Posted on 07 January 2020
This year my book on how to survive sexual harassment will be published. It is based on my experiences of working with many, many clients who have gone through difficult and traumatic experiences of sexual harassment and attack and want to come out the other side and live good, happy and fulfilled lives. I now know a lot about this area. I know that the majority of people respond similarly when they suffer unwanted sexual attention, especially at work. When I read about famous men accused of abuse, I recognise some very common patterns of behaviour and their ways of weakening, bamboozling and trapping potential victims.
Unsurprisingly this has been in my mind recently as Harvey Weinstein is back in the news. He may have been super-famous and super-powerful, but his behaviour is just the same tedious and tawdry litany as the sex pest who runs the local supermarket or the groper from the sales department at work.
There is a playbook for these guys and one of the good things about the publicity around Weinstein it is that it helps the rest of us to identify what it is.
The news matters to survivors
I was already working as a cognitive hypnotherapist specialising in the effects of sexual abuse and harassment as the scandals around Harvey Weinstein broke. These revelations made a difference to my working life. More clients got in touch for a start, as people who had suffered in silence for years decided it was time to do something. Many of my clients spoke about how they were following the stories about Weinstein and noticing similarities with their own lives.
It was not all positive. Some people said listening to the news was setting them back, one client described herself as being re-traumatised.
Every client’s experience was different, but nearly all were highly affected in some way and I try to utilise what they were seeing on TV and reading in the newspapers to help them.
The positives were that it showed they were not alone. And it showed they were not at fault. Horrible abuse could happen to some of the most famous and glamorous women in the world. The negatives were that it could feel to some as if they were having to relive their experiences. I worked with that as well.
I would not be surprised if I start to see another upsurge in clients because the early part of this year will see the start of Harvey Weinstein’s trial and the issues are already coming back into the news.
Ronan Farrow’s podcast
One of the ways Weinstein’s activities came to light was through the investigative work of several dogged, persistent and brave journalists. One of these, Ronan Farrow, (who shared a Pulitzer prize for his work) has made a podcast detailing the struggles he had as the establishment closed ranks and tried to bury the story, or ‘catch it and kill it’ in journalistic parlance. The podcast is called Catch and Kill and you can download it here. https://open.spotify.com/show/7DTFS97SNLnOTQYZwznvde
One episode, called The Assistants, details the stories of two young women who worked as assistants to Weinstein in the 1990s. I could not tear myself away from their story. Every five minutes I was shouting out: ‘Yes that it what happened to Jane, or Jo, or Sarah or . . . ‘. What the women Farrow interviews allege Weinstein did is exactly what so many of my clients suffered when they were attacked.
And this is what I want to get across. Weinstein may have been very rich, very famous and very powerful. He might have believed he was special, creative and clever beyond the norm. But he was nothing special. Weinstein’s behaviour pattens were so familiar to professionals like me who deal with people who have been sexually harassed and abused.
If you are interested in this area then I would recommend the podcast. I will not try to tell the whole story here, but I do want to pull out some of the main things which happened and which, for me seem to be so common.
Rowena Chiu and Zelda Perkins: dream jobs and nightmare harassment
The two women, Rowena Chiu and Zelda Perkins were in their mid-20s at the time they worked for Weinstein. They both tell stories of harassment and fear and they both carried the burden for decades without speaking out.
The Weinstein story broke in 2017, and Rowena Chiu was still was not ready to talk. She felt both personal and professional pressure to keep quiet. Yet she knew the silence was taking a toll. Today she says she is “still getting used to having found my voice.”
In finding her voice and telling her story to Ronan Farrow she has done a tremendous service to others who have suffered abuse or harassment. Despite the dream job and the glamorous surroundings her story resonates.
Whether he knew it or not, the stories the women tell suggests Harvey Weinstein was following a common pattern. The sexual harassment playbook is well-established.
It is designed to rob potential victims of their confidence, their agency and their independence. Often victims can end up feeling trapped and powerless. How does this happen? If we can understand and recognise it, then we have a better chance of stopping it.
I see it as a series of traps. And what happened to Rowena Chiu experiences a lot of them. Let’s take a look at those traps.
Trap one: the high-flying job
For many years my main practice was in Harley Street so I am very used to seeing high flyers. And I know the particular pressure this can bring if workplace harassment starts.
Rowena Chiu was a high flyer. An Oxford student who had spent some of her student time producing plays, she dreamed of a career in theatre but she knew how tough that could be. She felt her dreams had come true when a position as a junior assistant for the Miramax film company came her way. She says that it was a wonderful opportunity, Miramax was on the up, the cutting-edge film studio of the time, standing on that ideal cusp between arthouse and commercial cinema. It was her way into a star-studded creative industry.
She went to the company’s London office in Soho and there she met Zelda Perkins, the senior assistant to Weinstein. Although senior, Zelda was still only 24. Zelda also felt the glamour of the job. She describes the proximity to someone as powerful as Weinstein as very exciting.
She warned Rowena that the job would be ‘challenging’, the hours were very long, and travel would be extensive. She also said the Harvey Weinstein could be ‘hard to handle’.
In his interview with Rowena Chiu, Ronan Farrow asks if Zelda Perkins warned her about harassment. Rowena says she was warned that Weinstein would be difficult to deal with. He lost his temper, would speak in an inappropriate way and was generally known to be a pest.
But it was a dream job and Rowena accepted on the spot but as she says in the podcast:
“If you are going into a situation where you believe you are going to be raped nobody would take that job on.”
