If, by now, you haven’t heard about the allegations swirling around Harvey Weinstein—one half of the hugely popular Hollywood production company co-founded with his brother—I can only assume you’ve been living under a rock. A week ago, an expose published in the New York Times first launched the initial story that Weinstein was responsible for roughly three decades of sexual harassment and assault and subsequent pay-offs in his role as a film executive. In the week since, the scandal has only continued to grow, with dozens of new stories surfacing from women who experienced Weinstein’s behavior firsthand or heard about the abuse from others.
While women like Gwenyth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie have come forward to add their voices to the mix, many other voices have risen up to ask the inevitable question of “why”: if so many people were aware of his behavior, why was nothing done about it sooner?
Of course there is a lot to be said about how women don’t report sexual crimes for fear of reprisal, cultural shame, or for fear of not being believed. In the case of a perpetrator like Weinstein, there’s also the threat of loss of employment. According to RAINN, one in six women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime, yet only about a third of these assaults are reported. One in three women say they’ve been sexually harassed at work. But that doesn’t really explain why Weinstein’s behavior was apparently so well known among so many women, while so many men have claimed to be clueless.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Of course it makes sense that women confide in other women, not men, if they’ve just been victimized by a man. It says a lot about pervasive “bro culture” and rape culture that men are left out of the loop, or in some cases, willingly turn a blind eye. But there’s another reason for it. It’s a sad truth that the very things that are supposed to help victims, like reporting to HR or filing a police report, often do more harm than good. When those routes fail, women have only each other to turn to, to help each other stay safe.
In an article for Buzzfeed, writer Anne Helen Petersen perfectly nails it when she explains that in this unfortunate reality, “whisper networks” are a major part of how women avoid predators. Stories passed on from one woman to another, from subtle hints to more explicit warnings, clue us in to the predatory men we may encounter in the world. From the moment I clicked on her article I found myself nodding, because I was thinking the same thing all along. I’ve already been there, done that in my own life.
I remember going to work at 17 or 18 and having an older female coworker pull me aside to warn me not to spend any time alone with a certain male supervisor. Later I’d be on the other side of the equation, watching complaints garner nothing for other women who felt victimized and trying to do what I could to shield younger girls who stood in the same shoes I’d worn several years prior. Is it right? No. But where other safeguards fail, sometimes women can only rely on other women to warn them, stand by them, and do what they can to protect them from predatory men who know they’ll face no formal reproval if their actions are ever reported. Speaking up often leads to retaliation or to women simply being labelled as “troublesome” or even worse.
I hope that as society slowly adjusts its attitudes that our rape culture will die off. I hope we will eventually live in a world where men who prey will face immediate condemnation and more importantly, that women will not face assault as a reality to be expected in everyday life, but as a rarity. But in the meantime, I’m not surprised that men like Weinstein prey without consequence, and I’m not surprised that so many women are aware of it. We have so few ways to fight back; our words are one of the few defenses we have left. Until things change for the better, these little whispers are one of the only ways we can protect each other from the men who would harm us.
(Photo credit: Kristina Flour)