Why Most Women Don't Speak Up When Harassed (Or Worse)

That’s the question all over the media as women come forward stating they were harassed, at the very least, by the powerful Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein. Some wonder why these women weren’t more “courageous,” why they didn’t take on a mogul who had their reputations and careers in his hands.

Perhaps the conversation below will shed some insight as a young woman tries to tell her brother the truth – that years ago she’d been attacked by a man with power – a man she'd trusted, who'd promised to help her career because of her extraordinary talent:*

“He should have paid publicly,” Shamus said. “He should have lost his job, been blamed and shamed, forced to skulk off into oblivion.” He was on a roll, not looking at her pained expression.

“You’re saying I should have turned him in to the police, right?”

“Well, it would have…”

“It would have what?”

Shamus fell silent. He raised his hands and let them drop.

“He would have denied it,” Meg said. “I would have looked like an idiot for believing he wanted to help my career, for going with him to his room, for trusting him. I was an idiot. After it happened, I was traumatized. I knew if people found out, they would snicker for years. They’d all be thinking about that night. The charitable ones would have pitied me. It would have been in the newspapers and online. How would I have gotten up in front of people?” She looked directly into her brother’s eyes. “Think about it!”

“Right. I just…”

“You just what?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” he said.

“You see, it does. Because if my own brother believes that I should have turned him in to the police, that’s what most people would think. I knew then that either way, I’d lose. I chose the safer way.”

Shamus closed his eyes for a moment.

I felt stupid, betrayed and disgusted with myself,” she continued. “And that’s just the half of it.”

“What’s the other half?”

“Violated, Shamus. I felt dirty, if you must know. His hands had been all over me. Do you understand? Do you?” Her eyes were locked on his now, red and raw.

“Christ. You were young. You can’t torture yourself.”

“Too late. I have tortured myself.” She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, hands holding her forehead, finger tightly kneaded into her hair. “I wanted him dead,” she continued, eyes drenched in misery. “Hardly a night has gone by that I haven’t envisioned him in a car accident, the seatbelt stuck, him burning to death or being killed in a robbery. I saw him bleeding in dark alleys, falling from cliffs…”

“Easy. I get it.” He placed his hands on hers.

She pulled away. “I wanted revenge, Shamus,” she said, every muscle of her face taught.

“Once I got past wanting to crawl into a hole and never come out for being so stupid and then for not saying anything, I wanted revenge. You see, you’re wrong about women — wrong about this woman. I wanted him to suffer and to pay.”

How did you manage to keep this to yourself all these years?” Shamus asked evenly, as if righting a boat in the middle of a maelstrom.

“Women do it all the time.”

“I know, but not…”

“Not someone like me, right?” she snapped loudly, sarcastically. “Not someone with options, with a career, with a level of credibility the police would respect.”

“I’m not the enemy here,” Shamus said. He placed his right hand on his forehead for a moment. His mind was swirling with questions, but she was right, all of them sounded like blame.

There are few women who haven’t experienced some form of belittlement, harassment or worse. I’ve spoken with hundreds, and most know what they’d say now, what they’d do differently given the chance. But when something so degrading happens, it’s hard to believe, especially if the person was trusted. Gwyneth Paltrow describes the feeling of shock, confusion and even loss:

When Mr. Weinstein tried to massage her and invited her into the bedroom, she immediately left, she said, and remembers feeling stunned as she drove away. “I thought you were my Uncle Harvey,” she recalled thinking, explaining that she had seen him as a mentor.

According to The New York Times, Angelina Jolie revealed that she stayed away from Weinstein after an incident. In her words:

I had a bad experience with Harvey Weinstein in my youth, and as a result, chose never to work with him again and warn others when they did … This behavior towards women in any field, any country is unacceptable.

Women know that rape cases rarely end in the rapist paying a hefty price, if any price at all. They know that in the U.S. alone tens of thousands of rape kits aren’t tested. They know they’ll be blamed, even by people they love, that others will not look at them in the same way.

Next time someone wonders aloud why many women don’t speak up right away when they are accosted by men they trusted, we should all think about who would have believed them, the big money lawyers that would have diminished them on the stand, and how that one incident could have defined them and altered their careers. These are not excuses for secrecy, but rather some of the reasons.

We should be impressed by and support those who come forward and/or do whatever they can to protect other women. But we should bear in mind that there is more than one reason why “revenge is best eaten cold” and justice too. Often, by then you have your wits about you and some distance, others are beside you, together you can afford the best lawyers, and maybe – just maybe – in that situation the perpetrator is no longer as powerful as he once seemed.

Someday harassment and violence against women may become, borrowing George Clooney's word, "indefensible." Perhaps we'll reach a point around the world where women who have experienced harassment, violence or rape can speak up and know they will be heard, not demeaned, and certainly not blamed.

*Dialogue from my next novel, now completed, to be published in 2018.

Kathleen also blogs here.

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