Why didn’t she report it? Why didn’t she come forward sooner? Why did she stay silent? These are the questions that are inevitably raised in response to survivors making accusations of sexual harassment and assault. Women are interrogated for speaking out and for keeping quiet, grilled for ulterior motives and personal details. But the question we should be asking is: Why did this man think he could get away with it?
In the latest scandal, men in Hollywood have denounced Weinstein as one bad egg, claiming they had no idea of his repeated crimes. “The Weinstein Company’s Board of Representatives… are shocked and dismayed by the recently emerged allegations of extreme sexual misconduct and sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein… These allegations come as an utter surprise to the Board,” reads a statement from the company that Weinstein co-chaired with his brother. Weinstein has now been fired, but only since the wave of allegations became too large to ignore.
Actor Rose McGowan has been bravely leading the charge against those who would protect Weinstein, after settling her own lawsuit against him in 1997. In a particularly representative exchange, she called out brothers Ben and Casey Affleck. Affleck has said he is “angry” about the revelations, but McGowan wasn’t buying it. “‘GODDAMNIT! I TOLD HIM TO STOP DOING THAT’ you said that to my face. The press cons I was made to go to after assault. You lie,” she tweeted at Affleck, implying he previously knew about Weinstein’s behaviour. Meanwhile, Casey Affleck has faced accusations of his own, with two women making sexual harassment allegations againstt him in settled lawsuits from 2010.
The thing is, women often do speak out. But the media and those close to the abuser refuse to listen. It is hard to believe that these allegations could accumulate over decades without anyone knowing. The more likely scenario is that people knew, and did nothing. So is it any wonder that other survivors feel ignored and discouraged from talking about such a traumatic event? Shame, fear of personal and professional consequences and a desire to move on are all understandable motivations for keeping quiet. Survivors who do not speak about their abuse are not to blame for the fact that it happened.
Rape culture means that sexual harassment and assault is, if not tolerated, tacitly accepted and swept under the rug. We have seen this time and time again with powerful men: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and even President Donald Trump to name the most recent examples. New claims from actor Terry Crews that a “high level Hollywood executive” groped him at a function reinforce the fact that this problem, while gendered, is also related to race and class, and stems from those with power using it to get what they want. Crews did not speak out for fear of negative press coverage and professional consequences due to his identity as a black man in Hollywood.
Studies have shown that bystander intervention is an effective tool when it comes to reducing deaths from drunken driving, and it is believed to have a similar effect on sexual harassment and assault. Both men and women can be bystanders, but, particularly in the case of sexual impropriety committed by other men, men are often able to speak out without facing the same negative repercussions women do. When men call out their friends, acquaintances and colleagues, the abusers lose the thing they value most: their social power.
The ideal result from these seemingly-endless revelations would be that exploitative people like Harvey Weinstein stop taking advantage of others. He has allegedly committed these crimes alone, and he should face the repercussions. However, multiple people around him enabled and condoned his behaviour. Without them, he would have been denounced much sooner. These witnesses and bystanders have the to power to either prevent sexual harassment and abuse from continuing, or turn a blind eye. So why do powerful men stay silent?
Image still taken from Jawbreaker
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Molly McLaughlin is a travel and culture writer currently based in Mexico City. Her work has appeared in publications including Lonely Planet, Refinery29 and Ms. Magazine. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @mollysgmcl.