It's So Simple.
By Nicole Chan
By the time you read these words there will be another person’s name in the papers. Another assailant. Another victim. Another assault. It seems like with every refresh of a news page, numbers of powerful men throughout various industries are being spoken out against for sexual misconduct—some stories reaching back decades.
While cases of sexual assault occur frequently in news cycles, the public turning point seemed to happen in early October when three female journalists at the New York Times published an investigative piece where, with the bravery of a handful of actresses, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was revealed to have been a rampant sexual assailant for the past twenty years. Legally more than a dozen sexual assault cases over the years, the film executive at Weinstein Company and Miramax, had forced himself onto dozens of actresses, some as well known as Lupita Nyong'o, Angelina Jolie, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Over the past few months, Weinstein’s victim list has only grown, and one by one men in Hollywood have been met with similar accusations. Stories dating back decades ago, stories that victims have tried their best to emotionally ignore, often guilted by their own success or fear, have been circulating around the internet, detailing disturbing situations. Situations such as producers and actors bringing their victims into private hotel rooms where the assailants asked them for massages, masturbated in front of them, forcefully kissed them, demanded oral sex, and in some cases raped their victims. The physical inability to do anything about it and the horror of publicly outing someone who could make or break your career had silenced these women for years—until now.
Disturbingly, Weinstein has voiced very little remorse about his actions. He has begged to be kept on the boards of his companies; images have surfaced of him being dropped off at sex rehab with his middle fingers raised to the paparazzi as well as dining at nice restaurants. Pleading instability and addiction, Weinstein concocts cop outs to justify the pain he has inflicted upon these women as if a change in scenery and a couple weeks in therapy can absolve him of twenty plus years of sexually assaulting dozens of women.
Unfortunately, the film industry is in no way an isolated community in these horrific offenses. The music, theater, fashion, sporting, comedy, and art industries are starting to turn inwardly and reveal hushed stories of sexual assault and specific perpetrators. Connecting these industries is the power dynamic between employer and employee as well as the superficial emphasis on presentation, where looks and beauty make up the fundamentals of success and the overwhelming competitiveness of an industry is often decided entirely by men. After all, there was a pattern to Weinstein’s abuses: targeting actresses at the start of their careers when he still felt he held the future of their careers in the palm of his hands.
While the accounts of these well-known actresses and models have generated the most impact and publicity, what's more worrying is the potential number of sexual assault cases experienced by those who lack the spotlight - the assistants to these producers and directors, the 15 year-old models sent to test shoots alone, vulnerable yet often under direction to do whatever it takes to get a foot in the industry.
Recently model and activist Cameron Russell has taken this on, inviting people in the fashion industry to message her about their experiences regarding sexual assault. Russell posts each of the stories to her public Instagram, many of which detail the disturbing injustices of starting in the modeling industry. For example, many recall being young and hopeful, moving to New York with dreams of starting a career in modeling. Instead, however, they were sent to photographer’s personal apartments and pressured into naked photographs or unwanted physical advances. Nervous and unsure about the parameters of their jobs, they complied and stayed silent for fear of ruining their careers.
The aftershocks of these small but powerful movements are paying off in moving ways. Russell has inspired many other prominent creatives to call attention to sexual misconduct in the workplace by using the hashtag #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse. Furthermore, Condé Nast, the American media company that produces publications such as Vogue, GQ, and Vanity Fair, recently cut all ties to racy, infamous fashion photographer Terry Richardson. Despite this action being a decade overdue, considering Richardson’s multiple assault accusations, the action has created a push to publicly condemn the predatory nature of fashion photographers towards models.
Then there’s the issue of the words of the accused. Reading Louis CK’s letter of guilt last week after five women came forward about him masturbating in front of them, his entitlement and cowardice was clear. He wrote, “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true... I learned yesterday the extent to which I left these women who admired me feeling badly about themselves and cautious around other men who would never have put them in that position.” Reading his empty apology, there was this strange sense that he was being ironic. As if acknowledging that the assault he inflicted upon these women was the basis for his successful career in comedy. People had laughed at his crude jokes, praised, and even paid for them, and if these victims hadn’t spoken out, he might have gotten to sell out seven more shows at Madison Square Garden.
The terrifying extent of these cases begs the questions: is the inclusion of celebrity in these cases the main reason why sexual assault has resurfaced as a public issue almost a year after the country elected an open misogynist to head of state? What is the social set up within which the horrors that Weinstein, Richardson, C.K., and sadly so many others have committed continue to be covered up by so many people?
The answer to this is painfully simple: men cannot see women’s bodies as a reflection of their own desires. Our bodies our ours until you hear the word “yes.” We aren’t just fighting against assault and rape, we are fighting against a gendered system of physical entitlement, the accepted understanding of men as predators and women as prey, the idea that women’s bodies are invitation enough. Holding perpetrators of sexual assault accountable has to stretch beyond these celebrity stories and into our night clubs, college parties, dating apps, and daily encounters on the street.
Microaggressions or outright violence towards female bodies occur with such frequency that they have been normalized. Women have always had to fight to be taken seriously in roles dominated by men or have had to thank men for the success that they have personally earned. Those pressures alone work as silencers in cases like this and the more we continue to victim blame, demanding consideration for clothing choices and appearance, the more we empower these men.
In what feels like an endless feed of painful news, I take comfort in knowing that silence is read like compliance and that the public demands explanations. The men who worked with and stayed loyal to men like Weinstein, even if void of their own accusations, are being heavily scrutinized, for their unwillingness to speak up is a tacit form of approval. Gendered mistreatment will not be solved without male and female voices working together.
There’s a weight to writing about something that feels as if it doesn’t deserve anymore explanation. But even in the midst of so much violence, words have proved to be a profound communicator. It was the words of the fearless women who investigated and exposed Weinstein for the monster that he is and the stories of brave victims that are revealing the severity of the issue. Words have forced so many predators into the spotlight and pushed people to consider that violence upon the female body aren't isolated events but a daily issue in almost any line of work.
Breaking this cycle has to mean breaking the privilege over the minds and bodies of women that men are raised to naturalize. Michelle Obama spoke to this at the Obama Foundation in Chicago where she said, “We love our boys, and we raise our girls.” Change will come once we start questioning the system with which we prop up men and teach women to work around their rules. It will take understanding that these cases aren’t scandalous events to be fixated on now and be forgotten about, but the last straw. Demanding that those who we elect to office exercise respect and decency, before giving them the power to write laws and shape our society. Understanding that there’s a weight to living in any female body because to be in it is to live defensively. Finally to be working towards a day where the words of this article aren’t trying to catch up to the painful stories echoing from all sides, but can remain a point in history where our collective anger and disbelief can move us forward.
Originally published 12/11/17