As the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal continues to unfold, there are many women out there who are reliving their own horrors of harassment and assault, either publicly or privately. Sexual harassment and assault are no joke, and are, unfortunately, quite common.
But the Weinstein scandal isn’t the only time in the past 12 months that a high-profile sexual harassment/assault scandal has forced women to relive their own traumas. Trump’s election did that, too, and possibly in a worse way. It told us that people in power really don’t care if someone has a history of harming people so long as he furthers their agenda. It told us that a man can brag about assaulting women, and not enough people are willing to fully condemn him for that to keep him from becoming the most powerful man in the country, especially if he denies that he ever hurt anyone. That, in turn, reinforced the reasons behind why we stay silent so often.
Trump fans keep hammering away at us over Harvey Weinstein, who admitted to harassing and assaulting women. They’re upset that we keep condemning Trump, who hasn’t admitted it (Newsflash: He did, rather loudly and it was taped). To them, it seems a man is only guilty if he admits it, and Trump is vehemently denying it so he’s obviously innocent. My answer to them: Harvey Weinstein lost his company and an awful lot else. He hasn’t been elevated. He’s been torn down, including by increasing numbers of Democrats. He deserves far worse, but at least he hasn’t been elevated.
Trump? The people raking us over the coals about Weinstein are the exact people who elevated another serial abuser to the highest office in the land. That’s more traumatic for many of us because it means we’re still fighting this battle alone. It means there’s still no justice for us.
Think it’s uncommon, and women are just trying to get their 15 minutes of fame off of Trump, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Weinstein, Bill Cosby, etc.? Why else would they stay silent until it could get them in the news, then? It’s not uncommon at all, and it’s very common to remain silent. Writing in The Village Voice, Kelsey McKinney says that almost every woman she knows has been a victim of sexual assault, and most keep it quiet. She said:
“There’s no right way to report a sexual assault because every way is wrong. Tell no one, and your assaulter continues his life scot-free. Tell the police, and face an invasive physical exam followed by even more invasive questions, and still maybe no one believes you. Tell your professor, and you’ll get a mediation session. Tell HR, and maybe your abuser gets a rebuke and stares at you across the boardroom table for longer. Tell a reporter, and you might receive some support but eventually the tide will turn, and by the time you’re strong enough to weather it, the statute of limitations might be up. This is why the whispers exist. To hopefully, if your abuser abuses enough, give you an army.” [emphasis mine]
Here’s what this kind of thing–particularly in the workplace–can look like:
Things can actually start out pretty well
Years ago, not too long after I started a new job, I met a particular manager who, at first, seemed nice, cheerful, maybe a good guy to work with. He was also new there, and like me, he was feeling his way.
But the budding rapport over being new didn’t last. It was only a few months before he started telling me how beautiful I was, how he loved the way my clothes fit, how gorgeous my hair was. He openly stared at me in meetings, in lobbies, and anywhere else we happened to be at the same time. I was uncomfortable but I didn’t say anything because the fact that I didn’t work all that closely with him at the time meant I didn’t have to put up with it very much. It was, at best, an annoyance.
Besides that, I was afraid of damaging other developing work relationships by overreacting. The company I worked for, and the department I worked in, were very male-dominated. I didn’t want to be seen as “that woman.” You know who “that woman” is: She’s the vindictive soap opera diva who tries to ruin a man’s career and life because he pissed her off somehow. She’s the stereotypical man-hating workplace woman. It’s a powerful stereotype that we’re taught to avoid at any cost.
Then something changes
It wasn’t too hard to just quietly tolerate the harassment when I didn’t have to work with him very much. When I got a promotion, however, that changed. Suddenly, I had to work very closely with him. I had to spend a ton of time with him, and he stepped things up. One recurring situation was that, if I went to his office with a question, I had to pay a price for him to answer it. That price was performing an action, like flipping my hair, slowly turning around so he could see all of me, etc., and then he’d give me an answer.
He would also come to my office, comment on my outfit, and then tell me how hot I must look when I went home in the evening and changed, especially if I changed the way he thought I did (which was taking off my slacks or skirt and wandering around the house in just my top).
