About how they wondered if it had been their fault they were raped.
About how practically no one wanted to believe they had been raped and chose to think they had somehow “asked for it.”
About how they were dissuaded from going public with their ordeal.
About how their careers were stunted, their futures arrested.
About how their rapists remained at large and unscathed, suffering no consequences for their actions.
About how they felt broken, powerless, despairing, dehumanized, and silenced.
About how they were determined to speak up and never be silenced again.
At the end of the session, I wanted to thank these two women for being so brave. Because it does take courage to come out publicly about an experience as harrowing and traumatic as being raped. Perhaps I should have singled out their bravery, but—and I may be mistaken in thinking so—a part of me felt it would be patronizing to do so. They were brave, no doubt, but they shouldn’t have to be brave. Instead, we as a society should be indignant on their behalf that rape culture exists and excuses men who rape, and even lionizes them. We should be condemning these men so that they suffer and are prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced for what they did to the women they raped. Bravery should not be required of these women, or indeed, all women. But decency and respect must be required of all men (and everyone who enables them), along with the understanding that, as Joe Biden said, “the correct word for sex without consent is rape.” They need to realize that rape has nothing to do with what the victim was wearing or drinking or saying, and everything to do with a rapist raping. It’s that simple.
As more and more cases of sexual assault involving rich and powerful men come to light after being suppressed for decades—Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump and most recently, Harvey Weinstein—the complicity of the media and society at large in enabling and protecting the perpetrator of the assault while doubting and discrediting the women who come forward.
In all of these cases, the stature of the man easily dwarfed that of the woman, putting her at a clear disadvantage. The New York Times, in its explosive investigation of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged history of sexual harassment and abuse going back three decades, quoted from a memo written by former employee of Weinstein to company executives that documented her boss’ treatment of women. She described in detail the experiences of women at the company, including her own. As she said:
“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. The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.”
That, in a nutshell, is the reality of rape—and its troublesome cousins, sexual harassment and sexual abuse. It has nothing to do with desire, and everything to do with power. It capitalizes on a situation in which the power balance is so skewed in favor of the perpetrator that the person in the weaker position, usually a young woman, is trapped, with very few options at her disposal, and consent is taken away from her completely. Bill Cosby used drugs to eliminate consent from his victims; Harvey Weinstein, it appears, didn’t even have to resort to drugs or alcohol. The mere fact that he was one of Hollywood’s most powerful moguls who could make or break a star, greenlight or torpedo a movie already gave him an extraordinarily unfair advantage, even over an A-list star like Ashley Judd, who was shooting Kiss the Girls when the incident with Weinstein occurred.
As The New York Times exposé put it, “movies were also his private leverage.”
The actress has gone on the record to relate how Weinstein some 20 years ago invited her to a breakfast meeting at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. At his suite. Alarm bells went off in her head, and she ordered cereal, which she figured would arrive quickly, allowing her to leave just as quickly.
He then proceeded according to a playbook many other women have reported experiencing, too. Dressed in a bathrobe, he asked if he could give her a massage. If he could give her a shoulder rub. If she could help him pick out his clothes for the day as he led her towards a closet. If she would watch him take a shower.
“I said no, a lot of ways, a lot of times, and he always came back at me with some new ask,” she told the Times. “It was all this bargaining, this coercive bargaining.”
All throughout she was thinking, “How do I get out of the room as fast as possible without alienating Harvey Weinstein?”
And that’s Ashley Judd, ladies and gentlemen, who even then was hardly a struggling, unknown actress. And she knew that speaking out against Harvey Weinstein at that point was tantamount to professional suicide. “There’s a lot on the line,” she said, “the cachet that went with Miramax.”
What more someone with no voice, no resources and no leverage? Oh yes, we’ll call them brave and applaud their courage when they come forward. But unless we change our own attitudes towards sexual misconduct in all its forms—harassment, abuse, assault, rape—and condemn and dismantle the entrenched systems that allow the Harvey Weinsteins and the Bill Cosbys and the Woody Allens of this world to behave with impunity, in public progressive champions of women’s issues, yet privately, predatory creeps of the first order, this will keep happening with nauseating regularity.
We can’t let “you’re so brave” be the sexual abuse equivalent of “our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.