This Is Why Women Stay Silent About Harassment

Everyone is talking about Harvey Weinstein.

Wait. Allow me to revise that. Everyone is (finally) talking about Harvey Weinstein.

 

In a New York Times investigative report, news broke earlier this month that the Hollywood hotshot and major studio head allegedly sexually harassed dozens of women over the course of his decades-long career.

In the coming days, report after report dropped to add or expand on the accusations, including a gut-wrenching, pages-long New Yorker piece in which a reporter spoke to thirteen women accusing Weinstein of sexual misconduct — three of them claiming he forcibly assaulted or raped them.

The news seemed to shake Hollywood — the industry, entity, and ideal — to its core. Star after star came forward with their own stories of harassment and assault (many involving Weinstein, many not) and the coverage dominated the news cycle for well over a week. A third of the Weinstein Company’s all-male board resigned; Weinstein himself was fired from the company he founded.

 

But here’s the kicker. A pattern began to emerge as interview upon interview flooded the internet with reactions to the scandal: Absolutely no one was surprised.

“Women have been talking about Harvey amongst ourselves for a long time. It’s simply beyond time to have the conversation publicly,” actress Ashley Judd told the New York Times in the story that broke the news.

In the coming days, a host of other actresses would corroborate Judd’s claim. Jessica Chastain wrote in a statement she was “warned from the beginning” about Weinstein. Angelina Jolie described a “bad experience” with Weinstein early in her career, saying she then “chose never to work with him again and warn others when they did.”

 

 

It wasn’t just actresses: Dozens of Weinstein’s former employees, from top execs to lowly assistants, told the Times they knew of “inappropriate conduct” but did not confront Weinstein or report it to others. A follow-up report revealed Weinstein’s board of directors knew about it since at least 2015, but did nothing.

LA-based film producer Emily Best had strong words for The Guardian about Hollywood’s silence. “We’re all fucking complicit, and it has to stop,” she said. “The industry at large provided shelter for his bad behavior, directly and indirectly.”

 

Weinstein’s “bad behavior” was, according to just about everybody, an Open Secret.

What does “Open Secret” even mean? The phrase is inherently oxymoronic — a secret that isn’t. An elephant in the room. It is Bill Cosby, and Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly, and Woody Allen, and O.J. Simpson, and Donald Trump. Something no one dares talk about. Something everyone talks about.

Just not on the record. Not in a way that makes waves.

Society as we know it loves the Open Secret. “Oh, that?” the Open Secret asks. “Everybody already knows that. Too bad there’s nothing we can do.”

The Open Secret normalizes shitty behavior. It fosters a culture where victims wonder if they’re the problem — that, if no one else is reporting it, they must be over-reacting. It creates a world in which a powerful man targeting physically and financially vulnerable women is often, in the words of George Clooney this month, “unfortunately not a news story in our society.”

 

A boys-will-be-boys world in which we’ll whisper about a guy, but still watch his movies or listen to his music. In which we’ll condemn a man’s blatant sexual harassment and then go ahead and elect him president.

But hold the phone for a second. Silence and secrecy may have allowed toxic harassment to fester in the Weinstein case, but it would be irresponsible to blame executives and assistants and the likes of Jolie and Chastain for failing to speak up and just leave it at that.

It’s not that simple — Weinstein’s alleged behavior did not stay an “open secret” for longer than I’ve even been alive because a bunch of people sat around thinking “tee hee, let’s be complicit in allowing this scumbag to use his position to exploit vulnerable young women.”

Hardly. The “secret” hung in the air, public but still so private, because the power dynamic between Weinstein and everyone in his orbit swung spectacularly in Weinstein’s favor. Anyone who thought to accuse him would have to do so at the risk of their career and their livelihood. That’s a hell of an ask.

“I am a 28-year-old woman trying to make a living and a career. Harvey Weinstein is a 64-year-old, world famous man and this is his company,” wrote Lauren O’Connor, one of the women who settled a suit against Weinstein, in a memo obtained by the Times. “The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.”

If any of this feels familiar — or even personal — to you, that’s because it probably is. Over the weekend, the #MeToo movement went viral on Facebook and Twitter, speaking to just how pervasive workplace harassment can be. The EEOC claims one in four women has been sexually harassed in the workplace, and even the commission admits the stat is a conservative one, as up to three-quarters of all workplace harassment go unreported altogether.

 

 

And that makes sense, because the bitter truth is that reporting sexual harassment comes at a high cost. Vox reports that 75 percent (75 percent!) of women who report instances of sexual harassment at work are retaliated against for doing so, by means of job termination, demotions, or an increase of hostility.

When you’re an actress being harassed by a studio head, coming forward could mean losing parts or having the media turned against you. When you’re an average woman dealing with harassment at work, speaking up could mean losing the job (and income) you need to feed your kids. Both are terrifying prospects.

“Weinstein’s alleged behavior is the inevitable end result of a structure in which men hold all the power. So is the silence that surrounds it. As long as women are financially and professionally dependent on men, men can use that leverage to keep them quiet,” wrote Sady Doyle for Elle.

That is why we stay silent. That is why whisper networks among women exist, warning each other not to stay late or get drinks or get too close to this man or that man. We all need to work. We all need to survive.

 

 

I know this isn’t the tidy and empowering answer you were hoping to read. I wish I could raise my fist high in the air with some Girl Power™ catchphrases, challenging you to rise up and call out the harassers and abusers in your life. If you feel safe and secure enough, I implore you to do so, but the terrifying reality is that too few women do, and we can’t blame them for that.

There’s no easy fix. I couldn’t look you in the eyes and honestly tell you what to do to solve a problem as massive and societal as this. There’s no button to push, no form to fill. Instead, we have the messy and complicated task of figuring out how to dismantle age-old systems of power, so that women will never again be forced to choose between personal safety and career stability.

At the very least, I know where we can start. We can begin by promoting a culture where women feel safe enough to discuss their experiences. Believing women, full stop, when they talk about harassment or assault. Speaking loudly when we can. Whispering when we cannot. Having honest conversations with the men in our lives, the “good guys,” about what we go through and why their silence hurts. Continuing to have these discussions, share these articles, and keep the issue of harassment a part of the cultural zeitgeist.
Until talking about it isn’t seen as radical but necessary. Until open secrets aren’t secrets at all.

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