Harvey Weinstein’s Biggest Enabler?

A culture that assumes sexual harassment is simply how the world works.

Harvey Weinstein on Sept. 22, 2016, in Zurich.

Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Over the past six days, more than 28 allegations of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct have been made public. According to the women who’ve come forward, the A-list producer has spent more than three decades pressuring women into sex in exchange for jobs, exposing himself at one-on-one work meetings, groping aspiring models, making women watch him masturbate, and forcing sex acts on young actresses without their consent.

A recognizable pattern runs through the allegations, the first of which stems from an incident in 1984. The stories usually start with Weinstein summoning a young actress or model to his hotel for a meeting, sometimes comforting them with the promise that a female executive would be present. (A few Weinstein Company employees, some of whom would only speak off the record or anonymously to the New Yorker and the New York Times, confirmed that they were tasked with getting young women to agree to these meetings.) Often, the meeting location would be switched from the hotel restaurant to Weinstein’s room. Once a woman was there, Weinstein would allegedly do one or more of the following: show up fully or partially nude, grope her, ask or force her to watch him shower or take a bath, ask or force her to perform sex acts, or propose that they massage one another.

The similarities between the stories more than two dozen women have told about Weinstein make two things clear. The first is that Weinstein was seemingly able to get away with committing the same exact misdeeds over and over again for decades, with no one willing or able to stop him. The second is even more disturbing: Any man who acts out a more-or-less scripted sexual-abuse sequence with this many women has almost certainly done it with many, many more.

For every woman who got a settlement from Weinstein or has talked to the press about his alleged sex crimes, there are, in all likelihood, several others who brushed him off as just another Hollywood letch and never thought about him again. There may be others who are too traumatized by his alleged abuse to ever speak of it. There could be further nondisclosure agreements preventing some of his victims from coming forward. No one but Weinstein will ever know the full extent of his abuse.

And for every woman who was able to escape his grabby hands or refuse his sexual advances, there are probably many others who weren’t. Rejecting a large, physically and financially powerful man isn’t always a feasible option. Abusers target vulnerable women—young, alone, eager for a career in a cutthroat industry—for a reason: They are easier to intimidate into submission and shame into silence. Most of the women who’ve made public allegations against Weinstein say they turned down his offers of sex for work. We are less likely to hear from the ones who, for various reasons, didn’t.

That some women surely acceded to Weinstein’s aggressive come-ons doesn’t make his alleged behavior any less coercive and wrong—it just makes it harder to name. Both women and men in Hollywood have spoken of Weinstein’s behavior as something of an open secret that’s been wafting around for years. People heard stories about Weinstein. Women warned one another to avoid being alone with him. And yet he persisted, as something of an industry joke. Insiders shrugged and shook their heads at him, and most probably disapproved of his alleged behavior. But the open secret stayed a secret, because in Hollywood, sex in exchange for career advancement is considered consensual sex.

“He asked for a few massages? Waaah! Welcome to Hollywood!” That was the response one “top talent agent” gave Vulture when confronted with the allegations against Weinstein. To the agent’s minimal credit, the New Yorker had not yet published the accusations of rape. But the point stands: The entertainment industry is lousy with power-drunk men and beautiful young women determined to get good work—it would go against all documented knowledge of human nature if the former didn’t try to take advantage of the latter. The “casting couch” is as familiar a concept to those outside the industry as to those who might expect to find themselves on its well-worn cushions.

Quid pro quo sexual arrangements are considered sexual harassment in most workplaces because they distort the rules of consent. A woman who says yes to sex with her livelihood and reputation held over her head is not giving enthusiastic consent. A man who withholds career opportunities from women who don’t sleep with him is engaging in sex discrimination. That’s not to mention the damage done to women who don’t get parts because Weinstein doesn’t deign to creep on them—because his objectifying, sex-obsessed worldview renders certain women invisible or uninteresting to him. There is a not-uncommon perception that women who get jobs by having sex with their superiors are using patriarchal systems of power to their advantage, getting benefits their male counterparts don’t by exploiting the way male leaders treat women like garbage. (See also: the idea that Hugh Hefner advanced feminism by letting women expose themselves in his magazine.)

