Among the biggest questions lingering from the Harvey Weinstein scandal is how this secret—which apparently wasn’t much of a secret at all—could have been kept for so long. It’s especially amazing since keeping this silence involved a lot of talking: Lawyers were talking to and paying off women who had been abused to keep them quiet; Hollywood elites and industry leaders were calling in favors to quash damning stories in the press; and some female actresses were quietly warning each other about how to avoid becoming another Weinstein victim.
It’s understandable why many of the women who were assaulted or harassed by Weinstein were reluctant to go public: Taking on such a powerful figure in their industry could make enemies and cripple their careers. Moreover, as so many of the women who are now coming forward heartbreakingly explain, they were inevitably second guessing the decisions that they made in the lead up to or the time of the incident. In hindsight, many felt they should have known that it was a mistake to go up for a meeting in a hotel suite or to have not immediately recoiled from the first inappropriate comment or touch. They placed part of the blame on themselves, when the blame should rest solely on the monster who clearly preyed on women.
Silence, or failing to publicly out this sexual predator, allowed Weinstein, and others like him, to operate. Stopping future Weinsteins and changing the culture that protected him for decades starts by encouraging women and men to speak out against such predators.
Yet changing the culture won’t be easy, and unfortunately there will always be men who prey on young women. That’s why it’s a shame that some needed discussions are being short-circuited. Take the vitriolic response to Mayim Bialik’s New York Times op-ed, which called out Hollywood for a culture that objectifies women and describes how she managed her own journey through the industry:
I always made conservative choices as a young actress, largely informed by my first-generation American parents who were highly skeptical of this industry in general — “This business will use you up and throw you away like a snotty tissue!”— and of its men in particular: “They only want one thing.” My mom didn’t let me wear makeup or get manicures. She encouraged me to be myself in audition rooms, and I followed my mother’s strong example to not put up with anyone calling me “baby” or demanding hugs on set.
Sure, some of Bialik’s piece reeks of superiority: She wisely followed guidance that others didn’t. After a lifetime of feeling inferior for not being cast as a pretty girl, Bialik seems to revel a bit in the benefits of not having faced this kind of objectification. Bialik should have taken more care to make clear that she wasn’t victim-blaming—that women dressing more provocatively or pursuing sexier roles were in no way “asking for it,” and that harassment and assault is never justified.
Yet the attacks on her also go too far and could backfire in terms of discouraging people from offering sound advice to young women about best practices for staying safe and dealing with men (and women) in workplaces, particularly when the complicated matters of sex become involved.
Offering advice about how to protect oneself—to minimize risks and avoid the worst situations—is in no way giving a pass to those who would seek to exploit women. It doesn’t mean women who don’t perfectly follow these guidelines are in some way responsible for becoming the victims of a crime or for being harassed. Rather it is simply an important way to help women navigate our incredibly imperfect world.
I wonder if those who publicly slammed Bialik would really hesitate to offer their own daughter or younger sister similar, commonsense advice and warnings about the dangers of predatory men. Just as today I warn my children never to get in the car with a stranger, to stay close to home, particularly after dark, and about what is okay and not okay for a grown up to do or say to them, in the future, I’m sure I’ll be lecturing my kids—but particularly my daughters—about how to handle bosses and colleagues. I’ll warn them that, while men can be great mentors, they need to be on the lookout for men who will play the part but have another agenda; to be particularly cautious in outside-of-work situations, especially when alcohol might be involved, which can lead to awkward situations. And yes, I’ll lecture them about the messages they might inadvertently send, not because I would blame them if something terrible happened, but because I’m old enough to know that you can decrease the risk of bad things happening by taking precautions.
It can’t just be up to mothers to give such advice to young women, just as mothers alone can’t be the only ones instructing their sons on how to always respect and treat women properly. We all know that even mom’s best advice can be easily discounted by the young. That’s why we should want these messages to be echoed everywhere.
Of course, the real responsibility for ending harassment and sexual assault lies with the perpetrators. They alone are responsible for their actions and need to be held to account. But while important steps are underway to prevent serial abusers like Weinstein, we have to live in the world as it is, and make sure that young women are well-informed about the dangers they face and are empowered to protect themselves.