I didn’t plan to put my sauce into the whole Weinstein thing because sometimes I wonder if the world really needs my opinion every time I have one. But when the #me too thing started, I felt it’s not fair not to admit that yes, #me too. And then a male friend commented and questioned the authenticity of so many me too’s and wondered if they’re going to ruin male-female relationships forever. He also asked me why I stayed silent till now. Yes, why did I?
Instead of trying to quickly comment on his comment, here, dear world, is my story and my opinion. For what it’s worth.
I was in my early twenties, had just finished my MBA and got this amazing job in a huge Austrian firm. Getting a job was especially tricky as I still had a Croatian passport and needed to find a company that would be willing (and able) to get me a work visa. My direct boss was a pretty young lady who, as I was about to learn, was pimping pretty girls to her boss, an ambitious man in his early thirties with a big sexual appetite. Little by little, I started working close to him: he took me to important meetings, business dinners (with other people) and events. He made it clear to me that he could do wonders for my career. Unfortunately, he didn’t hide his attraction to me in front of other colleagues and through his behavior and sexual comments, I’m sure I was labeled as his mistress. A pretty girl f…g for her career. Often, his secretary swore to me that the only appointments he had for discussing important things with me were evenings - so we’d end up going for dinner, as I needed to talk to him to get my work done. At one point he said my apartment was on his way to work and proposed to bring me to work in the mornings and drive me home from work in the evenings (I said no thank you.) And then after months of circling me in, he took me on a business trip, just him and me.
During the four hours we spent on the drive there, he was telling me about his partner not minding his affairs and how important sexual sparkles are at work as they ad fun to a routine. Long story short, when we returned to the hotel after the event we attended that evening and stood in front of our rooms (of course his secretary booked mine next to his), he invited me into his room for champagne. I sad no. Then he tried it with the view. I sad no. He tried with something else and slowly, the persuasion became physical. I got scared. We were alone on the hall, his door was open and with a little more power, he could have just pushed me into his room. I managed to escape to my room, quickly unlock the door (a wonder, because I still remember my hands trembling) and get inside. He held his hand on my door but I managed to shut the door into his face.
So no, it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t have Weinstein stick his cock into my mouth. I wasn’t raped. If the guy just tried it and I slammed the door on him and that was it, I probaby wouldn’t be this angry. But here are two very disturbing things that made the whole experience into harassment: first, he already labeled me as his mistress and ruined my image and thus my further career in that company. But even worse: I got punished for saying no. After months of chatting me up and trying to become intimate with me, the drive back was surprisingly (and painfully) silent. And then he wouldn’t greet me in the halls. I got uninvited from all the meetings, my projects were taken away from me and I lost access to many files and documents. I became marginalized. My direct boss started giving me bad reviews. If it were easier to fire people in companies like that, I would have been fired.
When I realized I was dead in his department (he quickly found a new interest, she said yes and became head of a department), I asked to be moved to a different department. I didn’t tell Human Resources what happened. And that was a mistake. I should have. But when you’re that young, you put the blame on yourself (“I didn’t behave properly, I lead him on, I should have done something different, who’s going to believe my word against his?). Also I knew then, as I know now, that it wouldn’t have done anything. Now I know I should have said something because our voices accumulate and become a scream, which does have an impact when the time is right (see Weinstein). What I did do, was describe this experience in my first book “From Barbie to Vibrator” which was published only a couple of years after this happened, and the gentleman was easily identifiable.
Sexual harassment at work rarely happens between two equal colleagues. It always happens to young, inexperienced women in their early twenties. And it always happens to women who have something at stake – who are ambitious and worked hard to get there and who want to work hard to get further. And it’s always done by men who have the power to help them with that – or ruin their careers. It’s blackmail! Also - now I’m generalizing- it happens to attractive young girls, and in our culture attractive girls are physically weak. If a huge man like Weinstein decides to rape you, you have no chance. Had my boss decided to push himself on me, I’d have no chance. It won’t happen to a two meters tall, muscular (and successful and experienced and older) woman who can push him away.
The problem is that when you find yourself in this situation, you think ”I can manage it. There’s much at stake, I won’t just boycott myself and everything I’ve done till now, so I’ll just manage it.” What you don’t know when you’re young is: you can’t manage it! Because once it came to the point where it needs to be managed, it got too far, and you don’t have the control. Either you’ll get fucked or everything you’ve worked so hard for – and even your future - will get ruined.
Now, if I in my safe world felt that intimidated and scared, I can’t imagine how a young actress in this town feels. People who don’t know this industry can’t imagine how rough it is. Many of these young women are insecure and come from socially and financially unstable backgrounds, many have worked very hard to put food in their mouths and be able to “try it” in Hollywood. And if you met Weinstein in person, you’ve already come a long way. There is so much at stake. So they try to “manage it”. Little do they know.
There are two important practical lessons to be learned. First, parents MUST prepare young girls for these experiences. My parents talked to me about rape, drugs and sex. But they never told me, and it would have been enough: “If a man who is your boss tries to flirt with you it’s not ok. It’s not a compliment, you can’t manage it and it will eventually ruin your job. If you ever find yourself in that situation tell him straight to his face that his behavior is not professional and you will not play that game. If he persists, talk to the Human Resources or his boss.” Which is the second lesson – too often there is no HR or a boss (see Weinstein case) so even if they had the courage, women have no idea whom to talk to. If there are women’s shelters for victims of domestic abuse, why are there no counselors for sexual harassment at work?
And yes, what about the men? What about the predators? Shouldn’t we just make them stop? Yeah, let’s try it. But there is a very interesting and deep issue here, which my dear friend Karen addressed in our discussion yesterday: predatory behavior is the essence of capitalism. It is glorified. It is exactly that kind of behavior that made Weinstein one of the most powerful, successful and admired men in Hollywood ever. That behavior is why Weinstein ended up having the power to have movies made and give thousands of people jobs, to make and break careers – and rape women who wanted work. And it’s nor just Weinstein. It’s Hollywood. And beyond. And it’s always been that way. And everyone knows it. And no one said something.
So here, again, a very important question – is feminism actually possible in capitalism? Because capitalism is a system of predators, the game here is big fish eating small fish. And when it comes to values that still rule our society (making profit!) as well as to sex and physical strength – women are still small fish, weather we like it or not.
And then there is the aspect of silence. Lena Dunham’s essay attacking men for their silence is floating around the net. But what about the women? What about me saying nothing? What about those women who, in both mine and Weinstein’s case, facilitated the whole thing? What about women who did collect the courage to say something – only to be paid off (and in Weinstein’s case tiny amounts) and stay silent? And worse than that, what about women who have been harassed and then have been powerful in Hollywood for past 20 years, and still didn’t say anything? Reese? Gwyneth? Angelina, for heaven’s sake, who makes movies about rape during the war in Bosnia and humanitarian catastrophes in Cambodia, but never told us about what’s going on here, in our backyard, to her and to women around her? There is no excuse for that!
But to return to my friend’s comment, the opposite can a problem as well: if we post a #me too for every colleague who gave us a compliment or dude in the bar that had to be rejected one time too many, no one will take the #me too’s seriously anymore and the real issues loses power. What was just a compliment and what was harassment? What was invited and what wasn’t? The line is thin. And the issue is so complex.
It’s on us both, men and women, to not allow things like this to happen, to find respect for each other and find a right balance between “vive la difference” and harassment. That’s what equality is about!