It is so hard to turn away from good career opportunities, and after all we never really know what will happen.
Trap two: normalisation of bad behaviour
I have seen this so often. Normalising of harassment and even abuse in a workplace culture is so common. And if it is a powerful figure at the top who is harassing and abusing, it is even more likely. And of course, in an atmosphere where everyone believes they have lucked out and got the best job in the world, it is even easier for everyone to turn a blind eye.
The potential victims have their dream job, they are working somewhere most of their friends would envy. Often this means they are desperate to somehow cope. They may even downplay what is going on, I can handle a nuisance they say. After all, they reason, going from a bully and a sex pest to a rapist can seem a long way. But often it isn’t.
Trap three: power-plays to undermine confidence
There is an established playbook here. Listening to Rowena Chiu, it seems Weinstein knew it and used it. One early experience she details is a textbook example.
The first day she met Harvey Weinstein she had to attend a film screening in a small Soho screening room. She has been briefed to do exactly what Weinstein asked. And he asked her to sit directly in front of him. She found this odd, as there were just six people in a 30-seat room. So, she moved to free up his sight-line, thinking she was doing the right thing. And she was shouted at, by Weinstein. She says she found this strange at the time as she was just trying to make his life easier.
She has had two decades to think about this strange episode and now sees it differently. She now describes it as a hazing. A test. A bullying. Would she stand up to it? Would she walk out?
I see this a lot. It is very hard to know what to do when someone behaves in an inappropriate way. It puts you off balance and is also quite unusual. Especially at work, we are used to people following a set of largely unspoken rules. If someone behaves differently, especially if they have power, it can send out a message that the potential abuser is special. He can behave in ways the rest of us cannot.
Trap four: workplace culture
Two months later, Rowena Chiu was working for Weinstein at the Venice film festival. Her role was to do the late shift after the evening events. Again, the transgressive behaviour was there from Weinstein. He would come back to his room and disrobe saying he was exhausted and it made him more comfortable. This was normalised in the culture at Miramax.
This sounds like something I see a lot in my work. It leads to what I call the ‘amazement moment’. A client will describe what happened and suddenly she will stop. Then she will say something like, ‘why did I put up with that?’ or ‘how could I have pretended that was okay?’
Often this can make victims feel guilty or stupid. They should not as it is all part of the pattern. Rowena Chiu puts it very well. She says you absorb a culture which is not explicitly explained to you. In her case, she says, one aspect of this was that Weinstein was too important to wear trousers.
Trap five: the breaking of professional boundaries
Another way Weinstein was not as unusual as he probably thinks, it’s how he used professional discourse to stretch and then break boundaries. Rowena Chiu describes how the conversations would start about the film scripts she had read. Then it would veer off into sexualised areas and inappropriate demands. Before long Weinstein would be saying that she had too many clothes on.
This was actually true! She did have too many clothes on! Taking advice from colleagues, she had taken to wearing two pairs of tights as protection and to keeping her jacket on. Somehow no one actually did anything about the man who was causing his assistants to use their clothing as a form of armour.
Trap six: the acceptance of intimidation
The night was a terrifying ordeal. Rowena Chiu says that Weinstein became more and more insistent that she remove her clothes. At this point another common pattern of behaviour was evident. Men tend to be bigger and stronger than women and often will use this to intimidate and get their own way. Rowena Chiu describes Weinstein at this point as big and angry. And making him even angrier was scary.
She was very clear she was saying no. But in this culture, in this ‘do what Harvey says’; world she still felt she needed to placate him. She remembers she said things like, ‘you are very tired, it’s getting very late’. She now describes this as a subversive power play, and says it very clear that any rational person would have heard ‘no’ perfectly clearly. But he didn’t stop. Weinstein took some of her clothes off and she realised she was in real trouble.
By making an excuse about picking up a phone she managed to escape, but only after being pushed onto the bed and generally terrified.
Trap seven: it’s work, you need to be there tomorrow
Then the next trap was there. Rowena Chiu remembers Weinstein saying: “we will pick this up tomorrow night.”
This is often the worse part of a sexual abuse scenario. If you met a pest at a party or got groped in a club you can walk away. If it is your job it is much harder. And the abuser knows it. Rowena says that what was going through her head at this time was, ‘how do make sure this does not happen tomorrow?
Trap eight: isolation and power
One thing she did do was tell her colleague Zelda Perkins. Zelda, who had herself been harassed by Weinstein, had hoped that her warning about Weinstein being ‘hard to handle’ would have somehow kept Rowena safe, and now she saw it hadn’t worked. They both ended up crying.
The reality of the situation began to hit both women. They were in a foreign country; a powerful boss controlled their ability to get transport out. They did not speak Italian or know the legal system so could they go to the police?
Zelda took action to protect Rowena. She worked both shifts the next day so Rowena did not have to be alone with Weinstein again.
Zelda Perkins says she did confront Weinstein but he denied that anything had happened.
They did get home. And they went to a lawyer. They survived and now tell what happened to the media.
Why it took them so long to speak out is another story, about power and non-disclosure agreements, which I will tell later.
Abuse is common and survival is possible
For now, I hope, if you have suffered sexual violence, you may see a pattern. This can help you understand that it is the abuser, not you who is to blame. It may inspire you to know that emotional survival is possible. Perhaps it will spur you on to seek help from someone like me. There are techniques which can help you overcome the trauma and the memories and begin to heal. You are not alone, you are not at fault, and you can come through this.
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