On the third day of my first job as a reporter at a small newspaper in Connecticut, I was assigned to cover an event attended by a powerful local politician. He was eager to respond to my questions and seemed excited to meet a new reporter from one of the papers covering him; he even began introducing me to the activists and local influencers at the event, saying roughly, "This is Monica Potts, a new reporter." With that helpful introduction, I'd start asking questions and get them answered promptly.
During one of these little sessions, the politician swatted me on the butt with a manila folder.
I kind of froze and thought about what to do about it. I did nothing in the moment, except slowly ease away. I even made excuses for him: Maybe he was trying to pat me on the back and missed? I do have a big butt, I thought, just sitting, bubbly, in my khakis. Too tempting—I should have worn something less appealing than… khaki pants from the Gap, I guess.
It wasn't my first experience of low-key sexual harassment; most women are catcalled and touched on the street or in the workplace, or witness to it when someone else is. But it felt like the most significant. This was a powerful and well-respected man, one who even had a reputation for being a relatively progressive figure on gender discrimination. I thought about whether I should tell anyone on my drive back to my office—but decided that, if I did, I would become That Girl Who Complained. My name could become part of a news story instead of sitting comfortably in the byline. I thought it would overshadow my young career, and, most important, I would go through an incredibly hard time making a public accusation and then seeing it through—if there were any way to see it through.
And it might even be worse if I told people and no one cared. This was a full decade after the Anita Hill hearings had spotlighted sexual harassment, which should have made it easier to deal with. Had it been worse than a butt swat, that might have changed my calculation. But street harassers had been finding ways to touch that part of my body for years, so I'd become numb to that level of invasion.
Instead, I decided to file the incident away for the future. The politician lost his bid for reelection a few years later, so I didn't have to deal with him professionaly anymore—I hoped no one else did, either. But I still expended a lot of time and mental energy thinking about that incident, what I did and what I should have done, over the years. That's how harassment works most of the time: an invisible mental tax on women in the workplace, where they have to navigate and worry about some jerk's behavior in addition to their own.
Nearly every woman I know in journalism has experienced some variety of it, and, apparently, so have many women in Silicon Valley. And thanks to the cascade of reports about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual harassment and assault, now we know, if we didn't before, that this poison pervades Hollywood, too. Harassment's vile influence infiltrates any workplace where women work alongside men.
To be clear, my own experience as a young reporter was several orders of magnitude away from the allegations of rape made against Weinstein—even if, in some ways, they're on the same continuum of challenges women face in the workplace. But the question around harassment, in this case and many others, often seems to be: Why don't women speak out—or why didn't they do so sooner? This speaks to a deep misunderstanding of female power in our society, one that won't be cured even by the disgrace of one of the most influential producers in the country.
What's striking to me is how some of the most powerful women in Hollywood said they reacted to alleged harassment by Weinstein. Gwyneth Paltrow, who is now a star but was once, like the rest of us, just a young woman hoping for a career, said she was afraid she'd get fired. Angelina Jolie said she warned other women about him. Both of these women entered Hollywood with powerful parents in the business who had their backs, and they were still worried about their futures. Yet they tried to do what women have been forced to do for centuries in this situation: Take care of one another behind the scenes and hope everything works out.
It's not as if there are no women in fields like business, politics, and entertainment who might be in a better position to fight harassment when it comes their way. It's just that there are many fewer women with power than there are men, and they have much less of it. The power imbalance between Weinstein and the women who alleged he harassed or assaulted them in hotel rooms is multiplied across society as a whole. Because powerful women remain so few and far between, they draw all the ire when something goes wrong for women. Is Sheryl Sandberg really a feminist because she props up capitalism? Would the election of Hillary Clinton have been a real milestone despite the fact that she was white and relatively powerful? (This is, in fact, why some young people didn't care about voting for her to be the first female president.) Meryl Streep stars in so many movies each year that it's hard to remember that part of that dynamic is the result of the fact that not many actresses make it through their 40s in Hollywood. That stems from the general sexism that pervades the industry, making the harassment that Weinstein allegedly committed so long, against so many women, possible.
The women America knows in Hollywood have almost all likely had to navigate a casual, everyday kind of sexism and, probably, harassment of some kind. Over the years, it sucks away your mental energy, especially when the rewards for speaking out are so scant. It's part of what explains the difficulties that women face when trying to reach the top of their careers: Outright harassment will often keep them or someone they know down at some point. One survey earlier this year found nearly a third of women experienced sexual harassment at work in the US, while a study last year in the UK found more than half had. It took many women to take down Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, and, now, Weinstein. They had to amass high-powered legal teams and large numbers of fellow accusers to see one man face real consequences. It's exhausting. I feel a kind of collective exhaustion just from the barrage of stories about how all of these men abused women along their path to success.
When Clinton denounced Weinstein, it was kind of a lame statement: She said she was "shocked and appalled." Some outlets reporting on that noted she had waited a few days and hadn't said anything about returning his campaign contributions, which some sitting Democrats did. (On Wednesday, Clinton announced plans to send Weinstein's donations to charity.) At least one commentator suggested the hesitation from the former Secretary of State to call out Weinstein stemmed from her own friendship with him. More likely, Clinton and her team were going through the same calculations most women go through with themselves: Do I say something? What do I say? It makes me incredibly sad that she's still going through the same bullshit I went through as a 27-year-old reporter.
Harassers are everywhere, and they're usually the most powerful—and wealthiest—men in the room. That's part of the problem: If we imagine this is limited to Weinstein, we're missing the point. Weinstein should be denounced, but those denunciations do no good if women, especially the ones we admire most, are the ones we hold accountable for holding other people accountable. That's made it heartening to see the conversation shift in recent days toward actors suspected of having known about Weinstein's alleged behavior for some time. In the age of call-out culture, it often seems we want women, especially feminists, to be a little bit better, more thoughtful, more responsible than everyone else. You could almost say we're holding women to a different standard.
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