Be brave: speak out against harassment

To my children, Rachel and Jonathan:

I’m shocked that so many people are shocked: Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood icon and film producer, has been accused of sexually harassing women — women who worked in his company, actresses, as well as others who sought his advice about how to break into and succeed in the challenging film industry. Apparently, many individuals and institutions actively sought to cover up his multiple instances of sexual harassment.

You’re both about to graduate, one from college and one from law school, on the verge of venturing into the professional world, so I have a few things I want to say to you. First, a confession: I began this letter addressed only to Rachel. But the more I thought about it, the more I believe it’s essential that I include you too, my son.

Too many people in powerful positions — whether it’s in the White House, Hollywood, the State House, law firms, boardrooms or other workplaces — believe they are entitled. And I mean that in the broadest possible sense. Not only do these folks believe they are entitled to grand salaries and obsequious treatment, but too many believe they are entitled to treat you as their plaything. The “mightily entitled,” as I’ll call them, have both power and control.

The women who sought advice from Harvey Weinstein wanted to learn from his incredible success as a film producer. He could open doors, help launch their careers or kill their careers. Many of them were just starting out, like you both are, and were seeking to learn at the foot of a master in their field. Who would have ever thought they’d have to deal with someone asking for a massage and oral sex or demanding sex, followed by rape?

It’s too easy to say that his victims should have filed a complaint with Human Resources, called the police or told a friend (and there are reports that these actions were taken). Abuse by its very nature makes victims question whether they did something wrong or were somehow at fault. Imagine how difficult it would be to “tell” on a giant in your field. But that is exactly what I would want you to do.

It is only through brave women willing to share their experiences that others feel comfortable coming forward. Just like sexual assault on campus, people who experience abuse often feel they are the only ones, that they must somehow be to blame. It’s not unusual for an abuser to threaten harm for disclosure. Secrecy is a cloak by which an abuser can continue to prey upon others. But we also know, and research bears out, that when women know they are not alone, they are more willing to come forward.

As you begin your careers, you will seek out the wise counsel of elders in your fields. And you should. But I want to remind you, just like I did when you were young children: If someone treats you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, you need to tell someone. Rachel, I know far too many young women who have been fondled in the workplace, who have received highly inappropriate texts or been touched by wandering hands after a few after-hours drinks. While I hope that never happens to you, I hope you will tell someone, and know that your dad, brother and I are here to help you. And of course, your brother is not immune from abuse either, but the reality is that most often it’s a woman who is on the receiving end.

And Jonathan, I know men who have confronted other men when they’ve witnessed something abusive. These allies to their female colleagues have been direct in calling out their male peers. That’s not easy to do, but it’s crucial to creating a new culture, one where abuse is not tolerated. I hope you would be brave enough to take action. Rachel, you also have a duty to be an ally if you witness abuse.

I realize we live in a time when our commander in chief is suspected of engaging in the very behavior I’ve decried, yet he was elected to the most powerful position in the world. But you are our community’s best hope that things can change to create a culture where we won’t have to have this conversation anymore. Perhaps then, sexual harassment and abuse will be so rare that there will come a time when we really would be shocked to hear about it.

Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat, represents Baltimore County in the Maryland General Assembly; her email is shelly@shellyhettleman.com.

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