Sexual Harassment : It’s Not Just For Actresses
Like most people with an internet connection, I read last Friday’s New York Times piece detailing legendary movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades long campaign of sexual harassment and assault. I wasn’t shocked to hear that a man in such a rarified position of power used his standing to sexually coerce, cajole, and intimidate young women who, it should be noted, were not remotely on the same playing field. Give me a show of hands if you’re a woman surprised to learn that a man exploited his place of power for his own gratification. Disappointed? Sure. Exasperated and disgusted? Yup. Shocked? I don’t think so. If I am wrong, please, escort me to this magical land in which you live, where inequality doesn’t result in those with a buggy moral code acting out their basest impulses with impunity because, quite frankly, they can.
What did shock me was that women were finally coming forward to publicly describe their harrowing hotel room experiences with Weinstein. After thirty plus years of monstrous predation without consequences, the dam of silence surrounding Weinstein broke, revealing that each woman is not alone in her experience and, collectively, they no longer have to fear retribution for being honest. In the face of so much sadness, trauma, grief, and the recognition of careers and lives thwarted, the act of defiance through speaking up was exhilarating to behold.
Sometimes we tell a friend or a parent. Sometimes we tell no one. Sometimes we are over powered or try desperately to be polite, still holding on the to dwindling wick of social norms. Sometimes we say, “Get your fucking hand off me.” Sometimes we back out of the room and keep running. Sometimes we are paralyzed and get rolled, go home, take a shower, hope that it was just this once and now we will be left alone. Sometimes the shame and horror derails our lives, our relationships, our art, and our bright futures. When one person holds all the power, even if that power is perceived or illusionary, that’s mad math to do in a split second in order to continue moving forward with your career, to continue doing the art you were born to do, to continue to afford your bills, or just to get safely out of the room.
Sexual predation and harassment happen everywhere, not just in the entertainment business. This specific industry, however, seems primed for exploitation because if you are an artist and want to work, you are dependent on a system in which you initially possess very little currency. Your success rests on connecting with people who admire your art, support you, like you, cast or hire you, and ensure you get your work out in front of as many people as possible. No one works in a vacuum or is completely independent. Your early value rests on the buzz of people who spread their positive perception of you and your work, especially in this era of social media where there is very little separation of art from the artist.
The majority of Harvey Weinstein’s victims were young women who were either at the very nascent stage of their careers or who hadn’t yet worked. His was a deliberate calculation. He innately understood this to be the most vulnerable and precarious period, when one’s reputation as an artist is being built and when one relies on each and every opportunity. President Trump said in 2016 that his daughter Ivanka would never stand to be sexually harassed, telling USA Today, “I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case.” That’s bullshit for a myriad of reasons, but ultimately when your career is your art, there is no other company to which you can turn.
In the 15 years I was writing songs, singing, playing guitar, and touring the country to perform, I was doing the very thing I knew deep in my bones I was born to do. Over time, I was astounded to discover I could actually make a living doing what I loved most in this world. But during the first couple of years, I slept alone in my minivan at rest stops more than in a bed. On days when the weather was too inclement to busk in Brattleboro for enough money to buy a travel size box of tampons, I availed myself of gas station restroom paper towels. I relied on the kindness of a man in Burlington to feed me after an open mic, when I had enough cash from tape sales to get back to NY but not enough for a meal. The men who came to my sales table after a gig were more inclined to tell me their life stories and deeply held secrets than put their hand on my ass and more men than I can count escorted me into a dark parking lot as I packed up to leave for the night.
