So this is how it happens. This is how sexual predations go on so long. The conspiracy of silence that protects carnivores is a toxic combination of a phalanx of powerful parties whose job it is to keep their client doing business, plus a cascade of tiny choices made by dozens of individuals, who fear for their own fates, are too ashamed to say anything, and are unwilling to judge the sexual behavior of others. Very few accusers can withstand that combination of well-paid mufflers and bystanders who aren’t sure how to act.
The extent of the the machinations to protect Harvey Weinstein’s reputation from a ballooning number of accusers have now come to light and they are legion. According to a new exposé in by Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker, the mogul hired a firm started by former Mossad agents to gather unflattering material on his accusers, he deployed friends in the tabloid media to feed him intelligence and dirt about them and he cajoled former employees to call their colleagues and figure out who was talking to the press. Even the respected lawyer David Boies got involved, signing a contract to help keep Weinstein’s feet out of the fire, and paying a shadowy information-gathering firm to spy on his accusers.
But while Weinstein’s legal maneuvering, and Bill O’Reilly’s huge settlements (including one payout reported to be around $32 million) may have been one of the reasons his victims’ voices were silenced so long after the fact, it does not explain the acquiescence of those around him to his predatory habits at the time. As a flood of victims have stepped forward to accuse directors, actors, media executives, journalists, chefs and others of sexual assault or harassment, it has become horribly clear that while Weinstein may have been an extreme practitioner, this behavior has gone unpunished for decades, is still going on and follows an easily detectable pattern.
While the reported attempts at a cover-up are stunning, they do not solve the puzzle of all the don’t-call-them-enablers who must have known of this behavior and done nothing to stop it. Why did nobody speak up at the time? Do some men hold so much sway over their industry that its denizens conspire to protect them at all costs?
As victims continue to tell their stories, the truth seems more complicated. What protected these predators was less a fortress of silence among bystanders, although surely there were a few who could have said more (who is drawing up all those non-disclosure agreements?), but more a hedgerow of customs and attitudes and relationships that blocked most people from getting a full view of the sliminess.
The thickest part of the hedgerow was fertilized by fear. The downside of accusing Weinstein—who continues, through a spokesperson, to deny any non consensual sex—or publicly refusing to work with him, was steep. He was a guy who made things happen, for good or ill. He could save a movie, make a career, wangle an Oscar out of the Academy, or crush a young hopeful’s chances. And since his targets were nearly all young women, whether actresses or assistants at the opposite end of the power funnel, the cost-benefit analysis usually landed on Weinstein’s side. Any who nevertheless spoke out were facing a very deep-pocketed campaign of public besmirching.
Studies have consistently shown that people are much more willing to forgive if they believe their relationship with a transgressor is now or will be valuable to them. Those relationships could be valuable because the offender is a spouse or a parent or a benefactor. People are more likely to forgive their cheating partner than their cheating partner’s paramour. They’re more likely to overlook it when a boss borrows an object and is slow in returning it than when a colleague does. South Carolina’s voters sent their adulterous former governor to Washington as a Representative.
So it’s easy to see how Weinstein’s plaudits or James Toback’s credits or Kevin Spacey’s star power could help people could rationalize away the unpleasant stories about them as simply red-blooded American males trying their luck, or terrible misunderstandings. After all, people hit on people every day; if you decline to work with them, you won’t work with anyone.
Those brave enough to kick up a fuss but pragmatic enough to understand they would not be believed were further silenced by non disclosure agreements (NDAs). These were the hedgerow’s thorns; they kept people in their place. Zelda Perkins, one of Weinstein’s assistants in London in the 1990s, was the first to break her NDA, saying she had endured the mogul’s harassment, which included being asked to watch him bathe and frequent requests for massages, from almost the day she started working for him. She and another victim agreed to settle for about $250,000. Part of their agreement was that they were not allowed to keep a full copy of the NDA. Presto, no paper trail.
A lot of Weinstein’s employees were very young, getting their first shot at showbusiness. A classic Weinstein method was to hire young staff and then train them in his methods. They didn’t know, one told me, what the code of practice was. George Clooney asks: “Who is taking these actresses up to his room?” And the answer is, at least some of the time, novices who thought that actors taking meetings with producers in hotel rooms was the way business was conducted.
For years, accusations swirled around fashion photographer Terry Richardson. The producer of Miley Cyrus’ famous “Wrecking Ball” video, he has always made work with sexual overtones. So when the accusations of harassment began to emerge — all of which Richardson denies — many in the fashion industry declined to take a side, wondering whether people were confusing Richardson’s images with his behavior. It seemed hopelessly unsophisticated to kick up a fuss. But on Oct. 23, Conde Nast’s international magazines announced they wouldn’t work with him again.
At the time that harassment is taking place, very few people have a 360-degree view of what is going on. (Except, again, the lawyers.) In Weinstein’s case, they were either naive, unable or unwilling to talk to others who had endured the same offenses, or terrified that further investigating the rumors they had heard would come at a very steep cost. It’s almost as if Weinstein and others hid their dark secrets in a series of horcruxes that were extremely challenging to gather in one place.
And finally of course, when the predator is a money-making star like O’Reilly, or the boss like chef John Besh, or considered to be excessively talented, as Kevin Spacey is, those around him generally get the message that the usual rules do not apply. The highly gifted are treated differently, their “quirks” tolerated.
The story that a powerful faction of silencers keep the Weinsteins and Tobacks and Cosbys of the world from being discovered has some truth. But the bigger muzzle on the voices of victims is still the most mundane of human habits, the disinclination of non-victims to make a noise or protest about something that didn’t happen to them. Whether it’s in the church, in Silicon Valley, or in Hollywood, this is the environment that allows sexual predators to thrive. What remains to be seen is whether the rapid felling of guys who thought they had impunity will create a new environment, one in which people feel emboldened to speak up. For others.