For far too long, there has been a conspiracy of silence about the issue of sexual and emotional abuse. Now, that has to change... By Roe McDermott.
As a film critic and a feminist, I’ve felt pressure to write and talk about the Harvey Weinstein case – the seemingly unending, still unfurling accounts of his systematic sexual harassment and abuse of women.
Many of those offering these opportunities have asked me to explore the phenomenon of sexual harassment in the workplace, and how Irish women can protect themselves in their professional lives. I’ve been involved in conversations where the message has been to tell women to look for support from employers, HR departments and employment tribunals.
The problem is, the Harvey Weinstein affair isn’t about sexual harassment in the work place. This is about misogyny, period. To limit our conversations to sexual harassment in the workplace, is to ignore the larger culture that enables and emboldens sexual abusers in every area of life – the workplace only being one facet of that.
Limiting our discussion of sexual harassment to the confines of the workplace also means that, legally and culturally, women aren’t offered support when they are sexually harassed within a very particular workplace setting.
This gap in our understanding of how to deal with sexual harassment is clear in the case of Harvey Weinstein. The women he harassed, abused and raped were not his employees; they were women in the same industry, and he was a powerful gatekeeper to opportunities.
As a successful film producer, Harvey Weinstein’s power lies in opening up opportunities for actresses. The women who managed to dodge his advances were denied these opportunities: Rose McGowan, Rosanna Arquette, Sophie Dix, Mira Sorvino, Heather Graham and Ambra Battilana Gutierrez have all spoken about how their careers were negatively impacted after refusing to have sex with Harvey Weinstein, and how he even launched public smear campaigns about some of them to further hinder their career prospects.
But if our understanding of sexual harassment is confined to relationships between employers and employees, or co-employees, addressing sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein, who withhold opportunities for advancement from those who refuse to co-operate, becomes all the more difficult, as the pathways of employment are less clear.
What the Weinstein case reveals is how vulnerable many people are to sexual harassment, and how our idea of being sexually harassed by fellow professionals needs to change. In a time when a huge amount of people’s employment comes from freelancing, start-ups, self-employment and small companies without HR departments, it’s naïve and downright negligent to believe that the so-called “proper channels” cited as handling sexual harassment cases are available to all.
AWFUL AND OUTRAGEOUS
As a journalist who has to freelance to make a living, I have experienced sexual and gendered harassment while working, that has impacted on the atmosphere of my working environment, and my professional opportunities and income.
One example of explicit sexual harassment was when I was about to interview an actor, and the director of the movie he was starring in shouted across a room of PR people and other journalists, “Roe’s a good one, be gentle with her – only use one or two fingers!”
Ideally in that situation, I would have been able to call out the two men involved and leave. However, none of the PR representatives nor journalists present said anything, so my immediate response was to feel that I would be on my own if I spoke up. Maybe no one knew what to do or say. Perhaps one brave person would have sided with me if I had.
On the other hand, complaining could have resulted in me getting left out of further interview opportunities, and thus income, and for what? There was never going to be any legal or even personal recourse against those men. The people in that room who remained silent had already suggested as much. Besides, I also had a deadline to meet and a pay-cheque dependent on me going through with the interview – a pay-cheque I badly needed – and so I carried on. That’s what people tend to do, enabling bullies to keep doing it.
But harassment and complicity can often be more insidious, and all the more pervasive and impactful for it. I was in a relationship which involved constant emotional abuse, physical threats, and unrelenting harassment. When the relationship finally imploded, I left the country, fearing his backlash, and trying to mentally process the abuse that had left me suicidal and suffering constant panic-attacks.
Upon my return, I had a very strong feeling that I was being personally and professionally ostracised. The man who abused me had convinced not only friends, but also friends who were professional contacts, that I was a liar, a drama queen, a “psycho.” My main writing gig with Hot Press was never affected and my editors in the magazine were supportive when I told them about having to change my phone number to quell his constant phone calls. But my other positions as a regular contributor on several shows across different platforms simply disappeared, because a man was able to use his social and professional capital to shut me down, to protect himself. As much as half of my income was gone, as well as many of my professional contacts, and even some of the friends in whom I had confided.
