A TV Executive Sexually Assaulted Me: A Critic’s Personal Story

Sexual-Harassment-In Journalism Hollywood
Illustration: Variety; Photos: Shutterstock

I told a lie in 2015. A lie to save my life.

I wrote a post in May of that year telling people I was taking two months off to deal with family issues. It wasn’t entirely a falsehood. My father had died about a year earlier and my mother was dying (she passed away last fall). The last few years were a difficult, grindingly draining time that changed me enormously.

Still, my parents’ illnesses and deaths didn’t break me. The television executive who sexually assaulted me in 2014 broke me.

And that was the real reason I took that leave in 2015: I needed to heal, mentally and spiritually, and I had to think about whether I even wanted to stay in this industry.

I look around at what occurred with Harvey Weinstein (and Cosby, and Ailes, and so on), and I have agonized over whether I made the right decision.

In the summer of 2015, I chose to stay, and to keep covering the art form I love as best as I can. But the last couple of weeks have been incredibly difficult, for assault survivors and everyone else. Part of the anguish I’ve felt comes from wondering if I’m feeding a monstrous beast that can’t be fixed. 

You might not get much further in this piece; there have been a lot of survivor narratives in the news. It’s tough to process them all, so I understand if you’re at your limit.

But before you check out, I want you to know this: Based on what I have experienced and what I have heard from countless friends and colleagues, there are men at many levels in this industry (and others) who abuse their power and break people. These men, at much lower levels than Weinstein, do this because they feel like it. They either don’t care about the consequences, which are unlikely to arrive in the vast majority of instances, or they want to see if they can get away with it. Very often, they do.

Harvey Weinstein, it is clear, is a monster, a sociopathic ogre, and I applaud the journalists who dragged the full scope of his reign of terror into the light of day, and survivors who have spoken out will have my heart forever. I send my love and deep admiration to them all.

But Harvey is not the whole story. There are many Harveys, with varying amounts of influence, at every level in this industry.

The temptation to abuse whatever status a man has attained in this power-obsessed industry is ever-present. For some, taking what they want from others is part of what they think is the benefits package. Even if they’re not full-on sociopaths, too many feel free to ignore boundaries, to go too far, and lie to themselves about what they do. Along the way, they inflict countless kinds of damage on other human beings.

But Harvey is not the whole story. There are many Harveys, with varying amounts of influence, at every level in this industry.

And at every level, formally and informally, they are covered for.

We may not be able to rid the world of sociopaths, but we can surely do something about the culture of complicity. We have to take real action, unless you want survivors like me driven out of the industry for good (which has been the case with so many men and women who came forward recently). When it comes to abusers, assaulters and harassers, a system of meaningful consequences must be enforced (or constructed, in some cases). I have my doubts about whether the industry has the stomach for that. 

What we did see this month, finally, was a mass of survivors coming forward, which is laudable and understandable: There is strength in numbers.

But when you’re by yourself, holy hell, is it scary. A wall of silence and disbelief often descends when those who’ve been hurt try to speak up, and soon enough, it’s like the whole thing never happened. Survivors are left to question themselves and pick up the jagged pieces, and they are expected to soldier on, accepting that this is the price they pay for being part of this creative machinery.

F– that.

I can’t name my attacker for legal reasons. But I won’t be silent any more. A television executive assaulted me, and the specific power dynamics of this industry aid and abet men like him.

The television executive who assaulted me was the boyfriend of someone I’d known in the industry for some time. I did not think the boyfriend of someone I knew would assault me. I did not think he would do it at an industry-adjacent event. I did not think he would make a sexually crude, harassing remark about me in front of dozens of people, which was extremely embarrassing.

I did not think that, a short time later, he would put his hands on me and say utterly disgusting things. I did not think he would come after me again, and then, when I’d moved away, grope me again, and hiss even more crude, humiliating things into my ear. He came after me three times in total. He hunted me. The word predator works on so many levels.

This guy is not friendless. Before he attacked me, I thought he seemed like a reasonable, regular guy. Just know that he is not some outlier, not someone whose demeanor or cocktail-party chatter would indicate that anything was amiss. He seemed utterly normal.

I know what it’s like to be shocked by what a fellow human is capable of, because that night, and for so long after, I was stunned into disbelief. After I finally got away from him, we exited the venue together — me, the guy, his girlfriend. I’m not much of an actress, but my performance as “Person Who Is Holding It Together as if Everything Is Fine” was credible. The process of falling apart was a long one.

I know what it’s like to be shocked by what a fellow human is capable of, because that night, and for so long after, I was stunned into disbelief.

It took me weeks to accept that what he did that night fit the definition of sexual assault. I looked up legal codes online for months. An old draft of this piece — I’ve written so many versions of this story — called it sexual harassment. That was part of it. But when someone puts their hands on you, certainly in areas in which you do not want and have not invited their hands, that’s assault.

I reported him to his company. Spoiler alert: Nothing happened.

When I decided to report him to the large corporation that he works for, I had to hire a lawyer on my own dime. (I talked to my previous employer about what the man had done; they did not help me beyond saying, more or less, “Wow, that’s awful.”) The 2015 “investigation” by his company’s HR department took months, and it was a joke. He made a lot of excuses for his behavior, according to the Human Resources person I talked to several times. He was drunk. He didn’t remember. “Everyone was handsy that night.”