He catcalled me in the main lobby, in front of other employees. And he humiliated other male employees when they’d walk into his office while I was in there, by telling them to “go ahead and look at her, you know that’s really why you’re here.”
You reach a breaking point, and you have two options left
I put up with that for more than a year before I finally broke down, called my own boss one day in tears, gave him a quick run-down of the situation, and asked him what to do. At this point, I was terrified. I hated coming into work, I was trying to interact with my harasser less and less (and failing), and I was increasingly uncomfortable with all my male co-workers. My boss was a man, too, and I didn’t know if I could trust him, but I didn’t know who else to go to. It took an awful lot for me to tell him, and all the while, I was scared to death he was going to ask me for details, or even interrogate me before deciding if it was worth reporting to HR. To his credit, he did none of that, and was very professional about it. He quickly put me in touch with the right person in HR, and I filed a formal complaint.
I wish I could say that I felt good reporting my harasser. I wish I could tell other women to stand strong, to do what I did, and make a difference. It’s true we need to speak out more, but there are very good reasons why we don’t.
You’re asked why you didn’t speak out before – The aftermath can be worse than the harassment itself
Filing that complaint was the worst mistake I made at that job. This is why women get scared: Not only was I interrogated over my own behavior, including whether or not I could think of any way I’d encouraged him, asking if I ever thought maybe I needed to reevaluate things like how I dressed for work, all the usual stuff; I was asked why I hadn’t said anything sooner. Because I was scared to? Or maybe because I’d internalized it and already felt it was all my fault, and so couldn’t bring myself to come forward sooner. It feels wrong to blame someone else for a situation you brought on yourself, you know? And in a society that’s rife with victim-blaming, that teaches women we’re responsible for the feelings, urges, and behavior of men, we take that feeling very seriously. It makes it damn near impossible to come forward when we should.
Worse: I named several witnesses to my harasser’s behavior in my statement, and every one of them threw me under the bus. Not one of them confirmed anything I said. One of them later came to me and said that, when HR called him in, he knew that they were asking him about me. They were all my harasser’s subordinates, and he said they worked under severe intimidation. They were afraid that if they backed me up, he would find out about it and they would lose their jobs. So they protected themselves, and hung me out to dry.
In other words, I was alone. I learned that I could trust absolutely nobody there.
I also found out that they told him who’d complained, which opened the door to massive problems and retaliation. After all was said and done, and HR had spoken with me and closed the case, I sat in my car and cried, and cried, and cried, not knowing how I was going to come in to work tomorrow. So really, why didn’t I speak out? I can’t imagine.
Working relationships are damaged in a way you can’t fix
I became the stereotype I’d tried so hard to avoid. The working relationships I had with many of the men there changed – they were walking on eggshells around me. It was devastating for me.
The manager who harassed me never outright threatened me or my job, but he was not above letting everyone know that he was permanently angry with me, and creating a hostile working environment for me. One day, someone pulled me aside and asked me what I’d done to him, because he was “out to get me.” I don’t know if my harasser had actually said something, or if that was just an observation, but that made me contact HR again.
Subsequent meetings with authorities–any authorities–are awful
In that next, and last, meeting with HR, I was told I was being oversensitive, and to calm down. And yes, it was a male manager who said these things. I actually wondered, briefly, if I could get more empathy from a block of ice than I was getting from him. My HR rep was only there to take notes.
I was told that my harasser wasn’t my boss, so he couldn’t fire me, demote me, transfer me, discipline me, or anything like that, and that if he wasn’t threatening me in some way, then I didn’t have a case. I was once again told to calm down, and that he and HR would go talk to him about how he treated “subordinates,” and that was all they could do for me.
Sometimes, we can’t even find support outside of work
At this point, I didn’t have much support from the very few people outside of work who knew about this either. I couldn’t talk about it with very many people because I was having serious issues with trust by then. I was also still questioning my own behavior, including whether I’d brought all of this down on myself. One person, who was very close to me, even told me that HR was, at that point, doing what they were supposed to do when allegations of harassment and retaliation were that fuzzy. He basically said, “If there’s no actual proof, then they can’t do anything. That’s the way it is.” I couldn’t even trust anyone outside of work to give me the support I needed.
