Man looking over woman's shoulder at work
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LIFE HONESTLY

When older, more powerful men prey on younger women, it hurts. For years

Reading the allegations that Harvey Weinstein harassed Ashley Judd made Caroline O’Donoghue reflect on her past

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

What do you do when you find out that a famous man has taken advantage of his employees in a manner that you, yourself, have been taken advantage of? How do you connect two things that aren’t connected? Somewhere in the world, a woman who is more beautiful, more talented and more wealthy than you has felt herself trapped in a hotel room with Harvey Weinstein. Meanwhile, on a separate timeline, in a different place, you were feeling trapped by a man who (to this day!) likes your photos on Instagram.

The fact that you and Ashley Judd were both trapped – professionally, if not physically – by your employers does not make you the same as Ashley Judd. Having this in common with her does not make you her friend. Siberian tigers are endangered, but so are certain kinds of possum. You are not the same as Ashley Judd, you remind yourself. You are a possum. You try to move on. Another difference between you and Ashley Judd, you remember, is that Ashley Judd has the strength and force of will to publicly name Harvey Weinstein, while you, even in writing this, are terrified that the man who chastised you in the office stairwell for not sleeping with him will read this and get in touch. You try to move on.

Wait, but before you move on – before you can close the New York Times article about the sexual harassment accusations against Harvey Weinstein – you have to ask yourself why you are so terrified that he will get in touch, if you did name him. If you had the courage to, which you don’t. You are afraid, chiefly, of two things.

One: that you are a fantasist and you made the whole thing up. Your flair for the dramatic, your tendency to editorialise your own life and your interest in feminism has led you to believe that you were sexually harassed at work when you were younger, when, in fact, you weren’t.

Two: that, at that time, you were an idiot. You were the girl who saw Juno and didn’t see the twist with the married father-to-be coming. You had never worked with people who were older than you before. Is it possible that you were sending out mixed signals to this man in his late forties? Is it feasible that you made jokes about how big your boobs were, in front of rooms full of people? Is it likely that, in order to make yourself feel more comfortable in a new office environment, you may have overplayed your hand as the cheeky, pint-drinking, joke-making, know-nothing? Isn’t it true that – even though you are a feminist who does not believe in the term “asking for it” – you were, perhaps without your knowledge, asking for it?

'Gently but firmly' is a line that gets used a lot. It seems impossible. How do you be gentle and firm? It is too complicated and too nuanced an approach for you

 

“How do I get out of the room as fast as possible without alienating Harvey Weinstein?” This is the quote you keep coming back to, the thing Ashley Judd apparently said to herself when Harvey Weinstein asked to massage her or “she could watch him shower” when she attended a breakfast meeting with him. You remember sending messages in emails to older women, family, and friends back home. “I don’t want to annoy him,” you type. “This industry is so small.”

You refer to it as your “situation at work”. This implies that the problem is static, has corners and edges, when in reality it changes every day, and for months.  All his light, grazing touches and the excuses he makes for you to be alone together start occurring at shorter intervals, gathering momentum. Towards what, though? Are you imagining it? Is it all in your head?

“The line I always use,” said one woman, in her fifties, “whenever a man gets the wrong idea about me, is to say to him, gently but firmly, ‘Let’s not embarrass one another.’” What a marvellous thing that I will never be able to say, you think. You canvass more opinions. "Gently but firmly" is a line that gets used a lot around this subject. It seems impossible. How do you be gentle and firm? It is too complicated and too nuanced an approach for you.

Instead, you do what you have always done: grab the nearest age-appropriate, well-meaning boy and hope that this act of being publicly attached to someone else will end all of your problems privately. You use him as a human shield and it doesn’t work and that’s how you end up in the stairwell. “I thought we had something,” your Harvey Weinstein says to you, irritated that you were a bad gamble. You are simultaneously confused about what he thinks that “something” was and relieved that the “something” is over. The well-meaning boy absorbs all your sadness like a sponge and you break up with him shortly afterwards.

You know, now, why all of this happened. You know that your youth, your ignorance of the professional world and the fact that you were a recent immigrant – adrift from family and low on friendships – made you susceptible to it. As a woman, you will always be vulnerable. But you will never again be vulnerable in quite that way. You marvel at all the armour you have acquired in the years since. Friends! Relationships! Professional contacts! Money!

You turn it into a story about your own success. How you – and you alone! – pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, and made sure that no one again treated you that way. You try to move on. But you know that people who have really, truly moved on don’t usually stay awake after everyone else has gone to bed, because two strangers in Hollywood had an altercation in a hotel room. You ask yourself why it bothers you so much and you realise, a thousand words later, that it’s because the armour you think you have now isn’t really armour at all. That neither your nor any woman with a job is ever very far away from the next hotel room or the next stairwell. And that is what you can’t move on from.

@Czaroline

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Photo: Getty Images
Tagged in:
Sexual assault
Sexual abuse
Sexism
harvey weinstein

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