Even now, in my work life, years later, I still frequently enter rooms where other media professionals ignore me because I committed the apparently punishment-worthy crime of being abused by a man.
I don’t think they’ll ever understand how terrified I am of them. How I was made to feel like I deserved what had happened to me, like I was being punished by an entire industry. How the loss of income hugely affected my life. This month, as I prepared to move back home, after living in San Francisco, I cried myself to sleep several nights, scared and already emotionally exhausted by the thought that I might be seeing them all again, these people who – knowingly or otherwise – made my professional life a constant source of anxiety.
Needless to say, many of them are now tweeting, writing and talking about how awful and outrageous this Harvey Weinstein situation is...
HIGH PROFILE CASES
The Harvey Weinstein scandal isn’t about sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s about misogyny and complicity, writ large. It’s about society’s default disbelief of women, and our silence regarding abuse, harassment and sexism. It’s about society’s unfaltering protection of abusive men.
It’s about the fact that Harvey Weinstein didn’t stop because women said no, he didn’t stop because industry types found out, and he wasn’t punished because his friends, peers and co-workers found out. He only stopped because we found out. He only stopped because it was made public. Because his private and professional sphere did nothing – or nothing effective at any rate – to stop him.
It’s about his assistants who sent women up to his hotel room when they knew what was about to happen. His colleagues who silenced women like Rose McGowan when he told them he had raped her. His actor friends like Ben Affleck, who claim they “told him to stop doing that” – but continued to work with him, to publicly support him, to enable him, to empower him. The studio reps and executives who withheld job opportunities from actresses like Rosanna Arquette, Heather Graham and Mira Sorvino, when Harvey told them to, because they refused to sleep with him.
It’s about Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Donald Trump, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Casey Affleck; men who sexually harass and abuse women, and who remain protected, employed, powerful while their victims are silenced and ostracised.
This support isn’t just cultural; it’s economic. Fox News paid $13 million to silence O'Reilly's many accusers, and a paid out $50 million in one single year to protect the late Roger Ailes. So far, we are aware of Weinstein’s companies making payouts to at least eight women who said Weinstein sexually harassed them. Allow me to stress: while women are socially, culturally and professionally destroyed, companies literally pay millions to protect abusive men, letting them know that their abusive behaviour will be supported in every possible way.
But these high-profile cases are only the ones we hear about. We don’t hear about the sexual harassment that women in middle-to-low income jobs face on a daily basis, about how the anxiety, intimidation and wage loss effects them. We don’t hear about women who don’t have the professional support systems to take cases to HR departments, or go to the courts.
We don’t hear about the women so exhausted and defeated by abuse that they just keep their heads down during their work day, praying before they enter a room that they don’t have to face their abuser and all those who supported him.
SEXUALLY EXPLICIT COMMENTS
Sexual harassment isn’t about the workplace. It’s about misogyny and abuse, and our seemingly never-ending tolerance for it. It’s about the fact that many people will tweet and write and tut about Harvey Weinstein, but will stand by and watch abuse when it happens right in front of them.
I’m glad we’re talking about Harvey Weinstein. I’m glad his victims are finally being believed, that they may finally feel supported and believe that they did nothing wrong – they never did.
But I wonder. I wonder after all the news stories have stopped, after the hashtags have moved on, after the conversation has changed, when we’re back to talking about Donald Trump, who was still elected President after boasting that he can “grab women by the pussy.”
I wonder if people will actually step in, the next time they see someone powerful making sexually explicit comments to someone else. I wonder if, when they hear that a man is “creepy”, they’ll follow up to see what exactly that means, and who he could be hurting. I wonder if someone powerful tries to rescind jobs and opportunities from others, someone will ask why. I wonder if a woman says she was abused, people will believe her.
I wish I could hope. But right now, it’s still hard to enter rooms with my head up.
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