I had no one.
Oftentimes, you simply fold in on yourself and give up
Outside, I pretended like everything was fine, and I just quietly tolerated things until each day was over. Inside, I tried to remain shut down as much as possible, so I wouldn’t have to deal with everything I was feeling. Then I’d cry all the way home on some days. Other days, I just stewed. The whole time, I felt trapped. There was nobody I could talk to, nobody who would help me, and nowhere I could go. I started looking for a new job without much luck because of the poor jobs market back then.
Ultimately, I did quit – nearly a year later, and two years after I got the promotion that put me into that terrible situation with a man I then knew to be a serial harasser and abuser. I lied to everyone about why I was leaving. I told them I’d been offered a better job that paid very nicely, and I felt I would be a fool not to take it. The truth was that I had become a freelance writer and editor, scrounging up temporary gigs and short-term projects, and making what amounted to far less than minimum wage. But I couldn’t stay at that job anymore, and something was better than nothing.
I lied because I didn’t want to be told to try working with HR again, or to just transfer to a different department where I didn’t have to work with my harasser anymore. I lied because I knew I would just be forced to continue shouldering the blame for what had happened to me.
I could have sued the company, I suppose, or contacted the EEOC, but I was so worn down, and so tired, and so alone that, when I made the decision to leave, I just wanted to be gone. I just wanted it to be over. I could not trust that someone, somewhere in the company or outside of it, might figure it out and give me some real help.
My wounds have yet to heal
It’s been five years since I left, and I still bear the scars, and they still feel pretty fresh at times. That was never more apparent than with how I felt after Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape came out, and then again the night that Trump was elected to the White House. The dark cloud that lay over me while I was being harassed came back, and I felt small, scared and alone again.
My story is not uncommon. In fact, my story is extremely common. And there are women out there who pretend to side with us, but actually side with those who would deny us justice, making it ever worse. Dana Loesch, a spokesperson for the NRA, said in response to the Weinstein scandal:
Talking about grabbing vaginas and grabbing vaginas are two different things. One is disgusting, one is illegal. This isn’t rocket science.
— Dana Loesch (@DLoesch) October 10, 2017
Yes, she’s been condemning Weinstein too, but she’s defending a man who bragged about kissing women without their consent, and claimed women let him do anything, including “grab they by the pussy” because he was a star. Several women came out against Trump after that tape came out, but what we’re hearing from women like Loesch is what we’re hearing from all over the right: “The left wants to condemn Trump but is giving Weinstein a pass.” No. We’re not giving Weinstein a pass any more than we’re giving Trump a pass. We’re saying that elevating a man like Trump is what gives men like Weinstein a pass. Every time someone comes forward, and “the dam breaks,” as Kelsey McKinney puts it, we hope that maybe this time, this time, there will be justice:
“But every time a dam breaks, every time a name like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Woody Allen or R. Kelly or Bill O’Reilly or Donald Trump leaks through that wall and into the public, there is a moment of hope that maybe something will be done. That there won’t be a hung jury, or a settlement, or a mistrial, or a new album, or the oath of office as president of the United States of America. That hope hangs in the air, dangling for a second in front of all of us who already knew. We’ve already felt the disgust, processed our shock, moved from the innocence of believing people to be good long ago. We see that shining hope and wait, because someone will pull it back eventually and swing it until it hits us in the face.”
That’s the truth. When we speak up, we’re forcibly silenced, like Rose McGowan getting suspended from Twitter for calling Weinstein a rapist. Or Trump threatening to sue all his accusers for slander. For me, I’m just another voice in the crowd. It takes guts to put this out there. It takes guts to speak out. And people need to put us in our place for doing so, instead of listening and taking real action, which is to stop accepting and defending this behavior, which includes condemning and punishing everyone guilty of it. Even when he’s President of the United States.
Featured image via Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company