Over the last few weeks, information has disseminated through the media regarding sexual abuse allegedly committed by Hollywood giant Harvey Weinstein. It has been alleged that the former producer used his power and influence to lure women into hotel rooms in order to assault them.
Naomi Woolf, in an article for The Guardian, discussed the use of the euphemistic language employed by the media (such as “episode in a hotel room,” “experienced misconduct,” “inappropriate conduct”) to describe overtly criminal behaviour. Although these phrases are not always used in a malicious way, they are often used simply because we have become accustomed to talking about sexual abuse in this watered-down manner. The words used are similar to the phrase “collateral damage”, which describes civilian deaths in war zones. They are designed to remove meaning from the incidents mentioned. They conceal the truth of what is being referred to, and encourage those who are not familiar with the circumstances to subconsciously disconnect emotionally from it.
Language like this abounds in situations such as the Weinstein scandal. Weinstein’s lawyers got straight to work trying to obscure the significance of the alleged abuse. The New York Times quoted one of them, Lisa Bloom, as saying that Weinstein is “an old dinosaur learning new ways,” and that she had “explained to him that due to the power difference between a major studio head like him and most others in the industry, whatever his motives, some of his words and behaviours can be perceived as inappropriate, even intimidating.” Except that knowledge of their power is inarguably what spurs abusers on.
Weinstein himself echoed Bloom’s statement in a letter he sent to the New York Times, saying that, in the sixties and seventies, “all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” Poor Harvey didn’t get the memo that coercing women to have sex with him is considered wrong nowadays. So how could he have known?
In their statements, women have said that they said ‘no’ to him multiple times and that he still persisted. Some women were obviously distressed as a direct consequence of his alleged actions, crying or even hiding from him, locking themselves in bathrooms. And if this somehow failed to penetrate his moral fabric how – after multiple complaints against him, sometimes resulting in payoffs – could he not have known better? What we should hear when he says he is an old dinosaur learning new tricks, or however it is he likes to phrase it, is not that he didn’t know that it was wrong to do these things but that he could comfortably get away with it. That it was easy for him. Acceptable, even.
Predatory executives of this type treat sexual assault as a prerogative. It is a luxury they can afford. With their wealth, power, and connections, they can have any woman they want, with or without her consent. Aren’t they living the cars-money-women Hollywood dream? A dream in which women are often listed as just another coveted possession on the rich man’s wish list.
It would appear that Weinstein’s company co-ordinated payoffs for some who made allegations against him, and were aware of his behaviour when accommodating ‘meetings’ with new actresses in his hotel room. This would suggest not only a misogynistic culture of abuse, but a structured system with which to facilitate it.
The Weinstein scenarios illustrate the habitual factor behind sexual abuse: that a sexual assault is not most common in a dark alleyway, but wherever the attacker feels he or she can get away with the crime. The dark alleyway is our continued complicity. We think of assault as something outside and uncommon, when in fact it is often disturbingly close and consistent, and we must talk about it as such. Often, an attacker is someone who is already in the victim’s life, even someone he or she knows quite well. Perpetrators are frequently one of the most likable people within a community.
Weinstein may prove to be such a perpetrator. He has been known within Hollywood for supporting careers, making some reluctant to speak against him. He has set up a scholarship for female directors at USC. His company released a documentary in 2015 about on-campus sexual assault.
He joined the women’s march in Utah in January, and has helped arrange that a faculty chair at Rutger’s University be named after Gloria Steinem. Bill Cosby, similarly, hid decades-long sexual assault allegations behind a public façade of benevolence. Some might find it hard to reconcile these sides of such men with their suspected brutal actions. However, this is the nature of abuse: one hand delivers the blow, while the other hand soothes. This is what abusers thrive on. It is how they keep their victim, and how they get away with it in the eyes of the public. They are often charming and even kind.
Weinstein also attempted to push the common narrative that many powerful men accused of ‘misconduct’, and many domestic abusers in their own way, espouse – that he is a victim of his own impulses. He has said that he must “conquer [his] demons” and has booked himself in for ‘sex rehab.’
The worst thing we could do, in a situation like this, is allow the narrative to end there. There isn’t just something wrong with Harvey Weinstein, there is something wrong with society.
According to a 2014 Safe Ireland Report, 1 in 3 women have reported experiencing psychological domestic abuse, while 1 in 4 experienced physical abuse. According to the most recent SAVI report, 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime, even though rape is a heavily under-reported crime. The Rape Crisis Centre’s 2015 Report stated that 85% of perpetrators are known to the victims. Let us not see the story of Weinstein as far away in America, but all around us, every day.
As awful as the details about Weinstein’s alleged abuse are, they provide an opportunity we must not miss. The brave women who have spoken out against him are pioneers who have showed us just one way in which the mechanics of abuse can operate. These are the things we must talk about in detail, and we must keep up the conversation. If more people can recognise the behaviour of abusers, their power will eventually be neutralised.