WASHINGTON ― At 24, Rowena Chiu was intimidated by Harvey Weinstein’s army of lawyers into signing away her rights and staying silent about the movie mogul’s alleged sexual assault on her when she worked in his London office.
“There’s something not quite right about a situation where an entire army of wealthy white men had compelled two young women to sign a 30-page agreement that we couldn’t quite understand,” Chiu told HuffPost Tuesday, recalling that she and Zelda Perkins, the co-worker she immediately told about the incident, felt like they had no choice when up against “the grown-ups in the room.”
Weinstein and his powerful production company forced Chiu and several of the 80-plus “silence breakers” who have accused him of sexual harassment or assault to sign nondisclosure agreements swearing them to secrecy. Weinstein, who is on trial this week in New York for charges involving two of the women, has denied all claims of nonconsensual sex.
Since speaking out about her alleged assault and the NDA — which she called “a Houdini-style rope” that kept her from coming forward for more than two decades — Chiu has advocated reforming the use of nondisclosure agreements. She’ll be attending Tuesday’s State of the Union address as a guest of Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.).
Clark is the lead sponsor of the Be Heard Act, legislation that would, among other provisions, limit employers from using NDAs to bar people from speaking out about sexual misconduct in the workplace.
We haven’t changed things for our daughters and our granddaughters. And the way to change things for our daughters and granddaughters is to make sure that this type of systemic ... patriarchy, misogyny is taken out of society by making legal change. Rowena Chiu
The legislation and the larger issue of NDAs and other legal tools to silence sexual assault survivors represent how the Me Too movement has, in some ways, barely scratched the surface when it comes to dismantling the system that enables serial sexual abuse and the power differential between the abuser and survivor.
“We have to follow that up with systemic change,” Clark told HuffPost in an interview with Chiu at her Capitol Hill office. “And it’s difficult. And we are looking at one piece of it that we can influence in Congress, which is changing federal law. But there are so many tentacles of inequality and injustice in this system that we realized that this is just the beginning.”
Clark pointed out the dark symbolism of the evening’s proceedings: President Donald Trump, who will be delivering his speech on Tuesday, is a “president who also represents all of these intertwining systemic problems and barriers.”
Trump, who has been credibly accused by at least 20 women of sexual misconduct, has used NDAs to silence at least one of his accusers, Alva Johnson, a 2016 campaign staffer who accused him of forcibly kissing her. Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who alleged Trump had extramarital affairs with them, also signed NDAs and received “hush money” from Trump’s then-attorney Michael Cohen to prevent them from speaking out during the 2016 presidential campaign.
It’s common for companies to have employees sign NDAs to prevent them from disclosing trade secrets, like pending research, projects or deals. But increasingly, employers have also used NDAs to bar people from speaking out about sexual misconduct in the workplace, allowing it to be swept under the rug. NDAs are often paired with financial settlements to buy accusers’ silence, and/or forced arbitration clauses, which force accusers to settle their claims privately instead of in court.
These legal tools reinforce and perpetuate the power imbalance in sexual misconduct cases and show how “young women can be preyed upon within the legal system,” Chiu said.
In 1998, when Chiu and Perkins were forced to sign their NDAs, the power differential between them and Weinstein was crystal clear from the very beginning of the negotiation process.
According to Chiu, Weinstein hired one of the top five British law firms to represent him against her and Perkins. The negotiations took place after the firm’s working hours to keep them secret. Chiu recalled that she and Perkins had to be escorted to the bathroom and had to ask for food — which felt like “being treated as prisoners” rather than “as an equal negotiating party.”
Chiu, Perkins and their lawyer were not even allowed to write anything down during the negotiations or to keep a copy of the “incredibly difficult and complex 30-page legal agreement.”
“I remember many hours of sitting in the conference room saying to our lawyer, ‘Well, what are we going to do? How are we going to live? If we can’t even keep a copy of the paper? How will we know what we can do and what we can’t do?’” Chiu recalled. “And essentially, what she said to us is that you have to treat this time of your life as a black hole: not only the assault itself, but the subsequent negotiation. You’re not allowed to discuss it in any way, not to the police, not to therapists, to doctors, not to anyone you might marry, not anyone you might date.”
Here, Chiu’s story also illustrates the alienating effect of nondisclosure agreements. It’s not just the trauma of sexual assault. It’s the fact that accusers who sign an NDA often have to go through it alone because the document bars them from speaking about it to anyone around them.
I can’t discuss what it is, or even admit that there is a document, right? This is what I mean by the Houdini box of tricks. You’re completely bound up.” Rowena Chiu
For Chiu, the NDA meant that she couldn’t speak about it to her friends and colleagues at the time. She later left the film industry and became fearful of contacting anyone she knew from that period in case Weinstein sent his army of lawyers and spies after them.
“Over time, it became something that you learned to live with, an itch that you tried not to scratch,” she said. “For example, I never spoke to Zelda again, until Jodi [Kantor] and Megan [Twohey] broke the story. I ended up drifting from a lot of my friends from university or any of my friends that I’d worked in the film industry with, because it’s not possible, really, to maintain a relationship where there’s such a deep dark cloud, and there’s so many things that you can’t discuss.”
It also made it highly difficult to seek help from therapists or lawyers because they would have to sign an agreement with Weinstein’s lawyers in London, Chiu said. After twice attempting suicide in the years following the alleged assault, she sought help from a therapist.
“I went into a therapist’s office as a young woman and said, ‘I’m not happy. I can’t tell you why. It connects to something in London. If you want me to talk about that time of my life in any way, you’ll have to sign a legal agreement with a big law firm in London,’” she said. “And so, a therapist who’s never met you or doesn’t know anything about your case or your situation, any professional is never going to take that on.”
Similarly, seeking advice from a lawyer about the stringent terms of the NDA was virtually impossible because “I can’t discuss what it is, or even admit that there is a document, right?” Chiu said. “This is what I mean by the Houdini box of tricks. You’re completely bound up.”
Chiu said it’s easy to see the power imbalance, “now that we’re in our mid-40s, and we’re looking back on a contract we signed back then.”
“But sometimes, I feel what makes me angry is there were many lawyers — and not just our lawyers, his lawyers, all people in their mid-40s, who knew how business worked,” she continued. “They knew how the law worked, and they just let us go straight into signing this agreement that was massively imbalanced on his side. They pretended we had benefits when in reality we didn’t.”
Clark’s legislation also proposes other workplace reforms, like mandating sexual harassment and nondiscrimination training and extending protections to workers who are often excluded from workplace policies, like interns and contractors. It would also eliminate the tipped minimum wage for service employees — which often creates an environment that encourages sexual harassment and predatory behavior from customers — and provide legal support to low-income workers filing sexual misconduct claims.
Measures to restrict the use of NDAs in cases involving workplace sexual misconduct have been considered in at least a dozen states. Several have signed them into law, including New York, California and New Jersey, among other new laws designed to help sexual assault survivors seek justice — a direct result of the Me Too movement.
“I think it’s very exciting how it’s mushroomed into something that started as a societal and cultural change but then has taken on relevance and speed within many other areas,” Chiu said. “But unless some of these societal changes are also enshrined in law, long term, we don’t want it to be a flash in the pan.”
“We haven’t changed things for our daughters and our granddaughters. And the way to change things for our daughters and granddaughters is to make sure that this type of systemic, systematic patriarchy, misogyny is taken out of society by making legal change.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.