I often think back to why I and others who have experienced the violation and trauma of sexual abuse, in any form, do not speak out sooner or later.
In the early eighties, in a state in the middle of North America, I experienced sexual harassment and assault while working behind the scenes on a movie for a major film company. My job was that of liaison between my town and the company's California offices during on-location preproduction. My duties included scouting, taking notes, and keeping track of details between the local film commission and the production about to descend into this, at the time, non right-to-work state. I was a young single mom, eager to pursue my career at the time in an industry that I loved.
On a sunny afternoon, in search of an old movie theater setting for a scene, I and a group of five men visited a seedy building with a tattered marquee in a shabby part of town. This was not your local family movie chain. The assault happened in the cavernous house while I and one of the key members of the team wandered into the back of this dark theater to check out the look of the room. An explicit flick was alight on the screen. This prominent figure, almost twenty years older than I, began by grabbing me close and tightly from behind, by my arms, and whispering a sexually-charged remark. Although shocked, I was fortunate to be able to release myself from his grip and say, "No!" It could have turned out a lot worse. I immediately left the space and returned to the lobby where the others were meeting with the theater manager. I was scared and shook up but told no one.
Saying "No!" doesn't always mean you are safe. Sometimes there is no time, ability or clarity of mind to say anything. But always, the incident remains with you.
The following 10 reasons why women don't speak out for years after being harassed, abused and violated by famous men are in the past tense but, unfortunately, they often still apply today.
1. Years ago, sexual harassment was not acknowledged as a crime: In a 1986 landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment can be sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. The case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson ruled that speech in itself can create a hostile environment which violates the law. Still, reported sex crimes weren't always taken seriously.
2. If this happened to you (a woman or man) and you spoke out, you could have easily been fired: I confided in a female acquaintance over coffee about the abuse I encountered at the hands of this man. She was inquiring about work on the film. Within days I was fired without explanation and she was hired, albeit in a different position. Slowly but surely I and others came to learn that, at that time, the culture of this production company was one of secret, questionable behaviors that select persons were subtly encouraged to participate in or otherwise let go. In other words, if you didn't participate and become complicit, you were gone. Before a production headquarters had been established, the key team held a meeting in a hotel room before the director came to town. A large bowl of Quaaludes was set out like M&M's. I had no interest in partaking, so when things got quiet -- the meeting was never officially adjourned, in fact my perpetrator lay on one of the beds watching TV -- I asked if the meeting was over, gathered my paperwork, and quickly headed out the door.
3. You were seduced/groomed/coerced into believing that if you complied with the desires of those who could hire or help you, you'd wind up with work: In some circles, the plush casting couch of those in power in the entertainment business and beyond was often alive and well when hiring persons or promising work in front and behind the scenes.
4. There was a good chance no one would believe or support you: Whether or not abuse was work related, there was often a culture of peer pressure to not speak. Doing so risked losing the social standing of the survivor as well as her friends or co-workers. The pressure was to go along, be quiet about the incident, or do both.
5. The denial factor by others was easy when it came to someone who loomed larger than life, especially if the perpetrator's reputation was a wholesome one: If this violation occurred in your town, you could be left with a cloud of suspicion and disgrace surrounding you even though you were the survivor, while the celebrity would move on to another city, wearing his bigger-than-life persona as his shiny shield. Reactions could likely be: Why would he want to do that to you? He can have anyone he wants! What did you do to provoke him? In a recent interview on the Howard Stern radio show, Lady GaGa revealed that when she was a teenager, a producer roughly twenty years her elder took advantage of her. She admitted that her song, "Swine" from her recording, ARTPOP, is about rape, "...about fury and passion, and I had a lot of pain that I wanted to release." She continued, "The song is about demoralization. The song is about rage... I wasn't even willing to admit that anything had even happened." It took years for her to face what happened. "I saw him one time in a store, and I was paralyzed by fear."
What is not often realized is that this crime is one of power over a person above everything else and sex is the weapon. When I first read Susan Brownmiller's 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, it provided the ah-ah moment that I had felt in my gut all along. This was not the first time I had been a survivor of sexual abuse. This was not the first time I was a survivor of sexual assault.
6. Police often offered little sympathy or understanding to women in such situations: Sex Crimes Units were few and far between in the U.S. at the time. One day, while working from home on the film's production, I called the local sergeant to ask if we could use local police uniforms for several film actors for authenticity. When my toddler began to cry in the background, he quickly said, "Why don't you go take care of your child instead of working?" With two attacks from two men of power, there was no way I felt able to share these incidents with the institution each came from.
7. A abuser who is famous has access to a team of attorneys to defend him: You most likely do not.
8. If you were scared, traumatized and scarred, you just wanted to forget that the abuse ever happened: But you couldn't -- for the rest of you life.
9. You thought you were alone; that this had only happened to you: You were most likely wrong.
10. You were a product of your times; you had no idea what to do: A cigarette ad slogan that remained popular at the time slyly told us: "You've Come a Long Way, Baby." It's easy to look back now and say, "Really?"
Whenever I see that man's name roll by in film credits, I cringe. Although he may be an artistic genius, to me he's a jerk of a man. I think about the ongoing line of young women who were flown in and out on weekends during his stay as eye candy on his arm, and who knows where else, and realize that I now see them differently, as a different kind of victim.
I didn't speak out then, but if he was accused of sexual abuse today, I would not hesitate to step forward in what I am guessing would be a long line of women who would also do so. Still, why wouldn't I choose to not be the first in that line? Those who do not understand sexual abuse and/or who have never experienced it may wonder: If these accusations are true, why do these women wait so long to speak up? Perhaps because when we do, we've finally come far enough, become wise enough, old enough, brave enough and bold enough to speak out, especially when we learn we are not alone. Perhaps our example will offer others of all ages, strata, and cultures the courage to do the same.
When I see thousands of people rightfully marching publicly against injustice against people of color, I wonder when thousands will take to the streets against injustice against women and men of all colors who have been violated, trafficked, and held as slaves around the world.
The women now choosing to reveal information about their alleged Bill Cosby encounters gave me the courage to write his. Now I invite you to write ten reasons why you should speak out if you ever become a person sexually violated by another person, famous or otherwise.