One with Heart Program Coordinator
Women are talking, and for the moment, men are listening. The conspiracy of silence could more accurately be described as a failure to listen. When I was in college I knew who the professors were who sexually harassed and had sexual relationships with female students. We all did. We knew because women told each other, warned each other, supported one another, reported harassment and assault. But the people with the power to hold the perpetrators accountable were not listening.
Every woman, young or old, I have ever talked to, has experienced grabbing, butt slapping, subtle and overt insults, sexual comments, pressure to have sex, or some other form of harassment and intimidation. These experiences are part of a continuum of violence that happen so regularly they start to seem ‘normal.’ And that is dangerous.
It is dangerous because the intolerable becomes tolerable. We tolerate a widespread climate of hostility toward women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Living in this climate is stressful, exhausting, and it changes how we feel about who we are and what is possible. It is dangerous because with each demeaning gesture or comment, with each unwanted touch, a perpetrator is one step closer to committing and justifying the next act of violence. How much further down the continuum is rape from the pussy grabbing our current President boasts about?
As a young woman supporting myself for the first time, I quickly learned that harassment in the workplace is a minefield. When I was hired as a waitress at a popular downtown club, I was warned by other women to stay away from the owner. He appeared nice, but he often tried to date new waitresses then after the first few dates became dangerous. Later, I worked as a chef at a small French restaurant. We put up with an ongoing dialogue of inappropriate sexist, homophobic “just kidding” comments from the owner’s husband. One night, he introduced me to a group of high-paying customers as his scullery maid, so I quit. Another woman who worked there wanted to do the same, but she had a young daughter to support and couldn’t afford to leave.
Who do we tell when everyone already knows? Who do we tell when the abuse comes from the top? Everyone knew the kind of man Harvey Weinstein was – and is. Many knew about the sex abuse, but even those who didn’t specifically know, knew something wasn’t right. As one employee describes it, she knew Weinstein was “a bully and a cheater,” she just didn’t know he was a predator. [i]
We might not know all the details but, if we pay attention, we intuitively know when something isn’t right. Gavin de Becker, in his book The Gift of Fear, describes intuition as our best and fastest source of information about potential danger.[ii] Intuition is our brain doing its most important job, keeping us safe. When someone is a potential threat there are often subtle cues in their body language, their comments, their behavior, that register and set off an internal alarm. Our failure to listen extends beyond our failure to listen to what others tell us. It is a failure to listen to what our own gut tells us.
David Leonhardt, in his NY Times article, The Conspiracy of Inaction on Sexual Abuse and Harassment, describes his own intuitive knowing, before there was hard evidence, that teachers in his high school were abusing students.[iii] In 2012 the truth came out. Sexual molestation had been going on at Horace Mann school for decades and administrators chose to look the other way. Leonhardt was hardly more than a kid himself, but he is now coming to terms with how different things could have been if he and others had acted on what they knew. The administrators at Horace Mann were adults with more awareness, more evidence, and more responsibility. What reckoning can absolve them of their failure to listen?
There is plenty of reckoning to be done. Stories come out every day of both hidden and blatant abuse in sports;[iv] in the highest levels of national security;[v] in the most established and respected news agencies.[vi] In the entertainment industry, Harvey Weinstein is the tip of the iceberg.[vii] All these stories have one thing in common: people knew.
Women who work in the Pentagon put up with men walking around the office in their underwear, telling them they fantasize about their bodies, watching porn on their office computer in plain view. What happens when they complain? They are laughed out of the office. They are told “This is just what special forces guys are like. Come on. Get over it. You’re lucky they haven’t done worse than that.” [viii]
What happened when Lizzy O’Leary told her supervisor that an ABC News editor had groped her breasts? She was told that she must have misunderstood because he was such a nice guy. Or later, when stationed in Louisiana to cover Hurricane Katrina and the station manager repeatedly commented on her body and told her sexual jokes? Her supervisor told there was really nothing to be done about it.
