrong about the situation. When I arrived I was relieved to find another woman in his room and thought immediately I was safe. He asked us to kiss and she began some sort of advances upon his direction. I swiftly got up and asked him if he knew that I could sing. And I began to sing….i thought it would make the situation better….more professional….like an audition….i was so nervous. After singing I said again that I had to leave. He walked me to the door and stood in front of it and tried to kiss me on the lips. I stopped him and managed to get out of the room. I still got the part for the film and always thought that he gave it to me because of what happened. Since then I felt awful that I did the movie. I felt like I didn’t deserve the part. I was so hesitant about speaking out….I didn’t want to hurt his family. I felt guilty as if I did something wrong. I was also terrified that this sort of thing had happened to so many women I know but no one had said anything because of fear.
That’s what happened to Delevingne, who was so thrown off by Weinstein’s behaviour that she kept trying to bring the conversation back to the supposed audition, hoping upon hopes that she could get their meeting back on track. Her thought process was, “Just keep it professional and maybe we can salvage this.” Because nobody wants to believe that they’ve been tricked. Nobody wants to feel like a fool. So we keep changing the subject, reframing the situation, imagining it happened differently.
As an advocate for sexual assault victims, I want us to see this moment as an opportunity. Let’s stop reframing. Enough with the cutesy labels. One man’s “dog” is another woman’s rapist. One person’s rumour is another person’s whispered warning. If a woman feels uncomfortable, we should trust her gut, too. If someone you work with “has a reputation,” ask yourself why.
And believe women. My god, believe us.
The Disturbingly Long List of All the Women Who Have Accused Harvey Weinstein (So Far)
Them Too: It’s Time for Men Who Sexually Assault and Harass Women to Speak Up
These Are the Worst Hollywood Reactions to the Harvey Weinstein Allegations