With the papers full of the allegations of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein there has been lots of chatter on social media as to why some of the women, like Angelina Jolie and Gywneth Paltrow, did not come forward sooner and “speak up”. Comments have been shockingly vitriolic, from both men and other women, and quick to point the finger that both of them should be ashamed for not speaking out.
However, I think the question we should be asking, is not why didn’t they speak up but why did they feel compelled to stay quiet?
What is it in our culture that means women and sometimes other men are frightened of calling out a man for his unacceptable behaviour?
When I was eighteen I moved into a flat with friends in London. A friend of my father’s called me out of the blue and asked to take me out for supper. I knew the man well. I had known him all my life. I loved being in his company. He made me laugh and had treated me like a grown-up long before I become one. Over the years he had encouraged me to confide in him. I thought it a little strange that he had got in touch but he had a plausible excuse and I trusted him, so I brushed off my misgivings. It was only supper, after all.
A few nights later, I met him at the restaurant; a small, dimly lit bistro in a London suburb. My hair was loose, falling well below my shoulders; my face was make-up free. In truth, I hadn’t made much effort although I was suddenly conscious, as he pulled a chair out for me to sit down on, of the shortness of my skirt. I crossed my legs and shuffled the chair closer to the table. Several of the other diners glanced across at us, their gaze lingered for a moment too long on his bald head then flicked to my face and away.
He filled my glass and I relaxed. We talked about family, life. I laughed at his jokes, although they no longer seemed as funny as when I was younger. As pudding arrived, he asked about my boyfriend, how old he was and our relationship. My skin prickled. I did not want to answer but, at the same time, I did not want to appear rude. The questions continued, becoming more and more personal. I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks. I could not meet his eyes anymore and stared at my pudding. I stayed mute.
“Have you ever had sex with an older man?”
My eyes flicked towards him.
I worried an ulcer with my tongue and tried to work out how many steps it was to the doorway out onto the street. I clenched my left hand and dug my nails deep into my palm. Why was he asking me this?
I shook my head, hoping that would be the end of it. I wolfed the mousse. The quicker I finished it, the quicker I could escape.
He watched me eat and topped up my wine glass.
“An older man could teach you things,” he said. His hand snaked out and wrapped around mine. I froze. His thumb rubbed against the ball of my hand, round and round. He leant closer.
I pushed back my chair and yanked my hand from his grip.
“I’ve got to go,” I blustered. “I forgot, I promised my flatmate I’d be back early as she doesn’t have any keys.” I fumbled with my jacket.
He signalled for the waiter. “Hang on, I’ll run you back. My car is just outside.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s fine. I’ll jump on a bus.”
“I can’t let you catch a bus home. It’s late.”
I hesitated. He was my friend. He knew my family. I was reading too much into it. He’d never do anything to harm me.
He settled up and I squashed my fears and climbed into his car. The tinted windows darkened the street lamps. I stared out the window, huddled over by the door, and noted with relief that the streets were still busy. He kept the conversation light and the tension left my jaw. I had imagined it – made a mountain out of a molehill as my father would say.
I relaxed as he drove into my street. “You can drop me anywhere,” I said. He pulled up by some parked cars. I reached for the door handle.
“Aren’t you going to give me a kiss goodbye?” he asked.
I paused. He had paid for my supper. I turned back and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. His hand brushed the back of my neck and his fingers curled in my hair. Before I realised what was happening, he yanked me towards him and with his other hand undid his flies. I struggled but he pulled harder on my hair until my head was forced back against his shoulder. I flailed with my left hand, trying to find the door handle but the car was too wide. He forced my right hand down to his crotch.
“You know you want to do this,” he murmured.
“No,” I whispered, as tears ran down my cheeks.
“Don’t deny it. You’ve been asking for it all night.”
I shook my head and the hairs tore from my scalp. I stopped fighting and went limp. All I could think was that the quicker I got it over with, the quicker he would let me go. The tears streaked my face but I did what he wanted — anything for it to be over.
“That wasn’t so bad now, was it?” he said, eventually.
I tugged myself free and wrenched the car door open and stumbled into the street.
“If you tell anyone, I’ll deny it,” he called from inside the car. “No one will ever believe you.” He sped off.
Somehow I found my way to the flat. I’ve no recollection of how I got there. My flatmates were out and I ran a scalding hot bath and climbed in with all my clothes on. I scrubbed at my skin until it was red and raw. My mind whirled and my thoughts bashed around like bewildered moths inside a lampshade. I hated myself. I hated myself for not fighting him harder. I could have scratched and bit him. I could have done more. What was wrong with me? Maybe he had been right. Maybe it was my fault after all. Maybe I had asked for it? Maybe my short skirt had revealed too much leg. Maybe I hadn’t said the right thing, had given the wrong signals? I was still in the bath when one of my flatmates found me there an hour later, the water long cold, and put me to bed.
Just like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, I never reported what happened. Why? It’s difficult to say. I guess I was ashamed that I hadn’t seen it coming; ashamed that I hadn’t read the situation better or have been able to extricate myself. I was ashamed that I had gone out for supper, had been stupid enough to get in the car and had stopped to kiss him goodbye. Maybe I had said the wrong things earlier in the evening and somehow led him on; maybe I had worn the wrong clothes or crossed my legs in the wrong way. Most of all, I was ashamed that I had not managed somehow to fight him off: I had done self-defence at school but I had still frozen in fear when it mattered. But then nobody had ever told me that I would know my attacker and that I would remember sucking my thumb and bouncing on his knee. I was ashamed and I was convinced that he was right and that I would never be believed. Who would believe me without bruises and ripped clothes? It was his word against mine, and why would anyone believe me, a mere slip of a girl, against a powerful businessman. I stayed quiet. And that too made me ashamed. I knew that if he could do such a thing to me then what would stop him doing it to someone else and yet I was not brave enough to speak up.
My teenage self decided that this was just the way things were and maybe this was just the price woman had to pay for being women and being pretty and sexy. For weeks, I lay in bed at night wondering what I should have done, how I should have played it. It led to panic attacks and years of learning to control my anxiety. Would I do the same if it happened now? Obviously not, because I am no longer a naïve, impressionable, powerless teenager: I am now a mother of four, a lioness, who has had to fight much worse battles. Now, nearly 30 years older and wiser, I can accept that none of it was my fault and that he was an accomplished sexual predator who had probably groomed me for years. It still plays on my mind though, and always will, that I didn’t stand up and denounce him and that because of my fear and shame someone else might have found themselves in his firing line. Does it mean that I am a coward, though? Or that I did the wrong thing? Possibly, but until you too have found yourself in that position, don’t pass judgement on others. I am sure that I’m not the only one in my circle of friends who is sitting on an all too similar story. We each of us have our Weinsteins and not many of us have dared to put our heads above the parapet – until now.
I tried to tell my father some months later about what had happened, but he refused to hear me. I can’t really blame him for choosing not to listen. None of us want to believe there are monsters hiding amongst us…
…I was exactly the same once.