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The Silence of the Lambs

With Harvey Weinstein’s sex assaults on writers, actresses, assistants, and models hitting headlines in the States it seems fitting that these are now costing him both job and wife. They may cost him much more as the allegations begin to wend their various ways through the legal system and more settlements are demanded and likely, paid.

Because Weinstein is a wealthy business mogul he has not been charged with a crime, not tried nor imprisoned. News reports have him instead absconding to a European sex rehab where he can rationalize and minimize his crimes.

Routinely the accounts of Weinstein’s alleged attacks involve an ingénue who at the very brink of a promising career found herself out-maneuvered during Weinstein’s pretense of calling a private business meeting.

His calculated assaults occurred in hotel suites. The invitations at least sometimes came through the actors’ agents, demonstrating a strategy that included a pretense at legitimate aims but are a clear demonstration of malice aforethought.

For what else can it be called when a man intends a deed to the point that he repeatedly devises certain methods to lure and ensure the isolation of vulnerable women, each dependent on him for her job, deliberately securing witness-free circumstances where help will not be at hand where he can then best direct his mental and physical energies toward overcoming all involuntariness, using his considerable power to strike her off-balance and coerce her into sex?

Coercing sex is rape.

Weinstein has at the very least lost his job after decades of threatening young women with the power he held over their jobs and careers and futures. It is fitting that his wife is leaving him, considering that he bore no sensitivity for any relationships that his victims were involved in when he demanded that they abridge their loyalties for his personal gratification.

Yet also among the patterns and routines is something much more insidious and culturally rampant that allows predatory behavior like his to continue at just about every level and at every workplace:

“Who would believe me?” is the common refrain.

These young professionals were expected, sometimes instructed by the studio to keep the incidents quiet.

Secrecy about coerced sex seeds women with a particularly invidious shame.

When their utter foolishness dawned on Weinstein’s victims—confoundingly just when it must have seemed that they’d reached a milestone that they’d worked so hard to realize, finally earning a private meeting with a major studio executive—imagine the elation and hope.

Perhaps the years of work were finally paying off?  Only to discover instead that their study, talent, practice, the numerous and bruising professional rejections endured that always attend an artist’s progress, the hope, perseverance, and sheer creativity, along with the usual financial struggles known to every beginner, were meaningless.

In a coup de foudre the young professional woman is entirely demoralized.

She is still not defined nor identified by her work and achievements, no matter how good nor promising. She is another nobody, merely a sexual object to be harvested by the bullyboys, her most intimate being likely to be further reduced in locker room talk and made the butt of jokes.

Learning the hard way that there is a secret way of getting a job that nobody mentioned when she was learning her art: women are just supposed to know.

One then 20-year-old girl told the New York Times that she

…. remembers apologizing on the way out, telling Mr. Weinstein that she was too prudish to go along. Later, she felt that he had manipulated her by feigning professional interest in her, and she doubted that she had ever been under serious consideration. “I was nobody! How had I ever thought otherwise?” she asked.”

Only when an accumulation of crimes grows too heavy to be contained and finally bursts the silence do other women come forward, sometimes after decades, to report their experiences.

Because of the shame.

Who would have believed some aspiring youngster? We hear commonly that  “It was a misunderstanding”.  Wealthy men will say they are targets of opportunists or suggest that they scorned and smirk that “hell hath no fury.”

When finally a flood of reports arise describing an individual predator’s patterns a woman can finally recognize and legitimate her own experience.  Penetrating the insulating shame at last, it arrives that she has not been an idiot, but the unfortunate victim of a practiced sociopath.

The experience will never leave her.

The thing is, it doesn’t only happen in Hollywood. Sexual predation happens to girls and women at every stage of their careers.   It happens to waitresses and professors, saleswomen and secretaries.  I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t experienced pressure for unwanted sex during her career, often more than once.

At 20 I was a single mom desperate to get a job. A roommate’s friend hooked me up with a connection at a central historic hotel restaurant. Wages would be weak but tips were reliably strong, especially during events like the annual stock show.

I applied and happily was accepted to be a waitress. The day I went to fill in my W2s the restaurant manager, a guy with thinning hair and a comb-over passed me a bar uniform in addition to my café dress and apron.

“Try this on. Sometimes when we get busy we need more servers in the saloon and the tips are even better.”

I thought I was meant to take it home with me. Instead he led me downstairs through the labyrinthine hotel basement to a windowless room with a desk, and further on, a closet.

He switched on the closet light, then sat on the desk. “Go ahead – see if it fits.”

So I went into the carpeted closet and shut the door.  A small compact- sized mirror hung on the wall.   No possibility of checking the fit, but I quickly skinned into the skimpy costume – it was the 70s, a peasant-style laced-up corset with a peplum flounce over a pair of thigh-high bloomers made out of a pinkish jersey printed with tiny flowers, the whole thing trimmed in lace.

Luckily I was fully inside this get-up when before I could report success, Mr. Manager opened the closet door and swarmed up behind me, engulfing me with his arms. I managed to cross my own arms within his as he embraced me.

I stood stock still. I didn’t blink. After a breathlessness or an eternity he left the closet, the room and  I was on my own in the silent basement to change the tainted garment and find my way home.

No words were ever spoken. I worked there a couple years and it never came up.

Except later I realized that he’d tried it on with all the girls.  You just know. Intimacy is easily recognizable, just as physical aversion inspires an atmosphere of cynicism and hopelessness.

In particular, one spring a 19-year-old girl came up to the city from a small town and worked the counter. It became clear that she was involved with the boss.

One Sunday when the Cathedral crowd was piling in for their oatmeal and pancakes after mass, I saw her break.

Mr. Manager was on an end stool. He said something.

Her reply carried over the caucauphony. She whipped off her apron and flung it on the bar.

“That’s it!

“I’m goin’ back down to Colfax and hoe!”

It was a scene, people laughed.

That young woman had tried to extricate herself from a life of paid sex by getting a job in service, only to find she couldn’t escape and the only way to control or endure objectification was to embrace the reality that she was not and never could be anything but a sex worker.

None of us ever talked about it.

 

 

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