I was on a treadmill one afternoon, two days into the Harvey Weinstein scandal breaking, when I jumped to the sides to gasp for breath through panicked tears.
As I have read one chilling story after the next from generous women willing to detail their sexual harassment by Weinstein, I can’t help but notice that most of these women said no to him. I didn’t. When I was 21 interning in Hollywood and my producer boss asked me to sleep with him, I said yes.
In college, more than I wanted to be an actor (certain failure), I was terrified of being a disappointment. So I pursued the next best thing — I set out to be a producer. My parents had invested a lot in me, and expected a lot of me, and I was a straight-A good girl with a lot of terror. If I were going to repress my dreams of being Dianne Wiest, I would squelch them in the pursuit of being Sherry Lansing.
On a winter break trip to Sundance Film Festival with some film school buddies, I met a group of fun and friendly influential producers who liked to party and took a shining to us sparkly hipster kids. One of them in particular had a crush on me. Not the above board kind where numbers are exchanged and a date planned; the murky kind, with a business card, attention off to the side of a group; the kind that has to exist beneath words because of the ambiguous line between people in power and the kids who want to get hired by them. While I didn’t match his feelings and somewhere feared I was playing with fire, his interest in me felt like a lifeline. I didn’t have any connections to the field or know how to go from being a kid to a professional. He was a hotshot executive, young enough to feel sort of like a peer but old enough to have the power of a VP. I did not want his sexual attention, I just wanted an opportunity to work. But I didn’t receive an offer for one without the other. There were no boundaries.
That summer I got an internship assisting said producer. He flirted with escalating effort, via email and text and in private time in his office. He got me into film festivals that no other intern was invited to. I participated in that dynamic. I did not know how not to. The relationship had started flirtatiously in the winter, and now that I was working for him I did not know how to redefine the terms or the tenor. Changing it didn’t seem like an option, I was just trying to maintain status quo. He was the best professional reference I would have when I needed a job after college. At the very least, he was a guy I needed not to say bad things about me in Hollywood.
I did not want his sexual attention, I just wanted an opportunity to work. But I didn’t receive an offer for one without the other.
Even that much perspective is more clarity than I had that summer. All I had was a mess of feelings too dangerous to untangle: gratitude for special treatment, impulsivity, fear, wishing for the path of least resistance, wild insecurity, and trying to keep up with the fancy people. I certainly did not have the perspective to see the unthinkable intimidation involved in making sexual advances on someone so far down the totem pole at the workplace. So, when he suggested coming over after work one Friday, I let him, I slept with him, and I couldn’t get him out of the apartment fast enough. All of that was easier than saying no thanks, and briefer than accompanying him to Santa Barbara, which was his original request. The only problem were these pesky feelings of resistance, the ones I would surely be able to ignore.
That was June. I was supposed to work for him for another two months. Was I a girl who sleeps her way up the ladder? How did that happen?
What followed were the thoughts and behaviors of someone in fear: for her finances, her future, her reputation, her self-worth. In short, her survival. They are not the actions of someone who made a consensual choice based on sexual attraction and romantic intrigue. I wanted to escape the memory and consequences of that night with all the terror of a lost child. But if I had been afraid of damaging my future before, I was triply afraid now. Not only did I have to maintain equilibrium with my boss (putting on a happy face, trying to keep my distance without making him dislike me, indicate neither escalation or deescalation; to be perfect and emotionless) I had to keep anyone from ever finding out that I was a bankrupt cliche of loathsome indignity. That's what I thought about myself.
The short of it is: I somehow managed to keep this guy at bay for the rest of the summer, matching his tone but not acting on it, avoiding his office alone, wiggling out of any extra curricular invitations, generating a constantly evasive list of excuses with warmth and feigned interest. And at the end of the summer, I burned up that “safer” plan of becoming a producer and ran furiously in the opposite direction towards artistry. It’s kind of a happy ending.
The long of it is: I binged on food, ferociously. I visited the break room every hour to replenish my sugar high on mini Snickers and frozen yogurt until a solid twenty pounds in eight weeks later. I took Adderall; I got a prescription for Adderall. I binge drank. I woke up one morning behind the wheel of my car somewhere near Will Rogers Park with a bleeding cut — not from a crash, thank God, but from hitting my head in the swimming pool of someone I could barely remember from hours prior before attempting to drive home. I had daily recurring nightmares that Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs — the guy who keeps women in a pit for a week before turning them into a human skin suit — was trying to break into my sublet in Santa Monica. I was mentally and chemically running as fast as I could away from myself, climbing and clawing my way out of this death pit, while counting down the days I had trapped myself in this job where I had to, had to, leave a good impression with the guy who would not stop sending me one line G-chats asking me to come into his office. I was checking the hell out of my life. The trauma didn’t stop that night in June, it hurt me over and over again.
When I slept with the boss, it didn’t look like Harvey Weinstein trapping me in his hotel room. With the inexperienced eyes of a 21-year-old, it actually looked a lot more like love, I thought. But a bad kind of love that I should never have entertained and only did because I was some opportunistic Tracy Flick type, unprincipled and dishonest and not good enough to be taken seriously for her robust intelligence and peerless hard work. Because years of therapy have transformed my self-esteem and self-awareness, I was gutted to find myself suddenly in the middle of that gym last week, panting for air between choked sobs. I had said yes. I had said yes. I can’t believe I said yes.
I’ve learned that the experiences I am ashamed of are rarely strange and unique to me. If I’m feeling guilt and self loathing, more likely than not, there is a legion of other women having a similar experience.
To those women I say: I am not ashamed of us. We did not fail. We are not morally corrupt —- not at all. Many of us were, knowingly or unknowingly, terrified of what would happen if we so much as demurred male attention at the workplace (if even that were something we could control), because it was tethered to our economic livelihood, our dreams, our survival. I understand this now: sexual intimidation doesn’t have to look like a bad man in his hotel room in order to intimidate.
Intimidated, in a state of fight or flight, looking for the path of least resistance, for many of us that path is consent. We made a different choice to protect ourselves than the people who protected themselves by running out of a room. Like a well-behaved rabbit in the jaws of a wolf, rather than struggle, we went limp. I went limp.
If one is in a position of economic power over a “partner,” can consent ever be clear, even to the consenter herself? How does either participant know if consent is made in fear? The very archetype I punished myself with — this intern with loose morals who sleeps her way to the top (The top of what, by the way? Where is she then? Is there not still some guy more powerful that she had to fuck to get there?) is a complete logical fallacy. It is a fiction that situates the locus of power in her. This femme fatale who somehow exudes the power to slay producers who outrank in every single way — age, status, security, reputation, cohorts — doesn’t acknowledge the reality. There is no such thing, there is no such woman. What it looks like is this: a coercive, oppressive power imbalance in which saying yes is not the alternative to saying no. It is the alternative to being poor, unemployed and unemployable. To say nothing of having what her heart truly wants: satisfying work.
Genevieve Angelson is a writer, actor and activist, living in Los Angeles and New York with her dog, Jack Lemmon.