At various stages, representatives for the company’s HR and the network in question said they found my reports credible. That’s what they told me, and that’s what they made clear to my lawyer. They essentially told me, between the lines, that they didn’t believe his conflicting rationales, which smelled, at every stage, of bulls—. 

At one point, I had to endure something akin to a deposition, involving lawyers, HR people, and what felt like 17 hours of questions. One query: “Could anything you did have been construed as flirting?”

Could you imagine being autopsied while you’re still alive?

Enough about me. Here’s who I care about: The women who join the TV and film business every day. The assistants, the junior writers, the crew members, the PAs, the young women — and men — who begin ascending the ladder every year. I’ve seen their bright, eager faces on sets, in offices, at events. How can I look them in the eye and tell them to keep going if I know that some of these young people are undoubtedly going to endure abuse and harassment and more? And worse yet, that others around their abusers will cover it up or let it go?

I’m only speaking on what I have seen and experienced in this business. Other industries and job categories all have their abusers, that is very clear. This is a problem everywhere, not just in Hollywood. But do not tell me that this industry isn’t special, because it is. It’s unique in good ways, and in horrific ways.

The power differentials are often extreme, so extreme that those outside the industry clearly have trouble grasping how troubling these dynamics can be — and how they create conditions that are ripe for abuse and exploitation. Working 18 hour days on sets and in offices, you have producers and executives making millions who are constantly around much less senior people, some of whom are barely making minimum wage. In every arena of the industry, each individual is jockeying to ascend a very narrow, tricky, slippery ladder; the competition starts fierce and only gets more intense at every stage. The incentives to cover for an abuser — especially when he might give someone their next gig — are enormous. Hollywood is not a laid-back place — far from it. One powerful person helping you can make your career; one influential enemy can work behind the scenes to ruin your chances of ever making it.

The entertainment industry is so competitive that even a perch on one of the lower rungs brings power with it. No matter how small their domains or how relatively unimpressive their power, a subset of men in this industry find ways to abuse it.

Do women abuse power too? Sure. But the systemic, institutional levers of power — not to mention the bro culture that explains away transgressions, shames victims and minimizes all kinds of harm — is run largely by white men. If you would like to explain to me how rape culture, misogyny, racism, and institutional bias are not real things, before you do that, kindly launch yourself into the sun.

Men, listen up: You may not want to believe that your friend, your colleague, your collaborator is capable of this. Listen to me, LISTEN: The face he shows you may not be his only face.

No matter how small their domains or how relatively unimpressive their power, a subset of men in this industry find ways to abuse it.

Abusers and assaulters are very clever about how they choose their targets. They were smart enough to get traction in this competitive industry, and they’re wily about how they inflict damage. They are counting on you to have their backs. Don’t.

If you feel powerless, guys, as I wrote recently, you are not. If you feel confused, educate yourself on how best to respond in these kinds of situations. For a start, you can believe survivors. You can do your utmost to check sexist, racist, homophobic and harassing behaviors, from yourself and others. You can shut people down when they’re being jerks, or worse.

You can take people aside and say that this comment or that action is not OK. Or you can say those things in full view of everyone you work with, so that everyone is clear on what won’t be tolerated. If you’re higher up in the food chain, you can fire people.

Don’t think “But what about if this hurts his career?” If you have credible reports of abuse, harassment or assault, that man has already damaged many careers. Think more about those he victimized than about the feelings of one person who has had credible reports of abuse and misbehavior laid at his feet. If you don’t prioritize the health and safety of survivors over the futures of those who repeatedly hurt others, all your posturing on social media won’t help you.

Don’t be the person who perpetrates systems of inequity by turning your eyes away from the truth: Many more people are capable of abuse and assault than you thought. I learned this the hard way.

Nobody is immune. I was a well-known critic from a well-known publication in my 40s when a television executive assaulted me. He probably thought he would get away with it. He was right.

He was reprimanded. That’s it. I later heard that there were rumors of him harassing the network’s assistants. Not long after that “investigation” into what he’d done to me, not long after he had a note put in his file by HR (that was the extent of the consequences he faced), he got a new job at another network. 

The person I used to be was broken, and the legacy of that damage will always be with me. I am someone else now, and I am more than fine who that is. But now I know. And now you know. Not just courtesy of me. Courtesy of every survivor who has had the courage to speak.

In 2016, I got a large tattoo on my back. It’s based on the Chinese (and later Japanese) legend of the Dragon Gate: Fish attempting to head upstream struggle for ages to ascend a waterfall on a river. Time, exhaustion and the elements are against them as they jump and fall and jump again.

One fish finally makes it to the higher level. The gods reward her perseverance by turning her into a dragon.

Believe women. Believe men. Believe survivors. Believe that some people are capable of the worst things. Believe that a percentage of men don’t resist the sexist, abusive conditioning baked into toxic masculinity. Believe that some enjoy inflicting pain and transgressing norms, or all of us coming forward means nothing.

Believe that we can alleviate at least some of the suffering around us. Believe we can, if not fix the industry entirely forever, we can make it much harder for predators to access their prey.

Let’s be dragons together.