On October 5, 2017, The New York Times released an article exposing decades of sexual abuse perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein, a well-known film producer and powerful player in Hollywood. After the article’s publication, a stream of new accusations surfaced, and journalists dug deeper, discovering a network of employees and private investigators who gathered information on victims and used non-disclosure agreements to intimidate them into silence.
The world looked on, many shocked by how sinister the story became as it deepened, others appalled that someone could get away with abuse for so long. But for survivors, each development just proves long-held truths about sexual violence.
Weinstein’s Hotel-Bathrobe-Massage Routine
The accusations against Weinstein are all hauntingly similar. Most sound like this:
Weinstein arranged a lunch meeting with the actress to discuss a role with the actress. Upon arriving, she was unexpectedly summoned to Weinstein’s room, where she found him in a bathrobe. After briefly addressing the role, he offered to give her a massage and implied that doing him sexual favors would help her career.
The hotel-bathrobe-massage ploy is seen over and over again in the accusations. With this, his trademark pattern of abuse, Weinstein strategically unsettles and isolates his victim in order to put them at a disadvantage.
First, Weinstein unsettles the victim by creating an unexpected situation, where the victim doesn’t know what will happen next. He does this by setting false pretenses for the meeting, such as inviting the victim to a “party” that only he shows up to. The abrupt changes into a bathrobe and sudden nudity serve the same purpose. Once the victim is uncertain of their situation, they’re more likely to go along with Weinstein’s advances because they don’t know what to expect otherwise.
The second goal of Weinstein’s scheme is to isolate the victim. The vast majority of accusations depict a setting where only Weinstein and the victim are present – his hotel room, a private room at a restaurant, an empty movie theatre. When Minka Kelly met with him on the condition that an assistant be present, he dismissed the assistant five minutes into the meeting.
The isolation and uncertainty Weinstein cultivates in his victims serves to make them more compliant. If we believe no one is there to help us and don’t know what will happen, we are more likely to “play nice” to avoid suffering additional harm.
Sexual Abuse is About Power
The entire purpose of Weinstein’s ploy is to remove the victim’s power while consolidating his own. As a Hollywood producer, Weinstein’s power is already evident, and so he seeks victims who are naturally subordinates to him – primarily fledgling actresses.
Weinstein’s ability to make or break an actress’s career is not enough for him. He is not satisfied with being successful, and he is not satisfied with Hollywood clout – he wants individual control over the actresses he casts. Whether he states it or implies it, Weinstein uses his position as an experienced producer to give his victims an ultimatum: do what I want and succeed, or reject me and sabotage your career. As he allegedly told Melissa Sagemiller, “Just do what I say and you can get your way.”
This statement “just do what I say” reveals the real motivation behind sexual assault. Attackers aren’t seeking sexual pleasure or even sadistic gratification. They want power. Sexual assault is an act that physically violates another against their will. In the minds of the attacker, rape is a struggle which they have “won,” and that “victory” indicates that they are more powerful than the victim.
This is part of why so many murderers have histories of domestic violence, and why sexual violence is often a component of serial killings. Violence of any kind is a power struggle, and every “successful” act of violence is another assertion of the perpetrator’s power.
Saying “No” Doesn’t Feel Like an Option
The scenario that Weinstein creates for his victims strips them of power and makes them feel uncertain and helpless. Victims find themselves alone with a powerful authority figure, jarred by Weinstein’s behavior and anxious about what will happen.
To destabilize Lucia Evans, Weinstein alternately flattered and demeaned her. Remarks about her potential and suitability for “Project Runway” built up hope that he could aid her career, while comments about her losing weight eroded her self-esteem and created a need to prove herself.
With her defenses broken down, he assaulted her. She recalls saying no repeatedly, saying, “I don’t want to do this, stop, don’t.” But when it became clear that Weinstein didn’t care, she “just sort of gave up.” While she laments feeling that she “didn’t try hard enough” to get away, her subsequent compliance is a common experience among victims. When our attacker ignores our protests and persists, we eventually cave, convincing ourselves that maybe if we just go along with this, there will be less violence, less pain, less fear – or at least, it won’t last as long.
Other victims, especially those being physically or emotionally abused, are often compliant from the beginning because they are so afraid of being abused further should they protest. These victims often feel that they cannot speak out or file charges, and many struggle with feeling that their trauma is illegitimate.
“That’s the most horrible part of it,” says Evans. “That’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”
Abusers Will Keep Abusing
The phrase “he’s been able to do this for so long” is unsettling, as are the decades of abuse on Weinstein’s resume. Many meet these decades with questions like “how did he get away with it for so long?” But though the length of his assault spree raises questions about how, it also gives us answers about why.
Weinstein’s long history of violence shows us that those who commit sexual violence do not stop of their own accord. Rape is almost never a singular incident – it is part of a pattern of antisocial behavior which, even when concealed, lingers over the perpetrator’s social interactions like a storm cloud.
Antisocial behavior is behavior which disregards the rights of others or conflicts with the interests of society. Rape is, by definition, an antisocial act – it is violence towards one’s own community without any provocation or justification. It’s violence for the sake of violence and power, and it indicates a very severe problem with how the perpetrator sees and relates to other people.
We recognize the antisocial nature of rape when we hear of cases which were violent or overtly disturbing. We recognize it when the victim appears innocent or the attacker brutish. We recognize it when there is a large gap between the victim and attacker’s age or attractiveness.
It is in the less-discussed, more legally ambiguous cases where we fail to see it. Rapes which involve ambiguous consent, consent under duress, or previous emotional abuse are harder for us to see as antisocial. Usually, it’s because doubt has been cast on the victim, or because the perpetrator is well-liked and attractive. But we shouldn’t be considering any of the perpetrator’s traits — how they look, where they work, what charities they donates to, none of it matters. The sexual violence committed is the only thing that matters.
This does not mean that we should view perpetrators as faceless monsters. Rather, we must recognize that those who abuse once, will abuse again. Abusers of any kind are predators, and losing their prey once will not stop them from hunting for more. If we allow the perpetrator’s reputation or likability to conceal their patterns of violent behavior, we are failing future victims. And if we turn a blind eye, like so many of Weinstein’s employees and colleagues did, we are enabling the abuser. We must condemn sexual violence and aggression, no matter the circumstances surrounding it or the people involved.
When Survivors of Abuse Unite, We Hold the Power
If nothing else, the huge ordeal that the Weinstein scandal became shows us just how powerful survivors can be when we join voices. Weinstein sought to silence his victims for years, using intimidation, NDAs, and his own power to prevent them from speaking out. However, the original publication alleging Weinstein’s assaults led to a storm of accusations. All it took was a few women brave enough to speak.
Pain and humiliation are Weinstein’s legacy. But when we see his crimes in the news, we must look beyond them to see the women who survived. If it hadn’t been for these women, Weinstein’s attacks would not be crimes – they would be secrets.
And so, whenever we survivors have the opportunity to speak, we must make a choice. The decision is ours, and ours alone, and there is no right answer. But, if we are brave enough, if we are privileged enough to be safe, we must speak for those who cannot yet.