A Washington Post report by Monica Hesse and Dan Zak alleges systemic sexual assault by movie executive Harvey Weinstein dating back to the 1980s. It reminded me of attitudes towards women that were prevalent when I was working in the media at that time. Certain men I worked with in the BBC in Britain in the early 1980s were known for having what we girls described as “wandering hands syndrome.” We would avoid being in a room alone with them. In some ways I was grateful for my average looks and small breasts, as the blonde stunners with large breasts got it the worst. There was a culture of silence. Whether they were sexually abused by a boss at work or a family member at home, women didn’t complain because there was little recourse.
As I wrote in the Huffington Post on August 11, 2016, the code of silence around sexual abuse is still strong today, but at least there are more ways for women to speak out and receive the support they need than there were in past decades.
The culture I remember from the 1980s was such that it was common that men would take advantage of women in inferior positions. Providing sexual favors was often considered a necessary evil for a woman to get promoted through the ranks, especially in show business—home of the casting couch. Sleeping your way upstairs was pervasive. I came across many women who were willing to actively play the game. I personally knew of several female TV presenters who landed their positions by finding themselves boyfriends in influential positions. It was accepted as normal that your mentor was most likely someone with whom you were having sex. One program editor I worked with for a few years was regarded as a real stud because of all the young women he mentored who went on to become very successful in the media. Ironically, he mentored at least as many men as women and didn’t demand sexual favors from anybody.
“Lynn,” was an interior designer for a prominent Arab businessman in Britain in the 1980s. She told me he would employ a bevy of secretaries who would provide him with sex on demand. In return, the businessman would give each of these women an apartment in London. He never forced his attentions on anyone and always found women willing to make this trade. He offered “Lynn” the same deal. She turned down the free apartment, but continued to work as his interior designer for several years.
When I lived in China in the mid-1980s, I heard about a young man who had been sexually assaulting numerous women in Beijing. The authorities seemed to know about it, but he escaped prosecution because his father had a high position in government. Then the father fell from grace and lost his post. Shortly after, his son was executed for rape.
“Sara’s” first job in the music business was in her early twenties—representing a band in Acapulco, Mexico in the 1960s. She presented her pitch to the owner of a big club there, and he seemed very interested in booking the band. The man invited her to take a tour of the Bay of Acapulco in his yacht and she naively accepted. While they were swimming near the yacht in snorkel gear, he suddenly took down her bikini bottoms from behind and raped her. Everything happened very fast, taking her completely by surprise. The club owner must have done the same thing to many other women. There was no fumbling around and everything was over very quickly. “Sara” described it to me as “the 20 second rape.” Back on board the boat, the man was cordial and businesslike. “Sara” had to work out the details of the band’s booking at his club as if nothing had happened. That day taught her to be very much on her guard to ensure that she never again allowed herself to get in such a vulnerable position with a man she didn’t know.
One of my cousins was a trainee lawyer in a prestigious London firm in the 1975. She was the only female in the group of trainees, all straight out of college. For the first few weeks there, she would be repeatedly groped by lawyers working there until they realized that she was not just a lowly secretary. Once they discovered she was training to be a lawyer, the harassment stopped.
In the early 1990s, “Beatrice,” a stunningly attractive and supremely competent secretary, applied for a position as personal assistant to the managing director of a well-known financial company in London. She was offered the job and a very generous salary, but her prospective boss, married of course, made it clear that providing him with sexual favors was part of the package. “Beatrice” turned down the offer. To this day, the man remains a major player in the business community in Britain.
Also in the 1990s, “Jenny” did freelance work for the coach of a well-known NFL team and knew most of the players by name. The coach invited her to a party, and after having a couple of drinks there, she got talking with a player who said he wanted to show her something. He took her to a bedroom and forced himself on her against her will. His friends stood guard outside the room to prevent her leaving, and once the player was done with her, she was thrown out of the party. “Jenny” felt humiliated and abused, but never reported the rape. She was a recent immigrant to America and felt nobody would have believed her story. The player would have said they had been drinking and talking together and that the act was consensual. It would have been his word against hers.
An article in the October 23 issue of the New Yorker, “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories” by Ronan Farrow, describes allegations of rapacious, predatory and unconscionable behavior by the film mogul. They demonstrate an age-old story: how a man in a position of power can exploit his status and physical strength to force women into unwanted sexual acts with him. Some might say that even given the relative freedom of women in the developed world, civilization is a very thin veneer covering man’s brutish nature.