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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Comment: Even the world's most famous women know the risks they run when it comes to reporting harassment

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is a Hollywood tale with a universal message: it can be costly for a woman to speak out.

Harvey Weinstein
Harvey Weinstein
Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

Only Harvey Weinstein's victims know why they did not come forward until now but, with every brave woman who speaks out, we must acknowledge that even the most famous women in the world know there are risks to reporting sexual harassment.

Because even if you're Angelina Jolie, or Gywenth Paltrow, you're still a woman. And we don't believe women.

We don't believe what they say. We don't find their accounts credible. We wonder if they are overreacting. We ask ourselves what they have to gain.

Studies have shown time and again that we don't believe woman when they request time off work, when they report pain to their doctors, and we don't believe them when they report sexual crimes against them.

Just ask Amber Heard whose allegations of domestic abuse at the hands of Johnny Depp were met with scathing scepticism, the tide only seeming to shift when the allegations were corroborated by Depp's male manager.

So what makes us so convinced that one of Weinstein's accusers could have put a stop to his behaviour simply by revealing his actions?

If you're asking (silently or aloud) why Weinstein's victims didn't come forward before now, try asking yourself instead would you have believed them if they had?

Harvey Weinstein allegations

Because as the revelations have tumbled one after another in recent days in a disturbing domino effect, each woman was safe in the knowledge that those before her were being taken seriously. There was no way to predict if they would have been given the same courtesy had they spoken out on their own about their single experience. Until now it was their word against his – and his word could move mountains and make careers.

An educated guess would have cautioned those women that their testimonies probably wouldn’t have been believed.

Ashley Judd speaks onstage during the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

And even if we had believed Ashley Judd or the women who worked for Weinstein and were asked to massage him in various hotels? Unlikely.

Even now as Weinstein's abuse of his considerable power is being spelled out in grotesque detail, there are still people wondering who was really to blame when he apparently masturbated in front of a television reporter or when he asked another woman to jump into the bath with him?

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 08: Donna Karen takes a bow on the runway at DKNY Women's Spring 2014 fashion show dring Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Spring 2014 on September 8, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Peter Michael Dills/Getty Images)

When asked about the scandal, fashion designer Donna Karen said:

"I also think how do we display ourselves? How do we present ourselves as women.  What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?"

She has since apologised but that doesn't detract from the fact that that's where her mind first went when asked about victims of sexual harassment. To blame women themselves, using something as arbitrary as the clothes they wear as amunition.

To come forward would have been a conscious decision for any of those women to put their own credibility on the line. To answer questions about her own past, her motives, her sexual history, her clothes and her decisions.

None of this is to mention the fact that speaking up would likely have cost those women their careers, in a fickle industry where careers can take decades to build up and moments to annihilate.

It was Weinstein's influence that reassured him he could safely and confidently use his role in Hollywood to target women. His power was such that it made him safe in the knowledge that he could abuse it with abandon, how easily could one of his victims dismiss it knowing this? Indeed one woman, Mira Sorvino, who rejected Weinstein's advances, told the New Yorker she felt it hurt her career to turn him down.

Harvey Weinstein allegations

So let's look at it again.

You've spent a morning fighting off the sexual advances of a man who is bigger, stronger and more powerful than you.

So powerful that he can spend three decades sexually harassing women - many of them young women at the beginning of their careers in a notoriously nasty industry - and get away with it.

So powerful that he can issue settlement after settlement to women who speak out and his company will deign not to investigate.

So powerful that his unwanted advances and sexual misconduct become "an open secret".

All the while he is championing women's rights and cementing his place as a cultural icon - not to mention earning millions of dollars.

It's been a distressing morning. You feel violated and confused. What do you do next?

You might want to pretend it never happened or at least never speak about it again. But even if you want to there is a lot to consider - will you be believed? Ridiculed? Ruined?

These considerations are as true for every woman who has faced sexual harassment at work as they are for the string of film professionals and actresses who faced it in the Hollywood Hills and the world's most luxurious hotels.

Against this backdrop it’s even more surprising that the allegations surfaced at all – but hopefully it’s a sign that things are changing, if we can believe it.

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