Many appalling realities have been exposed in 2017, not least the full scale of Donald Trump’s anti-democratic, pseudo-racist impulses. Among the unwanted revelations have been multiple sexual harassment scandals – implicating dozens of powerful men on both sides of the Atlantic. From Hollywood film sets to the corridors of Westminster, murky power structures have been revealed for all to see.
It started in early October, with a string of allegations against the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
On 5th October, The New York Times published a lengthy article detailing decades of allegations made by actresses against Weinstein. The same paper also logged allegations as far back as 30 years ago, and reported that Weinstein had continually paid off and threatened his accusers.
Weinstein responded to the report with a vague apology: ‘I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it. Though I’m trying to do better, I know I have a long way to go.’
He later told The Hollywood Reporter that he is preparing to sue The New York Times, though it seems unlikely this will come to fruition.
Yet the scandal didn’t halt here. Over the next few weeks, more actresses reached out to the media, corroborating each other’s experiences of working with Weinstein. Lupita Nyong’o was among those to tell her story, recalling being introduced to ‘the most powerful producer in Hollywood’ when she was a drama student in 2011. Nyong’o – now an Academy Award-winning actress – spoke about the first time she was harassed by Weinstein, at a private film screening not long after they met:
‘I settled in for the film, but about 15 minutes in, Harvey came for me, saying he wanted to show me something. I protested that I wanted to finish the film first, but he insisted I go with him, laying down the law as though I too was one of his children. I did not want another back-and-forth in front of his kids, so I complied and left the room with him. I explained that I really wanted to see the film. He said we’d go back shortly.
'Harvey led me into a bedroom — his bedroom — and announced that he wanted to give me a massage. I thought he was joking at first. He was not. For the first time since I met him, I felt unsafe. I panicked a little and thought quickly to offer to give him one instead: It would allow me to be in control physically, to know exactly where his hands were at all times.’
Most recently, the actress and producer Salma Hayek penned a powerful piece, detailing her fear of Weinstein, and exposing his cold rage:
‘I don’t think he hated anything more than the word “no.” The absurdity of his demands went from getting a furious call in the middle of the night asking me to fire my agent… to physically dragging me out of the opening gala of the Venice Film Festival… so I could hang out at his private party with him and some women I thought were models but I was told later were high-priced prostitutes.
'The range of his persuasion tactics went from sweet-talking me to that one time when, in an attack of fury, he said the terrifying words, “I will kill you, don’t think I can’t.”’
With so many high-profile actresses having experienced sexual harassment at the hands of Weinstein, the question arises: why wasn’t this exposed years ago?
As it turns out, Weinstein operated within the safety of an ‘army of spies’. Once again, The New York Times delved deep into Weinstein’s conduct, uncovering that he had hired private investigators to track actresses and journalists who were planning to speak out about the harassment they suffered. In the case of Rose McGowan, one of the investigators pretended to be a women’s rights activist and met with McGowan to extract information from her and track journalists who would potentially publish her story.
Though Weinstein’s behaviour took far too long to expose, the revelations finally surfaced – empowering women everywhere to reveal stories of sexual harassment in their own lives. This was facilitated by the #MeToo campaign – a social media movement started by actress Alyssa Milano. The campaign challenged the culture of silence around sexual harassment, enabling women and men to share their experiences.
With worldwide attention pinned on allegations of sexual harassment, the exposé snowballed. Next came accusations against the eminent actor Kevin Spacey. The claims spanned from the 1980s onwards, and involved a number of young men, and a smaller number of young women, from film-makers to bar workers, recalling that Spacey had groped and exploited them. One victim was only 14 years-old at the time. In a rather confusing plot-twist, Spacey responded to the claims by announcing on Twitter: ‘I now choose to live my life as a gay man’.
The stories of these victims spread like a wave across the Atlantic, even reaching the corridors of power in Westminster.
The first to fall was the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon. He resigned from his ministerial position on 1st November, saying his behaviour may have “fallen short” of the standards expected by the military. Although the specifics were vague at this point, a few days later Jane Merrick (former Political Editor of the Independent on Sunday) told her story – saying that Fallon harassed her while she was a junior journalist. Writing in The Guardian, Merrick revealed that after going to a restaurant with him for an interview, Fallon ‘lunged’ at her.
It was also later revealed that Andrea Leadsom had previously informed Downing Street that Fallon had made unwanted physical contact and lewd remarks to her. Although Fallon denied Leadsom’s allegations, the mounting complaints had pushed him to resign.
The Former Minister for Work and Pensions, Stephen Crabb, was also among the list of MPs accused of sexual harassment. He is being investigated by the Conservative Party after allegations of sending inappropriate texts to a 19 year-old who had applied to work for him. Crabb admitted that he had said “some pretty outrageous things” that “basically amounted to unfaithfulness”.
Damien Green, the former Secretary of State and Theresa May’s closest ally, has been the latest politician to fall from grace. He was ultimately sacked because he lied about a police investigation looking into whether he had pornography on his parliamentary computer, but he has also been accused of sexual harassment. Indeed, he had been under investigation after the journalist and Tory activist Jane Maltby revealed the minister’s inappropriate behaviour towards her on a number of occasions.
Yet such allegations are nothing new. Three years ago, Channel 4 investigated harassment in Westminster, finding that a third of the journalists they interviewed had experienced sexual harassment. Harassment has been an open secret in Westminster for years, but little has been done.
The structure of the parliamentary workforce makes it very difficult for those working for MPs and political parties to report harassment. MPs are essentially self-employed, and are therefore expected to deal with issues their staff may have. When an MP behaves inappropriately, staffers have nowhere to turn if they want to lodge a complaint. In other words, if you are a staffer and you have been harassed by your MP, you are forced to report the incident to the very same person who is harassing you.
It is hardly surprising that some people exploit their power, and the precarious nature of their industries. Yet, the sheer deluge of allegations has fundamentally shifted how people view such power structures.
Indeed, what has changed this year is not so much the accused, but the accusers. Women in junior positions have for generations put up with, even accepted, harassment as part and parcel of having a career. Now, they are no longer willing to simply ‘manage’ harassment, and take it as the granted norm. And the multitude of victims sharing similar stories has helped to lessen the fear of speaking out. Finally, exploitative power structures can no longer be ignored; the elephant in the room is at last being acknowledged.
Beth Fisher is the Editor-in-Chief of Backbench