By Alexander Haveron-Jones
CW: addresses issues of sexual abuse
It seems natural to refer to Rowena Chiu as a #MeToo activist. But before going public with her story in 2017, she was unknown to the speculative frenzy of a world turned towards Weinstein and his survivors. One night she went to sleep, anonymous; the next morning, 4 million coffee-nursing viewers listened as she publicly recounted her abuse live on the Today Show. Hers was a baptism by media fire.
Graduating with a degree in English from Corpus Christi College, Oxford in 1996, the President of the Oxford University Dramatic Society embarked on an auspicious film career, and was thrilled mere months later to find herself the new Executive Assistant to the most powerful man in Hollywood. That same year, Weinstein attempted to rape Chiu in his hotel room at the Venice Film Festival. Despite launching a spirited legal battle to reprehend Weinstein and prevent him from perpetrating future abuse, Chiu and her colleague Zelda Perkins were ultimately suppressed with NDAs that imposed years of silence. She thought she’d never speak of it again, and meant not to.
Chiu locates herself in California, residing in a flat she regrets doesn’t let her “Zoom” quite as well as Gwyneth Paltrow, though I can overlook the absence of fur rugs (faux?), a ten-foot fireplace and pontoon of coffee table books (all unopened). How does one transition from introductions to discussing the other’s sexual assault? A survivor of one of the world’s most infamous abusers waits to discuss the international movement her abuser was at the very centre of. My questions seem all a little too delicate to be asked over Zoom.
The regrettable irony of the title “#MeToo activist” is, I begin, in Chiu and all survivors’ cases, that this “activism” was by no choice of theirs. It is simply by speaking out about an experience of abuse that automatically elevates survivors to the status of “activists”, as though this is a role eagerly accepted. I ask Chiu what she makes of this undesired responsibility; the words ‘thrust upon’ come to mind—I stop myself. Chiu smiles. An unfortunate fact, she remarks drolly, is that the discourse of sexual abuse is riddled with idiomatic pitfalls. Inadvertent euphemistic hazards.
As part of the ‘Weinstein cohort’, as Chiu refers to it, an atypically scrupulous media focus demanded a necessary and swift adjustment, an overnight grappling with how to discuss her experience after two decades of wanting to do quite the opposite. I wonder if Chiu felt burdened to reveal her story after seeing so many others publicly testify to their mutual abuse at the hands of Weinstein? ‘I feel that there are so many women that are unable to speak for one reason or another. They’re silenced and suffocated. You do feel like you’re speaking for a broader cohort than just either yourself or the sister survivors who were attacked.’ But the cohort of ‘sisters’ to which Chiu refers contains a daunting list of Hollywood film stars and models—Paltrow, Jolie, Blanchett. And though Chiu came to realise that status cannot withstand the ‘levelling’ experience of abuse, some voices are simply greater than others.
Aged 24 and 25 respectively, Chiu and Perkins had little in the way of a voice when they attempted to hold Weinstein accountable in ’98. Chiu recalls that they ‘never wanted to sign an NDA’: ‘we certainly didn’t want to take any settlement money. We fought really hard to include certain clauses within that NDA to protect other women’. Now, though, both women are regularly condemned by a spiteful minority for having accepted money and not going public sooner, the implication being that they “selfishly” endangered other women in doing so. But the young employees made efforts to prevent Weinstein from travelling alone with a single female assistant, or to require his immediate resignation from Miramax should he abuse another woman in the following years. The monetary transaction of the NDA was a necessary one, for negotiations couldn’t have taken place without it. The women couldn’t even afford to pay their own lawyers: Weinstein had to pay for them. Yet their acceptance of the settlement lingers and repeats: ‘the broad public perception in certain communities will be that you took your money and shut up about things, whereas, had you spoken up about them, there wouldn’t have been two broad decades in which hundreds of women were assaulted by Harvey [...] If you [Weinstein] can muzzle NBC and almost muzzle The New York Times, what do you think two young assistants who had no money or name or fame were really able to do?’
We know now that Chiu and Perkins’ hopes in 1998 for a “future-proof” NDA failed: Weinstein progressed to increasingly severe assaults, subsequently attacking scores of victims, apparently undeterred by the early legal proceedings launched by the two colleagues. Yet, some 22 years on, Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison, and shipped off to Rikers Island in March this year. At 68, the once-mogul will almost certainly die in a cell. For many, especially his survivors, the ruling represented a landmark assertion of justice against the super-rich who have long been able to operate above the law. Now, however, in a post-pandemic world, priorities have shifted drastically. Only a few years on from the explosion of #MeToo, how will the movement progress?
Chiu has already spoken with her own children about physical consent in a “child-friendly” way. If the origins of #MeToo were retributive, its future should be preventative, she urges: ‘more like a cancer prevention than an operation to cut out the tumour [...] Where a generation of young men and women are brought up to relate to one another differently’. But educating future generations about sexual abuse surpasses the fundamentals of physical autonomy and consent. Changes must be made not only in the way society treats survivors, but in how it defines the stereotypes of who perpetrates abuse and who is abused. Chiu concurs: ‘I want to get away from a “them and us” dynamic,’ she says: ‘it’s not only women who are sexually assaulted. Men are sexually assaulted [...] Trans people are much more susceptible and vulnerable’. Indeed, a 2015 study found that 21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) university students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females. Moreover, individuals who have been abused are significantly more likely to go on and abuse others. Take Asia Argento, a fellow Weinstein victim and actress who herself was accused of sexually assaulting Jimmy Bennet, her then 17-year-old co-star. Society must understand the complexities which motivate and perpetuate abuse in order not only to prevent it, but to support survivors towards recovery without blame or skepticism. By redefining the media's disproportionate preoccupation with beautiful young women who are abused, survivors from marginalised communities might be better able to come to terms with their own experiences, encouraging swifter justice against their abusers having spoken out.
