To me, there’s not much shocking or surprising about the actions of Harvey Weinstein. Nor is it any surprise that his systematic sexual harassment was an open secret in Hollywood.
We see this over and over with high-profile men in celebrity culture —there have been lots of American examples, but we’ve had our own Weinsteins in Canada, too: think Jian Ghomeshi and Marcel Aubut.
Celebrities get the attention, but no profession is immune to sexual abuse of power. Every one of the women friends I have canvassed in the wake of Weinstein’s unraveling has acknowledged that she has had at least one experience where a man in a position of power or strength over her has made inappropriate sexual advances, propositions and worse — often with an unstated promise of some kind of quid pro quo and veiled threats of retribution if they told. Not one of my friends made a formal complaint, and many of them never told anyone at all.
Gentlemen, I’m talking about your wives, your daughters, your sisters and your mothers. Virtually every one of us has been victim to this kind of unwanted attention.
My first such experience came when I was 12. The culprit was my Grade 7 teacher. In 1978 the lecherous proclivities of this teacher were an open secret in our elementary school. Every year he picked a few favourite girls on whom he would bestow his inappropriate attention.
Even writing this today I feel the smeared by the shame that should have been his. I go back to the many times he would send me to the gym’s smelly equipment room to gather some balls or hula hoops only to suddenly rub up behind me, ostensibly “helping” me find whatever it was I was supposed to be looking for. Or the regularity in which he placed his hands on my pubescent breasts as he “assisted” me in gymnastics moves.
The boys in our class were unwitting accomplices. They saw what was happening and were merciless in their teasing — I supposed paralyzed to speak truth to power, but unwilling to remain completely silent in view of behaviour they clearly knew was wrong. Their calling out of my teacher’s actions only exacerbated my own niggling feelings of guilty complicity.
Indeed, while his physical advances disgusted me, part of me felt special. I was flattered that this older man was paying attention to me. Besides, I wasn’t refusing his frequent offers of afterschool rides in his cool Mustang convertible — saving me the long, uphill walk home.
I still carry that guilt and shame.
I didn’t disclose what happened with that teacher for many years. I never told my parents and I didn’t seek help from another teacher or school administrator. I didn’t even talk to my girlfriends, some of whom also received his improper attentions. He’s dead now, but as far as I know he was never called to task or for what he did to me and to dozens of others. He continued to teach, eventually becoming a high school vice principal.
That teacher was my first Harvey Weinstein, but he wasn’t my last. I kept those future incidents mostly to myself, too.
Why did I stay so quiet? Why did I collude to keep these open secrets even as I matured and was better able to objectively identify these men’s actions for what they were and fear for the safety of girls and women who came behind me? It’s complicated. Certainly, there was part of me that knew I wouldn’t be believed in a society that is so quick to judge the actions and motivations of young and ambitious women, but there’s more. Essentially, these men preyed — and profited from — not only my body but also my psyche. They leveraged the underlying misgivings I already held about my character and my self-worth. In so doing they cemented some of those doubts and insecurities, making it patently clear that outing them would expose my flaws and make me all the more vulnerable.
I don’t know whether the Weinstein affair will stem the tide of certain powerful men using their positions to manipulate the bodies and minds of less powerful women, I doubt it. However, I am buoyed by the women who are no longer willing to allow these predators to rely on our silence. Women from all walks of life who have, and continue to, come forward and expose themselves by talking about their experiences — in the New Yorker and New York Times exposés, the ensuing radio call-in shows, follow-up reports and in conversations with one another. Their courage has inspired me speak my truth in the hopes that outing myself will help loosen the grip of these events and wash off some of our collective shame.