True, I’ve never had a listener grab my ass. In Boston, they gave me long, close hugs to thank me for my music. In Richmond, they followed me to my minivan and held the driver’s door open so that I couldn’t drive away while they critiqued my songs, long after I desperately needed to get to wherever I was going to sleep. They wrote personal emails and sent confessional letters to my PO Box from Tampa, Baltimore, Omaha, Pittsburgh. They sent me t-shirts they had worn and asked me for signed photographs or used picks and one guy from Kent, CT had the temerity to ask for a tank top I had worn at a show in Kingston. In Ithaca, one gave me his journals, demanding I turn them into art. In late 1998, an older man came to every single one of my shows across New England and repeatedly offered to drive me home to Massachusetts. Over four months, he wrote increasingly desperate letters proclaiming his devotion to me, and once followed me on a late night train back to suburban NY after a gig in Manhattan (eventually he moved his obsession onto another female singer-songwriter and years later I discovered he had done the same to multiple performers in succession). I was a young woman traveling the country alone in a minivan, writing highly personal music and performing in intimate venues. The boundary between performer and audience was razor thin by design and it would disingenuous to say there was not an element of sexuality and seduction to what I did for a living. And so, at the very start of my career, began the calculus: how fiercely can I stand up to inappropriate behavior from a listener without alienating them to the point where they won’t come to a show or buy a CD or will say negative things about me on a message board? Do I hold the power if I am the object of their attention?
The music business is another story entirely.
I limited my career to the outer rings of the independent music scene, yet I was able for many years make a living doing something I loved. Small scale, yes, but deeply gratifying. I‘ve had the privilege to work with hundreds of thoughtful, dedicated venue people who genuinely love music and the people who make it. I’ve worked with agents, managers, label employees, PRO reps, lighting crews, sound techs, stage managers, studio engineers, producers, and thousands of volunteers who were respectful and professional. I know how lucky I am.
I say this because even as an independent singer-songwriter far outside the mainstream music business, I still experienced the kind of power inequality that makes standing up to sexual harassment extremely difficult. After fourteen years of writing and performing, after three solo records and a wildly successful collaborative project with three other women, after traveling to every state but the Dakotas and Arkansas (Sorry Little Rock!) and thousands of gigs of all sizes and venues, after achieving confidence in my writing and rounding the bend into my late thirties, still I was the victim of egregious sexual harassment by a venue owner who I perceived had more power than I, and in whose good graces I felt I needed to be in order to work.
That weekend in May, 2008, started with a Saturday night gig in Grand Junction, where I performed live on KAFM in front of a raucous crowd in an amazing venue space below the studio. They had a hotel room waiting for me that afternoon and a volunteer was already set up to sell my merch when I arrived. The DJs were all wonderful, warm, and funny as hell. We had dinner before the show in the green room, chatting and getting to know one another. The sound guy was fantastic and even though I was fighting a cold and struggling with my voice, he somehow managed to make me sound great. Best of all, it was a warm night, so the venue doors were open to the smell of high desert and a chicken from the yard next door wandered in half way through my first set and just stood there, watching from the front row, clucking along. It was a magical night with all gears humming in perfect alignment, the crowd enthusiastically willing to come along for the ride. I remember thinking, as I drove back to the hotel, this is why I love what I do! I couldn’t wait to come back to GJ.
On Sunday, I was booked to perform at a long established and well respected house concert in Salt Lake City. House concerts are an unusual venue, often a large living room in a private home, where you play without a sound system, standing amongst your your listeners. It’s a great way to play a small town or city that doesn’t have an established venue for singer-songwriters but has a local public radio station with a folk/acoustic show. House concerts are most frequently run by dedicated music lovers who could not be more gracious and welcoming. They make you feel like a rock star, generally give you 90–100% the door and a place to spend the night. The audiences are usually excited to see an informal show in such an intimate environment and there is a lot of fun give and take between the musician and the listeners.
The best house concerts have been up and running for years, such as Concerts at 6th St in Media, PA and Collected Sounds House Concerts in Minneapolis, MN (two of my favorites). They run soothly and professionally, have a great built in audience, and are hosted by people who, over the years, become friends and touchstones across the country.
There are also house concerts that are put on by listeners who want to support you and also just really want you to come to their house. In late 2003, I was booked to play a private house concert in Portland in conjunction with a weekend of shows in Seattle. When I arrived, I discovered that it was created to be a concert for an audience of 1. The host and I had dinner and spent the evening talking. It was awkward, but utterly innocuous.