Chiu disappears from my screen, mid- sentence. I find the call link and wait for her to do the same. She reappears, continuing immediately from where she left off. A sort of technical interruption she didn’t face on NBC or Newsnight.
But with a media which ‘operates by soundbites’, one of the greatest mouthpieces for abusers might sometimes seem detrimental to their cause. I was struck by the number of journalists who focused intently on the uncomfortable details of Chiu’s assault itself, pressing for some new tidbit of sensitive information from that night, as though it were the scurrilous stuff of gossip magazines rather than a harrowing assault. Countless news outlets focused on the fact that Chiu happened to have worn two pairs of tights on the night of the attack: having heard rumours of Harvey’s forceful advances, she thought they might buy her time should he attempt to assault her. ‘More news stories than I wanted reported the fact that I wore two pairs of tights’, she admits. What was often ignored in place of continually revisiting that night was Chiu’s profound psychological struggle in the long aftermath of the assault, which culminated in two suicide attempts in the year immediately following it. Progressing #MeToo, then, requires us to change how we understand its survivors.
It is no wonder that social media, which allows victims to tell their stories exactly as they choose, is seemingly preferred over mainstream media. The increasing ease in confronting one’s abuser is demonstrated by users like Gabby (surname unknown), who accused the American actor Ansel Elgort of sexually assaulting her in 2014, when she was 17 and he was 20. Posted to Twitter, her accusation received hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets within hours, fans immediately “cancelling” Elgort and condemning his starring alongside fellow (alleged) abusers Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx in the 2017 film Baby Driver. ‘There’s much more to my story I simply don’t want to post it all’, read Gabby’s tweet. She did not have to go public with her abuse live to 4 million viewers, as Chiu did. She did not have to endure crippling meetings with her alleged abuser’s formidable legal entourage. Her abuser was confronted on a keyboard. Social media has provided an ‘ease of dissemination’, Chiu says— especially while many of the barriers survivors face upon speaking out in a conventional sense remain more or less the same (hospital rape kits, enervating police interviews, skeptical lawyers, the long wait for a date in court...). Yet, no survivor seems to escape the usual cruel disbelief which always finds its own platform for dissemination.
Perhaps I should feel confident in saying that society has progressed as a result of the movement: NDAs used as a tool to cover sexual assault and harassment have already been outlawed in various states in the US, including New York, and attempts are being made to enact the rulings into federal law. The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund has helped over 3,600 survivors pursue justice, raising $24 million in 2018 alone. Yet, in a society seemingly improved following the ‘watershed’ of 2017—a movement Chiu argues was successfully translated into the workplace and the home—the months of lockdown saw a marked rise in cases of domestic violence, with the London School of Economics estimating a statistical increase of 11% in reported cases, or around 380 calls a week. And, with the threat of Trump’s re-election, a man whose allegations of serious sexual abuse and general stinking misogyny need no summary, that persistent phrase “there’s still a long way to go” comes unnervingly to mind.
Chiu, however, remains hopeful, emboldened by the eventual justice delivered against Weinstein: ‘I don’t think [Trump’s] going to escape his day in court, actually. Perhaps I’m being idealistic about it, but I don’t think society’s going to forget. [...] I think that they will pursue him in good time, in whatever post-White House life he’s going to have’. She believes that the next action for #MeToo is the pursuit of prominent celebrity abusers’ accomplices. Indeed, I remark, though everyone knows the allegations against Weinstein, Epstein, Spacey, Clinton (etc., etc.), the connection does not yet seem to have been widely made that this was a close- functioning network of mutually supporting (alleged) abuse, the men supposedly ‘sharing’ victims. With the detainment and approaching July trial date of Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged accomplice in the abuse of hundreds of underage girls, Chiu is optimistic in her anticipation that Weinstein’s extended community of abusers and enablers will be brought to justice themselves. She regards this as a sort of ‘stage two’.
It seems difficult to write about #MeToo without employing the familiar clichés: “line in the sand”, “change in the tide”, “point of no return”. Idioms aside, however, there is no doubt that society has been viscerally awoken to the need for genuine change. Perhaps the implementation of change itself is harder to achieve—or slower, at least. The sentencing of Weinstein has monumental significance for the wider recourse of future victims, and as a deterrent to potential abusers. Anyone who bakes bread will recognise the importance of time as a crucial factor in development: the metaphoric yeast of 2017’s #MeToo will only truly bloom in the decades to come, as the generation born to a post-#MeToo society adopts the principles of an equal global community and elevates society’s treatment of survivors.
Our conversation settles to a close as a Zoom timer appears for a second time; I will avoid making what would be an obvious reference to Time’s Up.
ALEXANDER HAVERON-JONES reads English at Somerville, and has still not been tapped on the shoulder for a job at MI5. Yet.
Art by Alexander Haveron-Jones