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 on the cusp of adulthood, I went out to supper with a friend of my fathers. A man I had known all my life. A man whose company I loved being in. One of those men that somehow always made me feel special and interesting, even in my awkward teenage years. Those years my husband lovingly refers to as “the chrysalis stage”. The years before young girls blossom into their fully developed adult form; the years when they have bad skin, dodgy hairstyles, an excess of puppy fat. I did not stop to think much about why he was asking me out to supper. I was delighted that he wanted to treat me and brushed off any misgivings. It was only supper, after all.
How naïve I was?
The meal started off well but, by pudding, the conversation had strayed into uncomfortable areas. I did not want to talk about my sex life and tried to veer back to safer topics but he would not let me and his questions became more and more probing. I did not know how to extricate myself politely and without causing offence. Was this sort of behaviour normal for adults? Was I reading too much into things? How should I handle it?
I stuck it out, hoping that he would stop. It was only when he asked if I wanted to have sex with an older man that I realised he meant him. We were in a small dimly lit bistro, deep in a London suburb, and I was far from home. I had no idea how to respond and no idea how to get home. I made up some nonsense about needing to rescue a friend and said that I had to get back, that I was sorry but I would have to cut the meal short.
He said he’d run me back, that his car was just outside, that my father would want him to make sure I was safe. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to make a scene and I didn’t want to be rude. He was my friend. He knew my family and he had always been kind to me. He’d never do anything to hurt me.
I climbed into his car and kept the conversation light. The journey back was uneventful and I relaxed a bit. I had obviously misread the situation. He reached my street and pulled to a halt. I thanked him for the meal and leant over to give him a quick peck on the cheek.
His arm encircled me like a vice and he forced my hand down towards his crotch. “You know you want to do this,” he murmured, ignoring the tears running down my cheeks. “Don’t deny it. You’ve been asking for it all night.”
I didn’t fight him. I let him do what he wanted and didn’t stop him. I didn’t know how to stop him – this man I had known forever. Maybe he was right, maybe it was my fault. Maybe I had somehow given off the wrong signals; said the wrong thing; worn the wrong thing. Maybe this was a price I had to pay for supper and the quicker I got it over with, the quicker he would let me go.
When he was finished, I wrenched myself free and jumped out of the car. His last words, before speeding off, were. “If you tell anyone, I’ll deny it. No one will ever believe you.”
Somehow, I found my way to my 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 hated myself. I hated myself for not fighting him harder. I could have scratched and bit him but I hadn’t. Why not? How could I ever prove that I had not consented to what happened. It was only ever going to be his word against mine. I was barely an adult, a nobody, and he was a successful businessman, respected and admired by everyone. He was right, No one would ever believe me. 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 been able to extricate myself. I was ashamed that I had agreed to go out for supper, had been stupid enough to get in the car. 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 fought 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? 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 used his power to abuse me. 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 many of us have not 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. Who would want to believe a friend was capable of such a thing? I can’t 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.