clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Harvey Weinstein’s first accusers paved the way for more

Accusations can set off a domino effect. But why don’t we treat the first accuser with the same respect as the 20th?

Ashley Judd at the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017
Ashley Judd at the Women’s March on Washington on January 21, 2017.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Katherine Kendall was 23 when producer Harvey Weinstein convinced her to come to his apartment, she told the New York Times. Once there, she recalled, he stripped naked, stood between her and the door, and asked her to show him her breasts.

When he finally let her leave, she told Michael Barbaro of the Daily podcast on Wednesday, he went so far as to get into a cab with her, then wait for 20 minutes watching her after she got out. But she didn’t report his actions publicly at the time.

“I think that when people perpetrate against you, you are the one that feels the shame,” she said. “You think that it’s just you.”

Kendall is now one of many women with strikingly similar allegations against Weinstein. Their statements in recent days have followed a pattern common in cases of alleged sexual assault or harassment by powerful men: Once enough women have spoken publicly, they set off a domino effect, in which many more women feel safe enough to come forward. Unfortunately, this often happens years or even decades after the first alleged incidents took place. The stories now pouring out about Weinstein, then, raise some questions: Why do dozens of people have to accuse a powerful man before he faces consequences? And why don’t we treat the first accuser with the same respect as the 20th?

In the past week, articles at the New York Times and the New Yorker have told the stories of women who say Weinstein harassed or assaulted them. The initial wave included Ashley Judd, Asia Argento, Mira Sorvino, Rosanna Arquette, and several others. Since these stories were published, even more women have spoken out, including Cara Delevingne, Romola Garai, and Léa Seydoux. A list at Vox includes, as of this writing, more than 25 women who have accused Weinstein of harassment or assault. The allegations have also inspired at least one woman to speak out about another man in Hollywood: On Tuesday, Hilarie Burton said Ben Affleck had groped her in 2003, when she was 21. Affleck has apologized.

We’ve seen this kind of outpouring before. Allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby had been public and mostly ignored since 2005, but after Hannibal Buress mentioned them in a comedy routine in 2014, even more women began to come forward. In 2015, 35 of Cosby’s accusers appeared on the cover of New York magazine. By 2016, there were at least 58 accusers, their allegations going back to the 1960s.

A similar thing happened with Roger Ailes, the former CEO of Fox News. After Gretchen Carlson sued him for sexual harassment in 2016, a number of other women came forward with similar allegations. “If one person breaks her silence and comes forward,” Emily Crockett wrote at Vox at the time, “it can open the floodgates and embolden other victims to add their stories as testimony.” She also noted that the many women speaking out about Cosby may have influenced others come forward to accuse Ailes. And it’s possible that the many women who spoke up in both of those cases helped pave the way for those who are now speaking out about Weinstein.

Sadly, it’s easy to see why so many women stay silent for so long. Most people who are assaulted never report the crime — estimates of the share of assaults reported to law enforcement range from 5 to 20 percent, according to the Washington Post. In Weinstein’s case, many women were afraid of retaliation, according to Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker. In fact, many said they believed their careers had been damaged because they said no to Weinstein or complained about his behavior. In cases where accusers reached a settlement with Weinstein, they may be bound by nondisclosure agreements. Others who keep silent may fear the public humiliation and harassment that women who accuse powerful men so often have to endure.

Some women, meanwhile, may fear that what was a traumatic event for them will just be brushed off by others. “I wasn’t sure if people would care,” Kendall told The Daily of her alleged abuse by Weinstein. After all, she said, Weinstein had never actually touched her. “If I’m not bleeding,” she asked, “then does it really matter?”

All of these stories are a reminder that too often, it may not be safe for one person to speak up about harassment or assault. It’s too easy for her to be smeared, silenced, belittled, or disbelieved. Instead, powerful men can operate with impunity for decades, until their victims are simply too numerous to ignore.

Changing that will require creating networks, formal and informal, to help women report their experiences and get help. It also means protecting and supporting women who choose to speak publicly. Due in part to the approach of Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education on the issue of campus sexual assault, there’s a public perception that supporting survivors of abuse and assault means suspending due process for the accused. But we don’t need to summarily throw men in handcuffs in order to do much better than we’re doing now. What we need to do is listen, and investigate, and care, rather than subjecting those who say they’ve been abused to even more abuse.

In her interview with The Daily, Kendall described the solidarity she now feels with all the other women who have come forward to tell stories like hers. “I already feel like I’m silently holding hands with the other women that have been through this,” she said, “and there’s a great power in that.”

Anyone who comes forward about sexual assault should feel this kind of support from others. And it shouldn’t be silent.