If you are a woman in America, right now, especially when gathering with other women, the conversation always veers towards Harvey Weinstein. With a cascade of women coming forward, every day, from all walks of life, the pundits are calling this a “watershed moment”.
At one such female get together, a young woman in her mid-thirties I had never met before marvelled at women’s silence. “I can’t understand why they didn’t scream or run away” she mused from under her blond bangs.
I thought of the generational gap between us and that, perhaps, things are really changing.
“It’s not so black and white as you make it out to be” I said “I am culpable, like many women my age, of aiding and abetting such behavior through my silence.”
There are four instances I can think of when I was physically molested over the course of my work duties. For fifteen years I worked in the music business, an intensely male dominated industry, a boys club par excellence. When I first started, there were a couple of women in management’s positions, and neither of them was at the top of the heap. Everyone else was a secretary (a term now embellished to assistant) or worked in promotion. Like everybody else, I worked, climbed and elbowed my way up. Always with dignity but very aware that being accepted in the boys’ club was paramount.
I was never raped but in all the four instances when a man (three artists and one actor to be precise) put his hands on me, chasing me around a room (or the back of a limo) I was working. One of them was so aggressive I had to call the reception at the hotel where we were staying to extricate myself. Each time, the men were either drunk or high, which made their behavior easier to reason away.
In the case of the more aggressive musician, the following day I complained to the leader of the band and their manager. “Oh, you know how he gets when he is drunk”, the singer said. The same singer who thought nothing of receiving me into his room naked to discuss business. The same (talented, beautiful, smart, highly successful) singer who, ten years later, sent the same musician into rehab under threat of kicking him out of the band. I imagine the drinking had interfered with his marvelous playing and had nothing to do with sexual assault. And I did not feel an ounce of vindication.
I never spoke up because I instinctively knew that I would have been labelled a nag, a complainer, one who can’t take a joke, who didn’t belong and I would have been marginalized. When the balance of power is so heavily tilted in one direction, you protect yourself and shut up.
So I sat through countless lewd comments aimed at me or other women; through the recounting of countless sexual exploits that objectified women with nothing more than a passing comment, uttered with a smile “Oh you are such assholes”, as if I were sweetly scalding a four-year old. Because, more than anything, I wanted to belong.
I sat through verbal abuse from more than one artists’ manager – tirades they wouldn’t have directed to my male boss. In one instance, the manager’s assistant called me to say “you know how he gets – it’s not about you”. It might not have been about me but I spent one weekend crying in frustration, mostly because I felt there was nothing to be done. He was a prestigious artist, a feather in my resume but, most importantly, a project that was tied to my end of year bonus, to my raises. Complaining would have meant losing him and the financial rewards that went with him.
Do I regret it now? Of course I do. Would I behave the same now? Most definitely not. But I also know, without a shadow of a doubt, that if I had voiced my complaints on a regular basis, my career would have suffered.
All this happened in the three different countries where I worked but a special mention goes to Italy, a country where being desirable is still part of one’s resume: there, I didn’t stand a chance. Talking to an Italian friend a few days ago, she said that it was par for the course, that growing up in Italy you can’t escape the comments, the catcalls, the harassment. It’s just the way it is. Well, yes but it’s the way it is because we, as women, have validated such behavior through silence and justification. Especially in Italy, we never really banded together but were too busy elbowing each other out of the picture instead of presenting a unified front. And, that, I do regret. No amount of mentoring of women I ever did – and still do – will erase the fact that my complicit silence made it harder for all those who came after me.
When I left the music industry, the artist’s manager who screamed at me more times I can recall, sent me a pair of earrings and a bracelet from Tiffany. To this day, they still sit in their robin egg blue box in a drawer, never worn. On the other hand, the Versace shoes another artist gifted me as a thank you – someone who was always courteous, respectful, a gentleman – have been worn to death.