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As Harvey Weinstein’s trial lurches into its fifth week in New York, one of his accusers will settle into a seat more than 200 miles away on Tuesday to listen to a speech by another alleged sexual assailant: President Donald Trump.
Rowena Chiu, a former assistant of Harvey Weinstein who says he tried to rape her, will attend Trump’s third State of the Union speech as a guest of Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark. Chiu will be there to support Clark’s BE HEARD Act, which aims to fight workplace sexual harassment.
Chiu, now 45, became Weinstein’s assistant in 1998. During one late-night meeting in Italy, Weinstein tried to cajole her with requests for massages and a bath, removed her tights — she’d worn two pairs for protection — and pushed her back on a bed, according to an op-ed Chiu wrote for the New York Times last year. She managed to get away.
“Obviously, it’s a very triggering thing to be sitting in an audience listening to someone who has been accused by so many women, and he’s still very much in a position of power,” Chiu told VICE News of listening to the president.
Members of Congress and the president often bring guests along to the State of the Union to boost visibility on a potential bill or showcase a past victory. Chiu won’t be the only high-profile survivor in attendance: Democratic California Rep. Jackie Speier is bringing Courtney Wild, who’s said deceased financier Jeffrey Epstein sexually abused her. She’s now the face of the Courtney Wild Crime Victims’ Rights Reform Act of 2019, a bill that would force prosecutors to notify sexual assault victims of developments that occur before charging — like the notorious plea deal that allowed Epstein to serve just 13 months in a Florida county jail for solicitation of prostitution charges.
Clark’s BE HEARD Act — short for the “Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination” Act — was first introduced last year as the first federal, post-#MeToo piece of legislation to comprehensively address workplace harassment and sexual assault. And a majority of the Democratic caucus now supports the bill, according to Clark.
“It’s really indicative that change is happening through all levels of society and politics,” Chiu said of the bill. “And we hope that it will touch the highest levels of politics, in terms of specifically the White House as well.”
No Republicans have signed on.
The bill is ambitious. It calls for eliminating the tipped minimum wage, as tipped workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. It also asks the government to create a nationwide study on the prevalance of workplace sexual harassment and extend the protections in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guards against sexual harassment, to include businesses with fewer than 15 employees. Between 12 million and 20 million workers currently lack any federal safeguards against harassment and discrimination, according to a 2018 report from the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Both Chiu and Clark believe the #MeToo movement must expand beyond the rich, largely white actresses who became its face after speaking out against Weinstein. The pair praised the cultural changes wrought by the movement but also stressed the need for legislation and the criminal justice system to catch up.
“Whether you are a Hollywood actress who is famous, or whether you are someone who is unknown, we want to make sure that you have the same protections under the law,” said Clark. “And Harvey Weinstein is just one person. Our goal is to change the culture and change the legal structures.”
The bill would also ban companies from making workers sign mandatory arbitration clauses when they’re hired for a new job, as well as certain types of NDAs. Mandatory arbitration clauses lock employees out of suing and into a private “arbitration,” where they’re not only less likely to win a dispute but likely to receive less money if they do. Meanwhile, activists say that NDAs often foster a culture of uncertainty about the costs of speaking out — and can lead women to stay silent if they’ve been abused.
Around a third of all workers in the United States are bound by some kind of NDA, according to a 2015 Vanderbilt University Law School study. (That number includes workers who sign NDAs after finalizing a settlement.)
Chiu and Clark also say NDAs signed after sexual harassment settlements need “guardrails” around them. Originally, Chiu tried to report Weinstein. Instead, faced with Weinstein’s wall of lawyers and his overwhelming power in Hollywood, Chiu and another assistant ended up signing NDAs about the alleged attempted rape, according to the Times op-ed she wrote.
In going public, Chiu was effectively breaking her NDA. Weinstein denied her account, along with all allegations of nonconsensual sex. While he’s threatened to sue her, Chiu said Monday that he hasn’t followed through.
London police have launched an investigation into Weinstein, but so far only New York and Los Angeles have declared charges against him. Chiu said she’s spoken to investigators in all three jurisdictions but declined to comment further.
Chiu doesn’t see Weinstein’s criminal trial as the ultimate referendum on the gains of the #MeToo movement. She believes efforts like the BE HEARD Act will help it live on beyond whatever happens to the fallen movie mogul.
“It is not just holding actresses to beds in hotel rooms. It is also regular people in boardrooms having outdated attitudes, putting your hands on secretaries’ shoulders, speaking first to the men in the room, listening more to the men in the room,” Chiu said. “All these sorts of changes in societal behavior are still part of the #MeToo movement.”
Cover image: In this Jan. 28, 2020, file photo, President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Wildwoods Convention Center Oceanfront in Wildwood, N.J. Trump will be facing his accusers Tuesday night during his State of the Union speech.