It’s dated. It’s disgusting. It also works. Shaming and destroying the credibility of victims of sexual assault and harassment is a trope as old and tired as the casting couch. So, it’s no accident that Lisa Bloom, an attorney known for representing female victims, advised serial predator, Harvey Weinstein, to do just that. Through her years of experience, Bloom learned how emotionally and psychologically devastating it is for women who have already suffered a sexual assault to face a character assault.
It is a rare woman who has never been harassed in her professional life. One in six of those women has also been sexually assaulted. Every 98 seconds, an American is raped; 9 in 10 are women. With 99 out of every 100 men accused walking free, it’s no wonder that only three in ten rapes are reported to police. With statistics like these, it seems counterintuitive that women are often all too eager to join in slut-shaming and victim blaming. Why did the actress agree to a meeting in Weinstein’s room? Another woman sleeping her way to the top. If it really happened, why didn’t she report it or why did it take her so long? These are just variations on what was she wearing, why did she go there alone, or how much did she have to drink?
The inverse of these questions paint a false picture of how women can ensure their own safety. If those actions and behaviors create unsafe situations, then avoiding them means that I will be safe. It means that we can teach our daughters and sisters how to be safe. This phenomenon becomes all the more intense if a woman knows the man accused. The need to believe we understand and can trust the men close to us is intense. Every woman wants to believe that she can spot a predator by his appearance, actions, or words. The truth is, they look just like everyone else and that is terrifying when we allow ourselves consider it.
Whether due to a lack of self-awareness, or an intentional attempt at camouflage, women learn time and again that men who espouse a deep respect for women are no safer. Weinstein was a vocal supporter of the first female nominee for president and a Democratic donor with deep pockets. He also operated in an insular world dominated by powerful men and created a company that in 2017 still has an all-male board of directors. From our 42nd president to men within our families and communities, this value-signaling helps create a sense of security and skews our instinctual predator-detection.
I was assaulted by a male executive who I thought I could trust. When I came forward, his defenders reached for the tried and true playbook: I wanted it, enjoyed it, should be ashamed it happened and fear that others would find out. Predators use various forms of psychological, physical, and often financial power to victimize women. When an assailant uses his professional position as the source of that power, employers often utilize the company’s substantial financial and legal resources to overpower the victim a second time.
Many companies see pay-outs to victims as a cost of doing business and place greater value on the predator than the women he has harmed. The flaw in this logic is that offenders are rarely caught the first time or stop after just one incident. Other businesses believe they are protecting shareholders or their corporate image… that is, until the story breaks and is no longer just about the offense, but the efforts to conceal that allowed it to continue. It’s immoral. It’s also just bad business. Companies can either weather the storm while holding the perpetrator to account and standing in support of the victim, or roll the dice that the truth will never come out. Fortunately, the latter is looking more and more often like a bad bet.
Even when an agreement is reached with the victim, non-disclosure agreements are nearly uniformly required. This was true for me, at least eight alleged victims of Weinstein, and numerous women harassed and assaulted by an array of men at Fox News. Ultimately, NDAs protect and perpetuate a culture that victimizes women and attempts to silence those who find the strength to come forward. The New York Times has called for the eight women in their Weinstein story be released from their NDAs. I would go a step further and call for all victims of sexual harassment and abuse to be released from these agreements. Our voices need to be heard.
The pain victims go through often follow predictable patterns. For some, the sense of aloneness and shame is powerful. I was able to hold my assailant to account, and yet I still fell into an exhausting, toxic and not-unusual mental exercise of trying to determine how to prevent a future assault. If I could find my mistake, the missed signal, the tell I didn’t spot, then I could keep myself safe. I, alone, could ensure that it would never happen again. It was a struggle between self-recrimination and accepting that the mistake just wasn’t there to be found. The support I received in those low moments from strong women who knew us both was invaluable.
It is not comfortable for women to come to terms with the fact that, while risk can be mitigated, it cannot be eliminated. The danger is external and largely beyond any woman’s control; the perpetrator is always entirely responsible for an assault or harassment. Always. And although we know that the vast majority of men in our lives and communities are good and safe, an end to sexual assault will only come when more of these good men become vocal allies. For today, the reality is that an assumption of risk is inherent to being a woman.
We must do better supporting one another and not succumb to the self-congratulatory pronouncements that we wouldn’t be so stupid as to put ourselves in “x” situation. This manifestation of women’s desire to feel safe gives predators an easy pass and perpetuates the undercurrent that becoming a victim is the result of a woman’s poor judgment. Every woman who has ever felt her heart pound in a parking garage, when unexpectedly alone with an aggressive male colleague, or during a night time walk between classes knows that we’ve all been in those situations. We’re in those situations because we move through the world. We go to our jobs, shop, walk in public, go to school, travel, and for too many women, it’s because they go home. It is up to each of us to place fault and shame squarely and unflinchingly where they belong: the perpetrators and their enablers. Women’s right to move through our daily lives unmolested, verbally or physically, must be absolute. To create that world, women who insist predators be held to account must be greeted with praise and support and held up as examples of courage for our sons and daughters.