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, disgusting behaviour?
When I was 15 my best friend pulled me aside on the flight back from our summer holiday and whispered in my ear that a family friend of ours, who had been at the same hotel with his own family in tow, had propositioned her the previous night. She shook as she told me that he had tried to touch her breast and that he had got angry when she rejected his advances. She called him a “dirty old man”. I brushed her off. She’d probably misread the situation. It couldn’t have been that bad. He’d probably had one too many drinks and said something slightly inappropriate, that was all. I had known him all my life, our families were interconnected in many ways, and I loved being in his company. He was funny and interesting and treated me as an adult when my parents still saw me as a child. I knew him better than she did. He wouldn’t do something like that. Why would he?
Flash forward a couple of years and I had forgotten all about it and was studying in London, living in a flat with friends and enjoying my new found independence. Out of the blue, my phone rang and it was the same family friend on the line. He had heard rumours, he said, that I was partying too hard and burning the candle at both ends, and he had promised my father that he would take me out for supper and sort me out. I denied everything and protested that there was nothing that needed sorting. He seemed mollified but suggested that he took me out to supper anyway — to catch up. Faint alarm bells rang in my head but I elbowed them aside. It was only supper, after all.
A few nights later, I met him at the restaurant; a small, dimly lit French bistro somewhere near Hammersmith. 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, our relationship. My skin prickled. “It’s none of your business.”
“Have you had sex with him?” he asked.
I stared at my chocolate mousse, my spoon suspended in the air.
“What sort of things does he like to do to you?”
My heart thumped and, even over the babble of the other diners , I could hear my ragged breaths.
“You should talk about these things,” he said, sipping his coffee. “It’s healthy.”
I stayed mute.
“Have you ever had sex with an older man?”
I glanced at 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. I needed to get a grip; He didn’t mean any harm. I was blowing his comments out of proportion. He was just interested in my life, that’s all.
I shook my head.
He smiled and his tongue flicked out to wet his lips and, like a splash of water in my face, it hit me that I was totally out of my depth. I wolfed the mousse. The quicker I finished it, the quicker I could escape.
He watched me eat and topped up my wine glass.
“You know my daughter?”
I thought back to the little girl running beside a hotel pool, her pigtails bouncing behind her. I swallowed and nodded.
“I’d like her first sexual experience to be with a much older man. A man who knows what he’s doing. A man who could teach her things.” His hand snaked out and wrapped around mine. I dropped the spoon and it thudded onto the tablecloth leaving a dark smear of chocolate on the pale linen. 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 promised your father I’d look after you. I can’t let you catch a bus home.”
I hesitated. He was my dad’s mate, he wouldn’t do anything if I didn’t want him to. It would be OK.
He settled up and I squashed my fears and climbed into his Range Rover. 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 here,” I said. He continued on for a short distance then turned down a quiet side street and pulled over. “It’s OK, you don’t have to stop. I’ll just jump out.” I reached for the door handle.
“Aren’t you going to say goodbye?”
I paused. He had paid for my supper. I turned back to give him a quick peck on the cheek. His hand brushed the back of my neck and his fingers curled in my hair. I flinched and pulled away. 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. I pulled away and his grip tightened.
“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.”
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. He groaned and jerked and wiped himself down with a handkerchief from his pocket. He unwound his hand from my hair.
“That wasn’t so bad now, was it?” he said.
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.”
I forced my legs to move away from my flat. Even in my befuddled state, I knew he mustn’t find out where I lived. The vomit rose in my throat and I retched behind a parked car. His headlights picked me out as he sped past but he didn’t stop. My legs collapsed and I sat in a heap on the pavement for a moment before forcing myself to my feet and staggering home.
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 it was my fault after all. Could I have been asking for it? 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 because I was ashamed that I hadn’t seen it coming; ashamed that I hadn’t really believed my friend; and ashamed that I hadn’t read the situation better. I shouldn’t have gone out for supper, I shouldn’t have got in the car and I shouldn’t have kissed 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 thought 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.
I decided that maybe this was just the way things were and maybe this was just the price woman had to pay. 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 been grooming 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 palmed me off and said that I had probably just misread the situation and it couldn’t have been that bad. I can’t blame him though, for choosing not to listen, as none of us want to believe there are monsters hiding amongst us…
…I was exactly the same once.