I had been wanting to play in Utah for years. At the time, Salt Lake City had a great public radio station that hosted a folk show and it was a good connector gig between Grand Junction and Laramie on my way back home. I was especially excited to play that particular house concert, as the host had a solid presence at folk conferences and festivals and seemed to have a following in the area. His webpage looked exceptionally supportive for artists. When I arrived, the host was mowing his lawn and waved me off when I approached to say hello. That was fairly unusual, but the folk world is peppered with socially awkward people, so I got back into my mini-van and stretched out in the back to take a breather after the long drive. He eventually knocked on the side window and beckoned me out. I made what I now think of as ingratiating small talk, asking him questions and thanking him for having me. He came across as nervous and twitchy, but he said how pleased he was that the show had sold so well. I followed him into the house and he showed me downstairs to the basement guest room that I would use as a green room and where I would stay. The cellar was ripe with cat urine from the multiple kitty litter boxes and, from what I remember, there was no lock on the door to the room. I started to get a prickly feeling, the first flush that the situation was off.
I came back upstairs to eat dinner and the host said he was going to take a shower. I sat at the kitchen table and ate, aware that I could clearly hear him in the bathroom. Eventually, he came out wearing nothing other than a small white towel that was barely large enough to completely encircle his waist. He then stood in the doorway, making small talk that veered into an intimate discussion of his strange neurological condition that no doctor had been able to diagnose. In showing how it caused “the shivers”, his towel dropped to the floor and I quickly turned my head back to whatever the hell I had been eating to avoid seeing his penis. He laughed and after a few seconds, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him pick up his towel and hold it in his hand roughly in front of his genitals. Now, with my prickly feeling having changed to sirens, I put on a mask of nonchalance, laughed, and made an absurd comment about how my father was a doctor and my mother was a nurse and body parts weren’t shocking to me. He finally wrapped his towel back around his waist and continued to lean against the door frame chatting about what, I have no recollection. All I could hear was the sound of blood rushing in my ears. I finally said I needed to get ready for the show, went downstairs, and even though I was desperate for a shower after the five hour drive, there was no way in hell I was getting naked in that house.
I remember the room was very full for the show. Tim, an old friend from college who coincidentally lived around the corner from the house concert, showed up out of the blue and I focused on him like a lifeline. At some point during the concert, the host commented that he wasn’t impressed with me the first time he saw me play, but I’d come a long way and wasn’t he clever for booking me? I remember it made me feel furious but also spurred me to work twice as hard to impress him musically. The man showed me his dick without invitation and I still felt as if I had to curry his favor. Thinking of that now makes me want to vomit.
The show came to a close and the socializing and selling began. I had an effusive audience and because I hadn’t played Salt Lake before, I sold a large number of CDs. Again, the host praised himself for bringing me to his audience. Tim stayed and we talked for a while, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what happened or ask if I could stay with him. Eventually he left and it was just me, the host, and some other man who was a regular and who was obviously not going to leave or stop talking to me. I told the host that I was terribly allergic to cats and that I was going to sleep in my minivan in his driveway. He negotiated with me about it for a few minutes, but I packed up my merch and the things I had downstairs and came back in to say goodnight. I had to ask him to be paid, which was also unusual. He listed what he had spent on the concert (drinks, snacks, posters) and took his expenses out of the door. I reached over to give him a quick hug, hoping to leave the evening as normally as possible, and that is when he grabbed my ass with both hands and pulled me tightly against his body, shoving my pelvis against his groin while squeezing my ass. There was his penis, wedged up against me. He held me tightly that way for a few uncomfortable seconds and then I left for my minivan and locked the doors.
I thought I would never be able to sleep. I was furious, mostly at myself for letting the entire night happen. I shook with anger and I think I called my husband to say goodnight, but I don’t think I immediately told him the whole of what happened. I might have called my girlfriend Jenny on the east coast and woken her up. I can’t remember and still can’t bear to read my journal entry from that night. I set an alarm on my phone for four thirty, just enough sleep to be able to drive out of Salt Lake, but hopefully early enough to depart without having to see the host. But at four thirty, I woke up to discover a slew of post it notes on the windshield of my van. “Coffee is already on! Come on in!” “Breakfast is ready when you are!” “Are you ready for hot coffee?” I felt as if I was escaping, terrified he was going to come flying out into the yard in the few seconds I had stepped out of the van to see what the hell was on my windshield. I didn’t get dressed or even put on shoes. I just got into the driver’s seat, pulled out of his driveway in my socks, and drove a couple of miles before pulling over to get myself together.
