It is always strange to evolve into the knowledge that something is pervasive. Not just that it exists—although sometimes that’s a shock too. But realizing, bit by bit, that the fabric of your experience is soaked in a solvent odorless and colorless yet nonetheless real is its own category of coming of age. It can be lovely or it can suck.
Over the past few years, one thing that many of us, the ones lucky enough to be relatively sheltered, have come to perceive as pervasive is sexual harassment. As of last Thursday film executive Harvey Weinstein joined Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and president Donald Trump in the ranks of powerful men recently exposed as serial abusers. Weinstein’s predations were described as an “open secret”—the phrase captures our country’s confused relationship to sexual assault in general. But something about the impunity with which this latest dirtbag dominated and threatened dozens of women, licensed by a culture of enabling, misogyny, shame, and silence, turned subtext into text. When victims’ testimonies appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times, and then literally everywhere you could look, it felt like the kind of watershed moment we lived through after the release of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, in which the now-president bragged about using his celebrity to get away with groping women. The ubiquitous responses from female actors, writers, anyone with an internet connection—all blazing with recognition, all saying me too—amalgamated into a radioactive hunk of evidence too hot to ignore.
Then a group of anonymous journalists made a spreadsheet naming “shitty media men.” For women in the industry who saw the list, replete with allegations of rape and assault tacked onto our friends, acquaintances, heroes, and colleagues, the soup of sexual misbehavior we seemed to move through only grew thicker. The document likely mixed truths with untruths, which just made the whole dismal murk of the soup situation worse—these crimes (crimes?) were everywhere and nowhere, always slipping from our grasp.
Sexual harassment and abuse “cuts across every demographic line,” says Samantha Manewitz, a licensed sex therapist who specializes in trauma. “Socio-economic, religious, political, gender … it really can happen to anyone.” In the dream logic of this moment, does it follow that harassment happens to everyone? On the phone with Manewitz, I couldn’t formulate the questions I wanted to ask. I sought a diagnosis for this condition: The victim is never someone you know until, suddenly, she feels like the sum of all the women you know.
We can barely define our terms. This fever tormenting us—is it assault, harassment, creepiness, objectification, contempt? Where does it come from? It feels like atmosphere, internal and external, those phantom toxins you supposedly inhale and have to flush out of your system with green juice. In October of last year, writing about Trump’s “unique and sickening ability to resurface memories of abuse,” Michelle Goldberg observed: “It’s as if [he has] shaken a psychic snow globe, and now flickers of half-remembered horror are floating through the atmosphere all around us.” Those of us fortunate enough not to have experienced sexual assault are currently bearing witness to the struggles of our friends who weren’t so lucky. I’ve had conversations with female colleagues about their harassment and conversations with other female colleagues about miraculously avoiding harassment and what does that mean and is something wrong with them and what a fucked up question that is.
There are numberless ways to respond to trauma. Choose your own adventure! There’s fight (what aspiring model Ambra Gutierrez bravely did by going to the police after Weinstein fondled her), flight (how a journalist at the Ringer says she reacted to a drunk man trailing her around her neighborhood), freeze (what 90 percent of victims of sexual harassment do, according to experts), and fawn (some survivors, Manewitz told me, try desperately to please their abusers, because a gratified predator is less likely to hurt them). Some responses fit uneasily between categories. After Roman Polanski raped her, Samantha Geimer publicly forgave the director, asserting “I’m not going to carry a bunch of resentment. Much worse things have happened to people.” Women who enter into relationships with monsters may wish to protect themselves from the knowledge that they were harmed or exploited against their will. The most important ingredient in healing, says Manewitz, is the ability to control what your recovery looks like.
But how should we process each other’s pain? The news cycle “can activate stuff” for survivors, confirms Manewitz. “They are inundated with vicarious trauma on top of their own recovery.” The rest of us may feel “slowly eroded.” When a beautiful, respected, influential actor like Rose McGowan is booted from Twitter while discussing her rape, it is hard not to feel as though our own cascading feelings have nowhere to go. Together we are using our hands to explore the outline of something we can’t see, protesting at its jagged edges. This week it was rough to be a woman.