Despite this failure to listen, women continue to tell. What is at risk? Everything. Suddenly the doors to career advancement close, people see us as trouble makers, rumors spread about our sex lives. We risk losing our career, our livelihood, our reputation, our friends, our family.
In 2016 Harvey Weinstein hired several private security agencies to gather intelligence on the women who were about to go public with allegations about his harassment and abuse. He spared no expense. He hired Kroll, one of the world’s largest corporate intelligence companies, and Black Cube, an intelligence company whose operatives are drawn from elite and secretive Israeli intelligence units. His goal: to dig up material to destroy these women’s careers, reputations, and marriages; and to blackmail them into silence.[ix]
If telling is risky, so is silence. When we are attacked, particularly by someone we know, our sense of self, our confidence in our place in the world, is changed. We blame ourselves, or we try to reframe what happened to regain some feeling of control.[x] We feel shame, humiliation and fear. The ways in which we cope and the feelings we hold inside can damage our relationships, our health, our spirit. Tarana Burke started #MeToo ten years ago to create a community where women can heal. Empowerment through empathy is a process of telling, listening and understanding that we are not to blame, and we are not alone. [xi]
In the aftermath of the Weinstein scandal, #MeToo has taken off. Actress Alyssa Milano invited women to share their experiences with #MeToo to raise awareness about the magnitude of sexual harassment and abuse. Within the first 24 hours, women from more than 85 countries responded with 4.5 million posts on facebook and 1.7 million tweets. [xii]
If those of you who are listening sense anger in our voices, you better believe it. We are tired of being ignored. We are tired of the priests, teachers and coaches who molest our children being shuttled off down the road to wreak havoc on another parish, school or team. We are tired of being told there is nothing to be done about it. We are tired of the Harvey Weinsteins of the world being let off the hook to build a new life with their millions of dollars. We are appalled that a man who brags about grabbing pussy can be elected President.
And if you have any doubt about who has a story to post on #MeToo, who lives in a climate of hostility where harassment and abuse seem ‘normal’ - every single one of us.
Women have always talked about our experiences. Now we are talking to you – to all of you who have turned away. We are asking you to listen. Don’t tell us what to do. Don’t reframe what happens to us. Don’t explain, justify or rationalize our experience. Listen. Listen to us. Listen to your own intuitive awareness of what is going on around you. We don’t want your pity or your guilt. We want change. Are you ready to hear what we have to say? Are you ready and willing to take the risks, professionally and personally, that women take when we tell? That is what we are asking for. Nothing more and nothing less.
[i] Farrow, Ronan. “Harvey Weinstein’s Army of Spies.” The New Yorker, November 6, 2017.
[ii] De Becker, Gavin. (1997) The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence. Toronto, Canada: Little, Brown and Company.
[iii] Leonhardt, David. “The Conspiracy of Inaction on Sexual Abuse and Harassment.” The New York Times, November 5, 2017.
[iv] Nyad, Diane. “My Life After Sexual Assault.” The New York Times, November 9, 2017.
[v] Glasser, Susan B. “Sexism on America’s Front Lines.” Politico Magazine, November 6, 2017.
[vi] O’Leary, Lizzy. “The Things I Shrugged Off Then Horrify Me Now”. The Cut, November 3, 2017.
Dowd, Maureen. “Harvey Weinstein, Hollywood’s Oldest Horror Story.” The New York Times, Sunday Review, Oct. 14, 2017.
[viii] Glasser, Susan B. “Sexism on America’s Front Lines.” Politico Magazine, November 6, 2017.
[ix] Farrow, Ronan. “Harvey Weinstein’s Army of Spies.” The New Yorker, November 6, 2017.
[x] Tolentino, Jia. “How Men Like Harvey Weinstein Implicate Their Victims in Their Acts.” The New Yorker, Oct. 11, 2017.
[xi] Tarana Burke #metoo. YouTube, October 21, 2017.
[xii] Radu, Sintia. “How MeToo Has Awoken Women Around The World.” US News Best Countries, Oct. 25, 2017.