On the way east out of Salt Lake on I-80, I called my girlfriend Jenny and told her the entire story. I was ashamed and embarrassed that I had let it happen, that I had tried to simply gloss over each increasingly bizarre moment. I was angry at myself and felt absolutely disgusted, not just because I never said, “What the fuck?”, but because throughout the night, I was still trying to get the man to like my music, to think I was talented and worthy, and was terrified if I did or said anything offensive, that I would never be able to play to that amazing audience in Salt Lake City again. I pulled over in Evanston, WY and just sobbed to her till I had snot running down my chin. Then, like women all over the world do after reckoning with an unwelcome penis and uninvited hands on their ass, I splashed water on my face, drank a coke, and got back on the road for home. I stopped in Boulder six hours later, picked up thai food, drove up the canyon to our house, and crawled into the comfort of home.
I ran into the host at Rocky Mountain Folks Festival a few months later after performing. I didn’t spit in his face or call him out for being disgustingly inappropriate. I didn’t turn on my heels and walk away. With my heart hammering in my chest and a bilious fury in my gut, I once again put on a pleasant mask and made innocuous small talk as we walked towards the merch tent. It never dawned on me to confront him at what was an even more important venue than his. I wanted what happened to be firmly behind me. Since then, I’ve never again seen or spoken with him. I’ve also never again been to Folks Fest.
Nine years ago, I did not go public with my experience. I didn’t talk about it on Facebook or MySpace. I didn’t warn other singer-songwriters that there was a man who would book them at his venue and possibly assault them. I didn’t tell anyone other than a girlfriend and eventually my sister and my husband. Even after 14 years of performing, I was afraid this man would say negative things about me online or to other venue owners and I would never get booked to play again. I was afraid that in the context of “he said/she said”, no one would believe me. I was afraid my sexuality on stage would be seen as tacit consent. I was afraid my husband would drive eight hours in a fury and beat him to death (though, I admit, part of me relished the notion). I was afraid that if I talked about it, that’s what people would think of when they thought of me instead of my music or my voice. I was afraid if I admitted I tried to stay as polite and non-confrontational as possible, even while he was showing me his penis, that I would be judged by other women for not being a strong feminist, for not standing up and saying, “Fuck this shit!” and walking out before the show even took place. I was horrified that in the midst of being trapped in an uncomfortable situation, I was still doing the math, trying to figure out how to get this asshole to respect my art. I felt ashamed that for all I had experienced and survived in this life, for all the lip service I had paid to being self possessed and self aware, I was still knocked sideways by a man using his body to violate mine.
That house concert was my last show in the Spring of 2008. With an amazing husband, a beloved yellow lab, and a warm, black cat at home, I never toured again. I took a gig singing harmony vocals in an alt-country band helmed by a great local songwriter. I started a political blog to write about the presidential election, stretching out my long dusty non-fiction skills and phone voice as I called John McCain and Barack Obama’s campaign offices seemingly every day. I had a couple of previously booked solo gigs far afield that fall, but my husband came with me and we turned the travel into family adventures to California and Wyoming. My last solo show in Boulder was that November and it was a sold out bash marking the end of the Bush administration. Slowly, my singer-songwriter career contracted and my daily life turned into something else entirely as we moved to Atlanta and then San Francisco. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have eventually grown tired of hauling my ass around the country, but now, for the first time, I clearly see that night in Salt Lake City was the beginning of the end.
Was that experience upsetting? Yes. Was I able pick myself up, dust myself off, and go on to have enriching and successful experiences in realms apart from touring? Yes. The two are not mutually exclusive. Many women and men quietly carry these violations and our successes often belie their leaden impact.
I am grateful to every single woman who came forward to speak out about her negative experience with Harvey Weinstein. Outing him as a sexual predator took incredible courage in the face of extraordinary social and personal obstacles. They are warriors who took down an ancient beast and are chipping away at the large, corrupt support structure that enabled and permitted that beast to continue to act for more than thirty years without constraint.
I sincerely thank them for cracking open the door for women like me to finally speak up and speak out. I’ve read numerous times in the last five days that by telling their stories, victims have nothing to gain and everything to loose. While this is true in the material sense, I am beginning to understand the importance of what we gain in the spiritual sense: the power of self determination, the knowledge and comfort that we are not alone, and a deep sisterhood of survivors. Thank you.