It has been a season of bloodletting. Since news of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal broke, it seems each day brings with it a new explosive claim against a man in power. Last week, in the wake of sexual harassment allegations, Amazon Studios head Roy Price resigned. The New York Times broke the news that Bill O’Reilly settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $32 million. Earlier this week, a new magazine that Leon Wieseltier, formerly of The New Republic, had been tapped to build and oversee was cancelled after his name appeared on the “Shitty Media Men” list, an anonymous spreadsheet that contained unverified misconduct allegations and circulated last week, according to The Atlantic. Wieseltier himself admitted to “offenses against some of my colleagues in the past.” Honestly, it’s shocking that Roman Polanski hasn’t come up sooner.
Polanski is somehow both the least controversial and the most untouchable name on any list of Hollywood sexual predators. He pled guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in 1977. However, he promptly skipped town and set up shop in France, where he’s continued to make award-winning films and receive his peers’ seemingly unequivocal support ever since. Even in the past several years, a woman would be considered a philistine or a scold for the mere suggestion that Polanski, who pled guilty, should have been serving jail time rather than filming Macbeth adaptations. An entire documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, was made in order to plead his case. His Best Director win at the 2003 Academy Awards received a standing ovation. In 2009, when Polanski was briefly detained in Zurich, a petition demanding his release was signed by over 138 industry names, including Martin Scorcese, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and, yes, Harvey Weinstein.
Times have changed. Since August, three more women have come forward to claim that Polanski assaulted them when they were underage. Two of them spoke up within the past three weeks. One claims that Polanski assaulted her in 1972, when she was 15 and working as a model in Gstaad, Switzerland. (A lawyer hired to represent Polanski declined to comment.) The other, whose allegations broke just this week, claims he molested her in 1975, when she was only ten years old. (Polanski denied the account.) These women, with the third accuser who came forward in August and whose claims a lawyer for Polanski dismissed, are playing to a much different public than Geimer had been.
In all the recent sexual assault and harassment cases, if there’s one common thread, it’s that the toll always rises once that first accusation has been made. There was a time when the idea of a man getting away with dozens of assaults actually shocked us (Recall New York Magazine’s devastating cover story on the Bill Cosby rape allegations, with the overwhelming visual of all 35 accusers sitting in a row.) But now, those massive numbers have become an expected feature of stories about sexual violence. Roger Ailes was accused of sexual harassment by 10 women. Donald Trump was accused by 19. Harvey Weinstein has been accused of sexual misconduct by over 50 women. James Toback started out with 38 accusers; the writer of the Los Angeles Times piece that broke the allegations says that, since publication, he’s been contacted by 193 more women. Even Polanski always had more accusers than just Geimer — in 2010, actress Charlotte Lewis alleged that he had forced himself on her during an audition. It’s just that back then, no one wanted to listen.
Granted, many of these allegations center on a certain kind of man: Powerful, well-connected, at the top of his field, and therefore in a position to ensure his victims’ silence and his underlings’ complicity. That kind of man may ultimately have more victims than predators with fewer resources. But these numbers also line up with a statistical reality that rape advocates have been pointing out for quite some time: The number of sexual assault survivors is disproportionately big, when compared to the number of known rapists. Furthermore, in some studies, men who self-reported rape tended to self-report more than one rape. This suggests that rapists are typically repeat offenders — to get that many victims with so few perpetrators, a few bad actors have to be working overtime. It also lines up with received wisdom among domestic abuse counselors; most abusers will continue to abuse, and mandatory therapy or behavioral programs don’t make much of a dent in their habits. In one study, nearly half of all people convicted on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge — 44 percent— had been re-arrested within two years. Powerful and famous men are not unique in their capacity to repeat their crimes, or to get away with them. If you’ve been victimized by somebody in your life, it’s highly unlikely that you are his only victim.
If we’re still surprised when those accusations start piling up, it’s because of the myths we’ve been sold about abuse and harassment — which are a function of how hard our culture works to keep victims silent and isolated. We’re sold the idea of sexual harassment or assault as a crime of passion; the harasser becomes overwhelmingly attracted to one person and loses his grip, or “slips up” and accidentally overrides someone else’s boundaries. If something is a mistake, or a once-in-a-lifetime obsession, it can’t possibly be repeated 193 times in a row. So, when we hear about sexual violence, we tend to assume we’re dealing with a one-time offender. The data finds otherwise, but unless you read sexual violence statistics for fun, you’d never know.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the “one-time mistake” narrative is the one abusers tend to choose for themselves: When Woody Allen struck up a sexual relationship with his girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, he was quick to claim that “the heart wants what it wants,” but of course did not mention that adopted daughter Dylan Farrow had accused him of molesting her. When 25 women filed sexual harassment complaints against chef and restaurateur John Besh, Besh stepped down from his position at the Besh Restaurant Group, but claimed just one “consensual” relationship.
If victims think they’re alone, they will believe that they did something uniquely wrong to cause their harasser or attacker to lash out. If victims blame themselves, they’re unlikely to speak out, for fear of having their “bad” decisions exposed to the public. The one truth that could save them is the one our culture tries hardest to repress: That there is nothing wrong with them, that the attack probably would have happened no matter what they did, that abuse is not a mistake but a lifestyle, and that their attacker hurt them because he is the kind of person who likes to cause pain.
That kind of insight can be delivered at the end of several years of therapy — but it’s most likely to come through talking to the other victims. Over the past few weeks, a lot of ink has been spilled on the preventative power of “whisper networks,” whether that be the insider gossip that actresses passed along about Weinstein or the “Shitty Media Men” spreadsheet that women compiled to share sexual assault and harassment allegations about their colleagues. It’s true that hearing whispers can potentially keep you away from an abuser. But it can also help you to realize you were abused — as so many women report feeling less “crazy” when looking at the Shitty Media Men list and seeing their harassers’ names had already been recorded.
That feeling of being backed up by other witnesses isn’t just good for self-esteem. It’s often the key to a survivor’s decision to report, as Polanski’s latest accusers have mentioned they might not have been able to speak up without hearing from each other: “I have been silent all this time and all these women are bravely coming forward,” said Polanski’s latest accuser, “and I thought to myself I can’t in good conscience knowing what I know – and having gone through what I’ve gone through – not speak out.”
As the poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, “when a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” When victims of sexual harassment and violence connect with each other, they’re not only better able to avoid dangerous situations, but empowered to hold their abusers accountable. This is exactly why our culture puts so much effort into blaming victims, and why an individual abuser may put great effort into keeping his different victims isolated and unable to compare notes. When one person speaks up, others almost inevitably follow — whether that’s one more, or nine more, or 193 more, depends on how long silence was the rule. It’s much, much easier to end the violence and keep those numbers from rising if you stop assuming you’re the only victim.