If Harvey Weinstein’s downfall is a chilling reminder of the ways in which men can and do abuse their powers, it’s an equally effective demonstration of why their victims find it so difficult to come forward.
That these women are speaking out at all is remarkable, given that the system – heck, our culture as a whole – is stacked against them every step of the way. Let’s break it down.
Women are made to feel ashamed for not fighting hard enough
In the past couple of weeks, dozens of women have accused Weinstein of sexually harassing, assaulting, or raping them over the decades – and those are just the ones we know of. There is no telling how many more might be out there, unwilling or unable to share their stories at this point in time. (While Weinstein has apologized for his treatment of women, he has denied allegations of rape through a spokesperson.)
Some of that reluctance undoubtedly comes from a misplaced sense of shame. First from Weinstein (“You constantly question yourself — am I the one who is the problem?” said one former employee, describing his “manipulative” tactics to The New York Times) and then from a culture that tells women that they’re the ones responsible for getting attacked.
Don’t shame women who were afraid after he hurt them. Shame the man who did the repulsive acts. Make it safe for women to speak. #Weinstein
— Sarah Colonna (@sarahcolonna) October 10, 2017
“The thing with being a victim is I felt responsible,” said actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, who told The New Yorker that Weinstein had sexually assaulted her in a hotel room. “Because, if I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away. But I didn’t. And so I felt responsible.”
Her sentiments were echoed by another victim, actress Lucia Evans. “I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t want to kick him or fight him,” she recalled. “I just sort of gave up. That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”
The shame game is playing out in real time, too. While Ashley Judd, the first to go on the record about Weinstein’s harassment, has received praise, the online conversation about her is simultaneously punishing. Comments on our Facebook page at time of writing described her as a “loser” who “needs a paycheck.” On Twitter, commenters dismissed her bravery as hollow “now that she’s washed up.”
Women are threatened into silence and punished for speaking out
For many, the misplaced guilt and shame are enough to keep them from sharing their stories. But victims who do want to talk face another obstacle: the very real possibility that they’ll be punished for saying something.
Hey, it’s hard to be brave when your career is on the line. Forcing women to make impossible choices is the problem, not the choice itself.
— Liz Meriwether (@lizmeriwether) October 10, 2017
Gwyneth Paltrow told The New York Times that after Weinstein made advances on her (which she rebuffed), she told her then-boyfriend, Brad Pitt, who confronted him. Weinstein subsequently “screamed” at Paltrow, who had been set to star in Emma for Weinstein’s Miramax Films. “I thought he was going to fire me,” she said.
Other actresses voiced their suspicions that reporting Weinstein’s behavior had hurt their careers. “There may have been other factors, but I definitely felt iced out and that my rejection of Harvey had something to do with it,” said Mira Sorvino, who’d rejected Weinstein’s overtures and told a Miramax employee about it afterward.
Weinstein was known to boast about planting stories as a form of retaliation (whether against people who reported his crimes, or against people he’d deemed enemies for other reasons). And indeed, bad press had a way of springing up about people he disliked. Model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, for instance, saw stories about her past appear in the tabloids after she told police Weinstein had groped her, starting an investigation which was later closed without charges.
Dear Fellow Men,
Stand with her
Stop making excuses
Stop victim blaming#BelieveHer
— Mohamed Salih (@MohamedMOSalih) October 10, 2017
Then, of course, there are the potential legal and financial consequences of speaking out. Nondisclosure agreements and settlements made it extremely difficult for victims or colleagues to talk freely about Weinstein’s behavior, lest he take them to court. Weinstein has already threatened to sue The New York Times for reporting on these women’s accounts.
The authorities aren’t always helpful
Even after a woman decides she’s willing to risk her career, her reputation, and her financial status to report a perpetrator to the proper authorities, she may discover that the proper authorities can’t or don’t want to help.
When a 2014 incident with one employee, Emily Nestor, reached The Weinstein Company’s human resources department, nothing came of the conversation she had with company officials. Not even the apparent concern of a senior executive – Irwin Reiter, who messaged her to say he was “very sorry” about what had happened – seemed to have much effect.
Law enforcement and the legal system aren’t necessarily more effective. After Weinstein groped Ambra Battilana Gutierrez (the model mentioned above), she went to the police and cooperated with them to build a case against him. She even wore a wire so she could get a recording of Weinstein making an incriminating statement.
None of it was enough. After a two-week investigation, the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., declined to file charges against Weinstein. Today, following The New Yorker‘s damning exposé, the DA’s office issued a statement about that decision.
“While the recording is horrifying to listen to, what emerged from the audio was insufficient to prove a crime under New York law,” the statement, embedded below, reads.
We can’t know the “real” reason why Vance’s office decided not to pursue charges. Maybe the evidence really was insufficient, or maybe they were swayed by the tabloid reports impugning Gutierrez’s credibility. Perhaps the $10,000 donation Vance reportedly received from Weinstein’s lawyer had something to do with it.
Whatever their reasoning, though, the statement does a lot to explain victims’ reasoning when they decline to press charges, or fail to raise an issue with human resources, or don’t even tell their friends and colleagues about the harassment and abuse they’ve suffered.
Despite all that – despite the stigma of being harassed or assaulted or raped, the personal and professional consequences of talking about it, and the frustrating ineffectiveness of the authorities – countless women have chosen to share their stories about Weinstein and other men like him.
Now it’s on us to help finish what they started – to hold the Weinsteins of the world accountable, and to demand change from institutions that protect the abusers and punish the victims.