With the news this week that Harvey Weinstein has been convicted of rape and sexual assault, it serves as a reminder to keep fighting to protect courageous women in all industries, in all aspects of society, who press sexual assault charges, says New Zealand actor and writer Michelle Langstone.
In the latter part of 2017, the #MeToo movement was in full flight, served up, dissected and examined, every aspect available for consumption, for discussion, for opinion. I couldn't get away from the surge of rage that ran hot through me each time I saw the headlines.
Whenever someone said Harvey Weinstein's name or recalled his alleged acts, I burned and thought about those courageous women coming forward to speak up at the cost of their privacy and very often at the cost of their dignity in public.
I always fell into conversations about him because I'm an actor - and a woman - and sometimes it felt smothering, as if I was meant to have the answers, have some kind of valuable insight into the entertainment industry in a broader sense.
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I know what I have experienced and I know what some of my contemporaries have seen and felt but the women who pressed charges against Harvey Weinstein actually represent women across all work environments. They speak for all of us who have ever been exploited by someone in power and felt helpless or ashamed or frightened.
That November, I sat down to a dinner and a woman I'd just met began to talk about the #MeToo movement. She was sceptical of the stories and suspicious of the women coming forward. She said they'd all had very good lives and didn't look that upset. They'd won Oscars, so it couldn't have been that bad.
She was scornful, and said they were successful, so surely it was a bit rich, to come forward with all of these stories now. She talked about how long they had waited to speak, she alluded to some kind of sexual assault bandwagon upon which they had all merrily hopped with their shining statuettes and desire for revenge; and it was appalling.
She affirmed the risk you take when you decide to come forward: that you may not be believed and you may be derided. She had missed the complexity and nuance that accompanies sexual assault snd what stung even more was that she was a woman. When I finally got away from the table, having tried to defend them through stinging eyes and incredulous disbelief, I hid in a room and cried.
When the news came in this week that Harvey Weinstein had been convicted of two felony sex charges, I felt my body unclench. A tightness in my chest that I hadn't even noticed was there began to let go, unravelling as I realised the enormity of what it meant for those six women who testified against him; and for the more than 80 women standing behind them who had shared their experiences at his hands and for women watching around the world. I don't know them, but I feel as if I do, because their stories have prompted women in my life to share experiences of targeted harassment, sexual predation and inappropriate behaviour at the hands of men.
We have talked while we bathe children, while we work and while we go about our ordinary lives.
We've reflected on the things we might have done differently, we've talked about what we will teach our children and, especially, what we will teach our daughters. Again and again, the words I hear from women I love is how they accepted the blame for things that happened and felt shame or guilt, or confusion and fear. The conviction of Harvey Weinstein is significant because of what it symbolises for all of us — not just women in the entertainment industry — that a change is coming.
Fewer than 1 per cent of rape and attempted rape charges end in felony conviction in the United States and only 11 per cent of sexual assault cases in New Zealand end in conviction. It's felt like a losing game for victims until this week and this verdict provides the tiniest pinprick of hope. A little light, into the darkness.
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I've thought about that dinner I had a lot this week and I realised the tension I'd held inside me all this time was a tight knot of the things I wish I'd said that night. That I'd been groped by a director at a wrap party and how gross I'd felt. That I felt so vulnerable and scared after completing that job and examined my own behaviour for months and months, worried what people thought of me. That I'd maintained a friendly relationship with him out of worry I'd be seen as difficult.
We throw around the phrase "you'll never work in this town again" like it's a joke but the fear of those repercussions gets under your skin. I wish I could have articulated the conundrum it's possible to feel in this industry where, by virtue of being storytellers, we fear people will think these are stories we have made up and so we stay silent.
That's certainly been one of the criticisms of the actors who have come forward during #MeToo — just good liars, Oscar-worthy fabricators using their craft to manipulate truth. That brief moment on a night a long time ago has stayed with me and, while it's nowhere near as traumatising as the stories we have heard from women during the past two years, it's perhaps useful to consider how much it did affect me and to then consider how serious sexual assault must impact victims - and the reasons they stay silent. We must fight to protect them and push to make changes to the way sexual assault cases are dealt with in the justice system.
I feel proud and grateful for these women I do not know, who had the courage to press charges and go to court and who won, in spite of every humiliation and degradation thrown at them. They spoke for me, and for you. Their names are Jessica Mann, Annabella Sciorra, Miriam Heleyi, Dawn Dunning, Tarale Wulff and Lauren Marie Young. I hope we remember their names and their courage and that this is the moment we look back on as the beginning of a change in the culture that has minimised both the value and the experiences of women for far too long.