Certainly, there’s no wrong reason to have sex with someone, and all credit to the women who’ve found ways to survive against the odds in an industry built for men like Weinstein. But we should make no mistake: Sex acts in the context of a work environment and under the auspices of a quid pro quo agreement fall far short of consensual. For one thing, quid pro quo sex is not a valid contract. There’s nothing to prevent a man like Weinstein from going back on his promise to put a woman in one of his movies if she gives him a naked massage, and nothing to keep him from demanding more. Looking the other way while powerful men propose such arrangements creates an industry where men are judged based on their talent and charisma while women are judged by their talent, looks, and willingness to have sex with an otherwise undesirable man—or their inability to overcome the fear he provokes.

For this reason, some of the most affecting accounts of Weinstein’s alleged abuse have come from women whose violations might have otherwise been explained away as hovering in a gray area that doesn’t necessarily constitute harassment or assault. Asia Argento told the New Yorker that, after Weinstein sexually assaulted her, she continued to meet with him and engage in later consensual sex acts that were “onanistic.” “She knew this contact would be used to attack the credibility of her allegation,” the New Yorker piece states. Argento said she felt guilty and responsible for the assault—common sentiments among survivors of sexual abuse—and intimidated by Weinstein for years. She came forward anyway, an extraordinary act of unselfish bravery that has helped to establish Weinstein’s pattern and illuminate the complicated nature of sexual coercion.

Ditto the accounts of Liz Meriwether and Heather Graham, both of whom have written first-person essays about interactions with powerful men (Meriwether with an unnamed man, Graham with Weinstein) that had them feeling harassed but doubting themselves, because the men never groped them or explicitly asked for sex in exchange for work.* A patriarchal society asks impossible feats of female survivors of harassment—come forward immediately but not until there’s incontrovertible evidence and you can prove yourself a sexless, unimpeachable victim—leading many women to gaslight themselves after disturbing encounters. Am I crazy for feeling skeeved out? Was that wrong, or am I being hypersensitive? Would anyone believe me or care? Is this just how Hollywood works? Am I being silly and naïve?

“I know this is an inner dialogue many women have—it’s part of what’s holding so many of us back from sharing our stories,” Graham wrote. “We don’t want to be attacked for reading into something that may or may not have been there. We don’t want to be looked at as weak for not being able to handle ourselves in a business run by men.”

Because Graham and others came forward, Weinstein’s pattern of behavior is impossible to mischaracterize as harmless Hollywood lechery, and Hollywood lechery has become impossible to mischaracterize as harmless. What Weinstein allegedly did to Graham fits neatly into his own personal spectrum of sexual abuse and manipulation. Alone, her claim might have been brushed off. Together with accounts from Argento and others, it exposes the misogynist pathology that infects the entire industry.

Actually, make that every industry. The casting couch may be unique to Hollywood, but the idea that sexually flattering aggressive men is the price women must pay for career success is present in every field. I know women who work in higher-ed fundraising who have to smile and submit when they’re too slow to slip away from big donors who are known for their lingering hugs and sloppy kisses on the cheek. In Silicon Valley, women sit through their superiors’ suggestive rants about their open relationships and sexual proclivities. In broadcast news, they laugh politely when the chairman comments on their legs. For as long as women have been in the workforce, this has been their cost of earning a living alongside men.

This gender dynamic used to be openly encouraged. Now, it’s grudgingly accepted. If any real good is to come from Weinstein’s downfall, it must be destroyed. Men will sexually harass women as long as their well-meaning peers can credibly say that it’s just how the real world works.

*Correction, Oct. 11, 2017: This piece originally mischaracterized the subject of a personal essay by Liz Meriwether. (Return.)