‘There are Harveys in every walk of life’
LET’S talk about the Harveys, sexual predators who can be found in every industry – bullying, cajoling, exploiting. It’s tolerated because such men are powerful and successful, and because the people who see it happening think it’s a tradeoff. The women involved benefit from the transaction, onlookers convince themselves.
Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour is not unusual. Every line of business has its Harveys: media, politics, law, banking, academia. You name it. They prey on young employees over whom they have control: hiring and firing powers, the ability to offer – or withhold – promotion.
The casting couch casts a long shadow. Actors hoping for a shot at stardom aren’t the only ones vulnerable to sexual coercion. It’s an unwelcome workplace element which women have always been obliged to deal with, but it’s helpful that Weinstein’s exposé has broadened the conversation.
Is there a woman reading this article who hasn’t had a Harvey experience at least once in her life? I’d be surprised. Inappropriate sexual advances from a boss or someone in a position to help your career are almost a rite of passage. Those moves are packaged in a not-so-subtle combination: ‘you treat me nice and I’ll treat you nice’ juxtaposed against ‘say no and I’ll see you get your comeuppance’.
Women are pressurised into meeting a senior colleague or manager outside the workplace for drinks or a meal, imagining it’s business or a networking opportunity. Dismayed, they come to realise he regards it differently. Already, simply by being there, they feel naïve, compromised, culpable.
Sexual harassment of junior employees has never been restricted to Hollywood. A worldwide phenomenon, it seeps into every industry. Harveys thrive everywhere someone can abuse power without the risk of blowback. That’s the key. Abusers act with impunity.
It happened to me at university as a teenager, when one of my lecturers tried to date me in the first term. He suggested we meet on a Saturday afternoon off campus and I agreed, believing I was somehow obliged to go. He took me for a drive, photographed and flattered me. When he tried to kiss me, I realised I was out of my depth and said I had to be elsewhere. I turned down subsequent invitations, hid in stairwells if I spotted him approaching. But I was frightened by the situation and felt I had put myself in the wrong. So I said nothing. No doubt, he moved on to another first-year student.
It happened again as a 20-year-old doing holiday work in an office, when the owner of the company invited me to a party and urged me to “take very good care” of his brother who liked me, apparently. I’d have a great future with the business, he said.
It happened in London when I was a young journalist, offered a job by a national newspaper editor if I’d go to a hotel room with him. All of the young female reporters took attempts to grope or proposition us for granted – we disliked it, but were at a loss regarding how to complain without torpedoing our careers.
It stopped when I was in my late twenties – not because I was more adept at fending off unwanted advances, as I imagined at the time, but because I was by now too old. Also, I had started becoming established.
Predatory men zoom in on young, inexperienced women; on people at the start of their careers, anxious about their ability to stay on the ladder, let alone progress to the next rung.
Harveys do it repeatedly because they get away with it. Other bosses in their sphere collude just by saying it’s not their business, sometimes presuming it’s a bargain the woman is willing to negotiate. A win-win situation for two ‘consenting’ adults as opposed to being a case of power dynamics, where young staff members are placed in situations they struggle to handle.
This still-prevalent idea that when a woman says ‘No’ she means ‘Yes’ is another factor.
Implied consent is foisted on the woman by being with the man outside the workplace – whether in Weinstein’s hotel room (often he tricked his targets into going there), or by me climbing into that lecturer’s car as a teenager. The location is used by the aggressor to make the woman somehow complicit.
And while Weinstein may be disgraced, there are plenty more Harveys where he sprang from – men for whom normal standards of decency have been suspended because they are at the top of some heap or other. Some may be quaking now, but others must be trusting to the sense of outrage fading and the status quo resuming.
AFTER all, already some of Weinstein’s victims are being held culpable. Questions are surfacing about why they didn’t blow the whistle on him. As though it was simply a case of making a complaint and the problem would vanish. Young women stay silent because they expect repercussions against them and not against the boss abuser. Consider Weinstein’s board – its members knew settlements had been made, but only sacked him when commercial pressures set up a clamour.
As for the women who took a pay-off – why are they deemed partially blameworthy in some quarters? They were placed in a difficult situation. Perhaps they feared judgment if they told their stories. Besides, they were required to sign gagging agreements in return for a settlement.
Predatory men zoom in on young, inexperienced women at the start of their careers, anxious about their ability to stay on the ladder
What’s needed is to foster a culture of accountability – that’s the best deterrent against sexual harassment in the workplace. Engaging in a more open public conversation is part and parcel of creating that environment.
Women are increasingly willing to speak out, thanks to factors including confidence and culture. In general, however, a pattern of dishonesty surrounds our attitudes to sexual manipulation.
The temptation to suggest Harveyism is symptomatic mainly of Hollywood behaviour feeds into such double-dealing. (Oh well, Tinsel Town operates by a different set of rules – who’s surprised when young actors are treated as if they belong to a harem?)
That lets all the other Harveys off the hook. Sexual misconduct is not a Hollywood problem, not is it a woman’s problem. It’s a problem for society.
Tacit acceptance of such grubby conduct cleared the way for Donald Trump to become the world’s most powerful man.
Remember that recording? “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything,” boasted Trump. He was elected president shortly after the recording was made public.
Regrettably, Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour is not unusual.