CW: sexual assault, sexual harassment, victim-blaming
Artwork by Helene Leyland
I met you when I was 15 years old.
You have been a source of great advice, timely support and unparalleled opportunity. While in some ways you have been instrumental in facilitating some key life changing experiences – in the role of my counselor and my nominator – you yourself have presented a great challenge to me. Maybe you are unaware of the extent to which you have challenged me and other women too. Maybe you choose to overlook it. Nevertheless, I have spent the last eight years building up the courage to send you this, so I hope you will take the time to read it through with an open heart, and respond with respect.
In recent media events, the snowballing accusations of sexual harassment and assault against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein have generated international discussion about issues that often get swept under the carpet. These include the impact of misogynistic men in positions of power, and the pervasive and damaging social attitudes around victim blaming and rape culture. These issues are not convenient or pleasant, and many are reluctant to bring them into the spotlight as they are steeped in personal trauma and stigma. However, as hopefully you have seen in the responses of people around you who chose to engage in the #MeToo movement, they are insidious.
Harvey Weinstein is not an anomaly, but a norm that society chooses to turn a blind eye to. Victims are forced to bear the burden of their trauma in silence, while the perpetrators avoid accountability for their actions. Social conditioning allows misogynistic larrikin behaviour to fly under the radar, justified by flippant excuses like ‘boys will be boys’, ‘it’s just a way of showing affection’, ‘I am sure he didn’t mean any harm’.
Harmless intention is used to shroud harmful action.
My education, my professional field and my feminist politics have provided me with the skills to critically engage in issues like this and do something about changing the cultural landscape, one conversation at a time. However, my boldness, my intellect, my open-mindedness, my adaptability, my resilience and my compassion haven’t saved me from saying ‘me too’.
I am not alone in saying this, but I have experienced many moments that have been marked by misogynistic harassment and sexual assault. My first was while on exchange in Germany, at the hand of another student. There have been other engagements since then. Despite my professional boldness, and quickness to defend the honour and integrity of the people around me, I have done a poor job of defending myself. This has been partially due to social conditioning, which pressures individuals to internalise shame and guilt as they quietly accept their own trauma, rather than challenging threatening individuals and behaviour. Emotional labour is continuously pushed onto women, who even in the 21st century are meant to be seen and not heard, lest they rock the boat.
Today I am resisting that conditioning. I am choosing to be brave and stand up for myself. I am rocking the boat, despite being aware of the potential consequences. I am challenging you to also be brave by reflecting on your actions and choices. While retrospection will not undo what has already been done, it may benefit the next young women you have the privilege of mentoring in the future.
I firmly believe that you abused your position of power and privilege. Not only as my counselor, but also as the grandfather figure that developed from my own lack of extended family, blurring your own professional and personal integrity, and damaging my safety and personal prosperity. You were charged with helping me to shape myself into someone with the capacity to make a positive impact on my community and the world around me. A responsibility you willing accepted more than once. A responsibility that you took advantage of.
You are my Harvey Weinstein.
How often have you complimented my looks or developing body rather than my capacity for social change or forward thinking, devaluing my personhood to a ‘horny haircut’ or a ‘pretty face’?
How often did you comment on my unavailable sexuality or that of my mother, in a way that passed off the conversation as routine flattery?
On several occasions, you have touched my body without reason or consent, even squeezing my thigh at a formal event and grabbing my breast during a car trip in relation to some joke.
After I came back from exchange, how often did you ask me about my sexual experiences overseas for ‘research purposes’? Probing repeatedly into unnecessary details with seemingly innocent questions and cornering me into answering them?
How often did you refer to my physical relationship to my ex-partner, and ask deeply personal and inappropriate questions about our intimacy?
In response I tried to deflect the conversation, nervously laugh it away, quietly respond to it or simply freeze up. I reacted by being paranoid, hyper-vigilant and anxious around you, making sure I did what I could to protect myself – even avoided meeting with you where I could. You would respond by simply tracking me down through my parents, generating familial duty to reengage.
I saw how your interactions with other women would also feature humour and comments that were just borderline inappropriate enough to avoid social condemnation. I learnt to believe that my discomfort was simply oversensitivity to standard interactions. You are my Harvey Weinstein.
Yes, perhaps I should have said something each and every time, letting you know that I felt uncomfortable and threatened. However, is it really the responsibility of a 15-year-old girl to call out the behaviour of her older, wiser mentor, with whom she must maintain a professional ongoing relationship? Especially knowing that most other women around me were choosing to ‘let it slide’. And at what point was I supposed to be assertive enough to challenge you after having already tolerated it as an expected part of your companionship? After five, six, seven years? By letting it slide I would feel increasingly guilty and shameful for not standing up for myself. Even into my 20’s the effect was still there. Ironically, my professional role was teaching consent and healthy relationships to other people.
The advice I received from the people around me was that you were from a different era. A high flying media executive who had been raised in a different culture, one that wasn’t so politically correct and was laced with Mad Men-esque institutionalised misogyny. However, present behaviour cannot be justified by historical standards. You are a father of beautiful, successful daughters and have an amazingly strong wife, but that doesn’t excuse you from interrogating the quality of your relationships with women in your life. That does not exclude you from having transgressed the boundaries and expectations of others. That does not give you immunity from reflecting on the impact you have had on young women like me, as I am not the only one who feels this way.
As you can probably tell, these memories are forever ingrained in my mind, and are compounded every time someone assumes entitlement to my body, social space or value. Each time, the healing is undone a little, and I have to work that much harder to put myself back together. But each time, I get better and better at standing my ground.
I am going to be a person who has a positive impact on my community and the people around me. I will not be complacent as entitlement and privilege quietly chip away at my sense of power, value and wholeness. I am going to continue being the person who stands up for those around me who are struggling to find their voice, but I am also going to do a better job at standing up for myself. I will not be a bystander when I can engage in a conversation that could be the catalyst for a positive change.
Because, John, despite the damage you have done to me and others like me, I will hold myself and the people around me to a high standard; one based on mutual respect and kindness. My 16 year old self deserves that much, and regardless of what you may think upon receiving this letter when I send it to you tomorrow, me too.